the true stories
There is a beautiful walk a person can take in Lillooet. It is a circle route that utilizes the new and old Fraser River bridges at the North and South sides of town. Many people use it for cycling, running or just strolling. One bridge is concrete and one is made of timbers and iron. The river is in almost constant view and the mountains on either side provide a spectacle that a man would have to hike up where the trees are small to experience if he were on the coast.
My wife and I first walked the circle several years ago and paused at the old bridge to look at the river below. The canyon is narrow here and just upstream are the Bridge River rapids where St'at'imc people have been fishing since before the stones were cut to build the Mayan temples. Jagged rocks under the khaki-colored water create a thousand eddies, swirls and ever-changing patterns with the foam supplied by the falls upstream. Its vibrancy is felt before it is seen.
On the first two or three circuits, I walked right underneath a massive osprey nest built upon one of the bridge supports. I had to walk around a massive deposit of guano to get to the other side of the bridge without whitening my shoes. All the while I was unconscious of the raptors and their offspring just meters above my head. My attention was on people, rocks, water currents and mountains. One day a pleasant Englishman pointed out the nest to his grand-daughter and I looked up.
I became aware of the birds from that time on and saw them fishing several miles downstream on many occasions while walking the sandbars with my wife or fishing. Every trip to the old bridge after that included the awareness of those majestic hunters and their babies. Sometimes I would sit at a little table on the West side of the river for a little rest before continuing home. Many times I heard small chirping sounds that were not coming from the young ospreys.
On one occasion I happened to be in a mind to find the source of the this noise. I scanned the sun-blasted rocks all around my position for a long while. On my second smoke, I saw it! A big yellow-bellied marmot standing at attention and warning his colony of my presence. His coloration was absolutely perfect for his environment. It was only the slight movement he had made to stand erect that had made a picture that my brain could interpret.
I turned my gaze away and then tried to pick him out again. It was with some difficulty that I was able to pull an image out of the dusty yellow, rusty oxide and basalt gray pallet before me. I practiced awhile. On every subsequent trip, I spent time watching for the birds and the marmots. I was almost never unable to see them both. The method of searching is quite different from the way a persons eyes are used in typical city working life.
An area is scanned with sweeping motions without focusing on anything. It is almost always movement, however slight or silent, that breaks the magic of invisibility. A flickering ear, a blinking eye or a little hop. It is at this point, using the strongest attributes of the limited human vision that the focus of our binocular-type vision comes into play and provides the brain with enough data to create a picture of the camouflaged creature and place the image in space with very accurate depth perception.
After awhile and with practice, the previously unnoticed sounds begin to be processed by the brain in co-ordination with the sights. Without any effort or book learning, one begins to make connections between larger patterns that were previously unnoticed. Everything moves, everything leaves traces of that movement and always, everything is watching and being watched.
Creatures warn their own kind in a variety of ways of any potential danger, utilizing sounds, scents or semaphore. Also, I have learned that creatures are just as curious as are us humans. Some creatures are very wise and some are not. A person sitting or standing stock-still will always be investigated before a decision is made by a creature as to its threat level.
On walks of this same circuit, my wife and I now usually see around a dozen marmots and the alfalfa nibbled by deer during the previous night. We have been able to watch the osprey catch fish and feed it to their chicks. My wife once discovered that some dark, s-shaped, barely discernible squiggles in the muddy river water below the bridge were the backs of salmon several centimeters below the surface that had been invisible to us before. We both realized that the birds could have easily told us.
Earlier this week while munching apples at the old bridge, the following drama played out in the space of ten minutes. An elder marmot stood on his rock-pile and began a strong danger call. Two others in the vicinity came out to stand on their roofs as well. These others stayed low and on all fours. All the younger marmots hit the nearest hole to their positions when the call came out.
A lady with a dog walked down the road, both oblivious to the marmots twenty yards away. A car pulled up and parked and another woman got out and released a dog from her back seat. All these began to walk across the bridge. Not even the dogs took notice of their wild cousins. The marmot sentinels kept their positions and the chief kept up his cry.
The osprey flew off the crown of the bridge and circled down to the water. In a flash, she was up with a six inch fish in her talons and feeding it to her babies. I saw a large fish flop half out of the water on the other side of the bridge like a rainbow snake to grab a grasshopper that had strayed within range. Both osprey parents flew off, this time over the steep side of the bench land in front of where we sat.
I wondered if they ever dined on marmots. My wife was watching the southernmost marmot and I was watching the birds fly low over the sage and chokecherry trees behind the chief marmot. There is a private road running along the bottom bench and its edge is lined with big ancient sage bushes. Between the gray-green spring foliage of this sage, I saw it.
Like a wisp of smoke, a large healthy coyote trotting our way. He was alone and working his way to a position behind the marmot entertaining my wife. He was up the crumbly slope in seconds with seemingly, no effort and without making a single sound. I had to work hard to enable my wife to see him. In fact, he couldn't be seen against the gray gravel, sun-bleached sage bark and spring leaves.
Only his movement could be discerned. When he stopped, he was sand, until his movement again broke the magic. We both watched in awe. The marmot stayed put and it seemed to our minds as they raced ahead to our own conclusions that we would bear silent witness to a coyote's meal.
In a position several meters behind the marmot's rock pile the coyote paused inside a brace of goose-berries. He lifted his head slowly, intently and pointed his ears and nose to the South, down river, where the road comes from town. After a few seconds, he turned, abandoned the chase and flowed like silk back to the private road, this time keeping deep cover and maintaining his altitude by side-hilling.
As my wife and I lost sight of his ears and began to discuss this turn of events, we were surprised by the appearance of a blue wildlife control truck. It started up the private road and stopped about thirty yards in. After only two minutes or so, it backed down the gravel road and turned around. The men waved as they chugged off up the hill and I didn't see any coyote in the back. He was tuned in.
We are built like coyote but have had to dampen our sensory inputs in order to survive our artificial environments. These “filters” slough off like callouses over time and with exposure to natural surroundings and sounds. Tuned-in is a state where all senses are wide open including the non-physical. The focal points are reserved for survival. Survival encompasses every endeavor from education to procreation to hunting to healing. In reality, when you traipse through a landscape, you are being studied by every other creature. You are also an integral part of what you seek to see.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.