Night Music

Here in the eastern US, I have never heard a coyote sing. But on my western road adventures, I’m lucky enough to hear them most evenings if I’m lodging in a rural setting. Happily, they always put on a show whenever I’m camping in the grasslands. They begin singing shortly after sundown, and the music usually surrounds me—one or more coyotes off to the left of camp, and others calling from my right. Lying alone in my tent, halfway between them, I often wonder if they’re talking about me.

So it was on that night last month when I slept in South Dakota’s Grand River National Grassland, a beautifully silent place to hike and camp. Once the coyotes began their chorus, I activated my phone’s audio recorder.

To give you something to look at while you’re listening, I’ve married the recording to this time-lapse video of the rising Harvest Moon, which I captured a few nights later in Wyoming. Note: You may want to send your dog or cat out of the room before you play this video…

Coyotes: An Update

Back in February, I shared photographs and video of the scant few coyotes I’ve spotted over the years. But I have since learned that I was wrong about the number of coyotes I’ve seen as well as which one came first. It just so happens that my very first coyote sighting took place during my very first road trip in the Pontiac during my very first hour in Montana.

The evidence appeared recently when I started to tackle a laborious and long-overdue project—digitizing the content from dozens of old videotapes that I shot back in the ’80s and ’90s. Foremost among those cassettes were the VHS tapes I recorded in the autumn of 1990 while on my long road adventure to California…a journey that was an unending parade of states and places I had never seen before.

It has been many years since I’ve watched this footage; there’s a lot of stuff on these tapes that I don’t even remember shooting. I spent a day driving around in Yellowstone National Park, and that tape—as you’d expect—is packed full of unusual and beautiful vistas. Moving on, I exited the park through its northern boundary and found myself alone in the rolling golden hills of Montana. The first resident I encountered in the Treasure State? This furry ambassador…

Click above to watch the video (YouTube)

By the way, please excuse the terrible quality of this video. I now have a large quantity of VHS clips available from this era (superior in quality to this one) and I hope to share many of them…once I get around to it. Stay tuned.

Audio: Coyotes in South Dakota

When visiting my favorite South Dakota ranch, I usually spend some time each evening out on the range photographing the night sky. In addition to the cattle residing at the ranch, the coyotes are constant companions. They start singing near sundown; some are heard only faintly, very far in the distance, while others are surprisingly near. In the darkness, I have no idea exactly where they are. Their howls make a fantastic soundtrack to the visual display overhead—one that provides a good degree of romance, and not a little tingling of the spine.

On this particular night of sky shooting, I brought along a digital recorder and a directional microphone. The result is a half-minute recording of the coyotes doing what they do.

Caution, pet owners: Your dog or cat may not like this recording. Proceed accordingly.

The audio is posted as a video (with the above still image) at these links:    Vimeo    YouTube

Speaking of the Song Dog: Whether you love coyotes, hate them, fear them, or know very little about them, I highly recommend the Dan Flores book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. Covering everything from biology to mythology, the book is a comprehensive coyote biography, illuminating such topics as the coyote’s role in the beliefs and culture of Native Americans, its “discovery” by European Americans, portrayals of the coyote in modern popular culture, and the lives of urban coyotes. (Unsure about the correct pronunciation of the word coyote? That’s covered as well.)

The book examines the evolution of these highly intelligent animals and their unusual reproductive adaptability. While wolves were being extirpated by humans, the coyote’s ability to function either as a pack member or as a solitary hunter allowed the species to survive and expand its range. The core of Coyote America is a detailed look at the long timeline of a misguided and utterly futile government campaign to exterminate one of the most resilient animals on the planet; 150 years of persecution, and the coyote has now colonized virtually all of North America and Central America.

You don’t have to be a biologist to appreciate the wealth of information in this book; Coyote America is not presented as a dry scientific monograph. Dan’s writing is accessible, well paced and provides a very enjoyable reading experience.

After the book’s release in 2016, Mr. Flores was interviewed by National Geographic. Take a few minutes to read that informative article on the NG website:

How the Most Hated Animal in America Outwitted Us All

I discovered this book thanks to Ed Roberson’s Mountain & Prairie podcast. In a 75-minute conversation, available here, Ed and Dan discuss coyotes, wild horses, land management and other interesting topics. (Be sure to check out another great book by Dan, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains.)

Hey, you with the bushy tail: I’ve written of my fascination with owls, and I am similarly drawn to coyotes. I hear them quite often when I’m wandering through the Canadian wilderness and the American West, but I have never heard the coyote’s song here in the eastern part of the country. As for spotting a coyote with my own eyes, there have been just four such occurrences, and only twice was I able to photograph the encounter (both times from the driver’s seat with a pocket digital camera). First, there was this “prairie wolf” in western South Dakota…

And, not far from my home, this eastern cousin…

You can view a very short video of this creature walking across the snow-covered field by following these links:    Vimeo    YouTube

UPDATE: I recently uncovered video evidence that my first coyote sighting occurred in Montana in 1990. Read this blog post to learn more and see the video.

This may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Do not approach a coyote, do not attempt to feed a coyote, do not encourage coyotes to become comfortable around humans.

Further reading and resources: This link will direct you to Project Coyote, a non-profit organization “whose mission is to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science and advocacy.” Read about their work toward ending wildlife killing contests that target coyotes and other predatory species.

(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library.)

Carl’s Library: The Kindred of the Wild

It’s sad to see a beloved used bookstore close its doors. But the bright side of such a farewell is the opportunity to do several years’ worth of shopping in a few short weeks. When the owner of the bookstore in my neighborhood decided to retire, I was able to add dozens of vintage books to my library at generous clearance-sale prices. I didn’t walk in with a wish list; I just browsed the shelves featuring books on history, exploration, the American West and wilderness fiction and came home with a wide assortment of unfamiliar titles.

I was not acquainted with The Kindred of the Wild, nor its author, Charles G.D. Roberts. Since reading the book, I have learned that it was wildly popular in its day, selling very well the world over, and that Roberts is highly regarded as a writer of prose and poetry—much of his work dedicated to natural history.

Kindred is a collection of short stories about the lives of wild animals, set in the woodlands of Atlantic Canada, where Roberts grew up.

Some stories describe prey/predator relationships, while others tell of encounters between animals and humans. Death appears often in this book, but escape, survival and freedom are also present. And on page after page, the reader finds beautiful descriptions of the sights, sounds and tranquility of the forest.

Accompanying each story are several full-page illustrations by artist Charles Livingston Bull

As Roberts acknowledges, Kindred is a work of fiction. The stories are not anthropomorphic in nature; the creatures are not affixed with human names, nor do they speak English. These are simply tales of animals doing what animals do. Roberts was a proponent of realism when writing about animal behavior.

Nevertheless, the book became involved in the so-called “nature fakers controversy,” in which naturalist John Burroughs and President Theodore Roosevelt criticized the work of authors such as Roberts, Ernest Thompson Seton, William J. Long and Jack London, condemning their stories as “sham natural history.”

Whether or not such allegations hold any truth or relevance, I’ll leave for others to decide. In any case, I appreciate Roberts’s writing style and I truly enjoyed reading this book.

Illustrations and text: Copyright 1902 by L.C. Page & Company, Inc.

(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library.)

Restless Kid

Gotta breathe some air again
That ain’t been breathed before

Driving season has arrived. After a wonderful May excursion through the Great Plains, the southern Rocky Mountains and the desert, it’s now time to roll in a different direction and return to the land of the lynx, the wolf, the bear and the aurora.

During that May trip, I experimented with limiting the time I spent online and the time I spent editing photos. It was a great success and I enjoyed the trip much more as a result. The laptop is staying at home from now on, and this blog will be dark while I’m traveling; I’ll post the accumulated photos and stories upon my return. The easiest, quickest way to share images from the road is to post them to Instagram straight from my phone. So, for those who want to follow this upcoming adventure in real time (or as close to real time as wilderness cellular connectivity allows), visit my Instagram account here: instagram.com/ridingwithcarl.

Thanks! Enjoy your September.

Restless Kid” by Johnny Cash

(This print and many others may be purchased at gallery.ridingwithcarl.com.)

East of Eden

My hike from Buffalo Peaks Ranch to the top of South Park’s Bald Hill

It’s not just me; any visitor to the Buffalo Peaks Ranch will tell you how Reinecker Ridge draws your gaze in its direction. The ridge is an important component of so many of the ranch’s scenic views, and it finds its way into nearly every photograph taken at the BPR. From my very first visit to South Park, I was fascinated with Reinecker Ridge and the thought of hiking to the top. Even more so, I was dying to see the mysterious land on the other side of the ridge.

Two years ago, my friend Jay and I unlocked that mystery with a successful hike to Reinecker’s summit. Looking eastward over this ridge for the very first time, we beheld scenery as grand as anything we could have hoped for: A large valley, devoid of human habitation, ringed by hills and distant mountains, looking as though very little had changed over the last few million years. In the center of the valley stood a large, lonely hill, known to geographers as Bald Hill. We were blown away by this sprawling vista of incredible natural beauty, and expletives were flowing freely as we voiced our excitement. Turning to make our way back down to the ranch, I already knew that my next trip to South Park would include a hike across this beautiful valley and the opportunity to stand on top of that hill.

Follow this link to read the report of our 2017 adventure, complete with photos and video.

After our visit to the top of the ridge, I learned that Bald Hill and the surrounding landscape fall within the James Mark Jones SWA. I spoke with a friendly agent at Colorado Parks and Wildlife Headquarters who confirmed that hiking from Reinecker to Bald Hill is allowed, once the public access season begins each year on the first of May.

I had hoped to summit Bald Hill during last autumn’s road trip, but the season was unusually cold and wet, and snow kept the Pontiac out of the mountains in 2018.

So, during the first week of May, I arrived in South Park on the day before my hike to set up camp and explore the ranch. This was my first springtime visit to the BPR. The cactus blossoms were out, and mountain bluebirds were plentiful…always within sight as I roamed the grounds. They certainly seemed to enjoy chasing each other around the ranch. But it was too early in the season for the other high-country flowers to bloom, or for the majority of the grasses to appear green.

The following day, I was up before dawn, and the clear morning promised excellent hiking weather. Below, the sun prepares to clear the crest of Reinecker Ridge…

This was also my first overnight stay at the Buffalo Peaks Ranch, and it was an unforgettable experience. There was no one else at the ranch…just me in my tent and the serenading coyotes roaming the valley. The stars that night were as brilliant as I had hoped they would be. Not surprisingly for early May in South Park, it was a cool night—about 30 °F (-1 °C) when I awoke.

Mount Silverheels catches the first rays of the rising sun…

While the ranch began its morning thaw, I shouldered my pack and started off across the valley (to paraphrase Everett Ruess)…

The easiest part of the journey: Following our 2017 route out from the ranch and over Trout Creek, I was soon across the long fence that runs along the base of Reinecker Ridge…

One more glance toward Mount Silverheels, and then I began the switchback march up the steep slope of the ridge…

My return to the top of Reinecker Ridge, and a beautiful view of the Buffalo Peaks Ranch…

The day’s first look at Bald Hill, sitting right where Jay and I left it two years ago…

So, for the second time in my life—but the first time toward the east—I descended Reinecker Ridge. I was excited to be entering unexplored territory…

Down on the valley floor, I came to the fence separating the BLM land from the State Wildlife Area. After passing through and closing the gate, I followed the fence line eastward. Note the cluster of animals in the distance on the left side of the frame…

(Click on any of the photos to view the full-size version in a new tab.)

When I first spotted them, at a pretty fair distance, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I knew they weren’t cows. By their movements, I considered that they might be horses. Finally, I was close enough to know that I was looking at an elk herd—my first such sighting. This made sense, as there were ample piles of “evidence” scattered across the ranch indicating that the elk had been around in force during the winter and spring…

Of course, they had their eyes on me as soon as I had cleared the ridge, and they were making plans to leave the area. As I moved their way up the fence line, they finally had had enough and made their escape down the valley. I captured a brief video of the elk running along the base of the hill, which you can view through these links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Full-screen mode will give you a better look at the herd, and a better appreciation for the shape and scale of Bald Hill than any of the still photos I captured during this hike. Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 22 seconds.) Making a rough count while watching the video, I’d say this herd (or “gang,” if you prefer) numbered well over 100 head.

With the elk dashing safely to the south, I made for the saddle near the north end of the hill, as the north slope looked to be the best approach to the summit…

At the top: I walked a bit past the summit and then turned around for the shot below, to use the snow-capped peaks to the north as a backdrop. Topo maps show Bald Hill’s maximum elevation as 9,556′ (2,913 m). There, I recorded a video that gives you a 360° tour of the surrounding scenery. Here are the links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 50 seconds.)

The view to the east. Plenty of room to explore further on future visits…

Looking southward. Note the patches of pine forest on the nearby hills; my next destination after descending Bald Hill. Probably where the elk went, as well…

View to the west, showing the ground I had covered to get here. Reinecker Ridge, in front of the distant Buffalo Peaks…

Making a direct line for the forest, I descended Bald Hill via the steeper south slope, seen head-on in the photo below. My knees were not happy.

Those who roam the West know how scale gets distorted out here; distances are greater than they appear, and objects are larger than they appear. This hike was no exception; whether moving toward or away from the hill, it always took longer than expected to reach the next landmark. I felt very tiny during my time on the valley floor…

One final look back at Bald Hill before entering the forest. Would have snacked on a mouthful of snow, but the ever-present wind had deposited quite a lot of sand and debris on top of this patch…

Now, I was roaming over gentle hills covered with pines. Plants grow much slower in the thin air of Park County. These old trees were tall enough to provide shade, but they’ll never be as tall as their cousins who live at lower elevations. (Sorry, I didn’t take any photos while wandering through the forest.)

This part of the day’s adventure was an unexpected pleasure. Reminded me of my hikes long ago in parts of California…not just the view, but the smell of the sun-baked pines, the smell of the dry grass, the smell of the dead wood. It also brought to mind old western movies and television shows I watched long ago. Cue Lucas McCain…

In addition to the beautiful scenery, this hike was punctuated by blissful silence and solitude. I never encountered another human during my six-hour circuit. However, once I reached the location of the photo above, I was able to peer over the western slope of the ridge. Far below, I could see a few scattered anglers, silently fly fishing on the South Platte River.

Finally, walking northward along the crest of the ridge, I left the trees behind and found myself back home above the BPR…

I’m looking forward to the day when the Land Library will be fully stocked with books. And I’m hoping that they’ll let me take one up to read while sitting on top of Reinecker Ridge.

Visit landlibrary.org.

The Curious Owl

This is a story about those gifts that just fall into your lap every now and then. As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t had nearly enough owl encounters for my taste. Since these sightings are so rare, I treasure each one and I recall the experiences quite clearly. Back in October, I was lucky enough to add two more to the list.

The first occurred on a hot and sunny day in a tiny prairie town in southwestern Kansas. I had stopped beneath a big shady tree in the town’s park just to give myself and the car a short rest. While reaching for my water bottle, my eye caught a sudden movement in the rearview mirror. A very large bird had leapt from a tree branch and was heading my way. I turned my face toward the sky as it zoomed directly above the Pontiac at low altitude and landed in another tree up ahead. One of the most impressive things about owls is how deadly silent they are in flight, even when they are skimming just above your head. This was a big beast…probably a great horned owl. Sorry, no photos of this event.

Jump ahead about two weeks to another sunny day in South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grassland. I had dedicated the entire day to exploring some dusty roads east of the Black Hills. After parking at a remote intersection to enjoy a snack and the view and the silence, I heard a high-pitched barking noise directly behind me. Prairie dog? I turned to look past the trunk and spotted an adorable bird standing near the cattle guard, bobbing its head down and up with each squawk. A burrowing owl! My first such sighting, and a nice surprise.

Having never met Athene cunicularia before, I had no idea how bold or shy these birds could be. I certainly wanted to get some photos of this meeting, but I didn’t want to lose valuable seconds assembling the camera. So, I used the phone first to get some video; would’ve been disappointed had I missed the chance to record that voice. I slid out of the car carefully and was encouraged when the owl held its ground. After a few more barks, it jumped up and flew a tight circle around the Pontiac, just to return to the starting point and resume its barking and dancing.

You can watch that lap via this link to my Vimeo account. (Video duration is 58 seconds. You may want to boost your speaker volume to hear the owl’s call.)

As this owl evidently had no plans to leave soon, I then grabbed the DSLR and the big lens. The owl took another lap around the car, this time landing on an assortment of fence posts along the way. Certainly not a camera-shy creature; it seemed to be deliberately perching in great spots and posing like a pro. I’ve never had a more cooperative wild subject.

Perhaps this owl was curious about the Pontiac. Perhaps it wanted to be immortalized on the internet. More than likely, it was just annoyed; I think it wanted me to leave its nesting area. So I did. Thanks for the photos, little bird.

Nature, Preserving Itself

Well, five years have gone by and a few more inches of aluminum have been ingested by this old oak tree, living its life in super-slow motion (or, maybe we’re living too fast).

Being in a nature preserve, I imagine this tree will live and die right where it stands. But should this oak ever make its way to a lumber mill, the saw operator is in for a big surprise.

I’ll visit again in 2023. Stay tuned.