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Monday, July 29, 2013

Natural Born Thieves

Ground squirrel eyeballing his next victim, Glacier National Park

I came within two inches of running over a squirrel with my bicycle this morning.

It ran across the trail and, just as I was about to pass it, reversed direction and darted in front of me again. Everything would have been fine but it suddenly became indecisive (in that typical squirrel way) and did a little 'oh...this way, no...that way' dance in front of my tire before heading off the trail. If I hadn't braked hard I would have run it over. Why do they do that?

The main goal of every living thing is to eat and avoid being eaten; in other words, to continue to be a living thing. Maybe reversing directions quickly is a squirrel's way of avoiding a predator, but that strategy sure doesn't work too well when it comes to bikes and cars. You can't swing a dead squirrel in my neighborhood without hitting another one. The fatality rate seems to be made up for by sheer volume: there are legions of squirrels running around overhead feasting on the nuts that proliferate in our formerly-a-walnut-orchard neighborhood. The squirrels also inadvertently guarantee future crops by burying the walnuts in everyone's yard--there are little walnut trees popping up in our garden every year.

The Western Gray squirrels around our house are the urban cousins to the ground squirrels you come across in the mountains. Ironically, I think the "country bumpkin" squirrels possess more street smarts than the average city squirrel ever will.

On a camping trip at Lake Shasta when I was little, we came back from swimming one day and found our brand new loaf of bread had a perfect tunnel running all the way through it. Through the wrapper, down the middle and out the other end; if you looked at it from the side you'd never know it had been touched. Apparently they didn't like the crust (not unlike my little brother during that time period).

A trip to Zion National Park ended with a small hole nibbled into every plastic container we had left within reach, including the mustard and ketchup bottles. One of the most brazen bits of thievery happened along Hat Creek: we had just set up camp and were sitting down next to the water when we heard something in the camper. The door was propped open since it was pretty hot that day, and just as we got close a squirrel vaulted out right in front of us. It had climbed up the stairs into the camper, gotten up on the counter, chewed a hole in the net bag that holds our fruit and eaten about a quarter of an apple--all in the five minutes we had left it unattended. Little bastard.


Home invasion evidence.


Birds are another challenge. There are signs posted at the Mather campground at the Grand Canyon warning of the ravens that raid campsites. On our way out one morning we saw the aftermath of a raven party (a rave?); a roll of paper towels was completely unraveled and draped in the trees, bits of cardboard boxes were laying on the ground, and an entire roll of aluminum foil was pulled up over the table and chairs, looking like a shiny Escher staircase. Overturned cups and plates were scattered all over the place and, just to add insult to injury, the birds were standing on the camp stove admiring their handiwork. It was hilarious, but only because we weren't the ones that had to clean it up. 

Raven checking purchases, Village Store, Yosemite National Park



And then there are the marmots.

I've come to think of them as the grumpy old men of the high country. Countless times we have huffed and puffed our way to some windblown isolated mountain destination, finally reaching the top after hours of hiking in high altitude, just to be greeted by a fat marmot waiting for us to put our pack down so he (they're always a he, I just know it) can steal what little food we had left. It's such a lazy way to make a living, kind of like a thief hanging out in front of an ATM. They're no dummies; they seem to know you've used up all your energy to get there and will be an easy mark. At the top of Half Dome, Mark and I collapsed on a rock shelf, congratulating each other on making it up the cables, only to have our grapes stolen right out of our pack in the first two minutes. We saw one along a trail in Alaska, so brazen he didn't even move when we passed within two feet of him. He just stared at us with his beady eyes, probably tabulating how many granola bars he could steal using the slump of our shoulders and the dragging of our boots as a benchmark.

Marmots are just big enough that you probably wouldn't want to mess with them. They have sizable teeth for chewing on grasses, pine cones, and backpack webbing; some of them weigh in at ten pounds or more. In Yosemite, they tend to burrow under the granite slabs, popping out when you least expect them. They don't have that nervous squirrel behavior either; they're more sedate, giving you the impression they aren't paying any attention to you. They are not to be trusted.

Marmot acting casual, Exit Glacier Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park
One thing I've always liked about camping and hiking is that there is (generally) still respect for other's property. I wouldn't dream of leaving my stove and dining room chairs out in the front yard while I go off for the day, but we routinely do that at our campsites. Granted, the stove and camp chairs aren't quite as valuable, but an impressive show of civility all the same. I think it's funny that in all the years we've done this, the most damage or stolen property we've had has been perpetrated by the furry "locals."

So watch out the next time you're out in nature. Disney was completely off track when he depicted the woodland creatures as being helpful and kind. They're crafty and underhanded, disguising their thieving ways with soft fur and big brown eyes. And take my advice: when you reach the top of the mountain, don't take your eyes off that backpack.

A coyote gets his man. Bodie State Park, CA