About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Sasquatch--A Bed Time Tale

I became "trap shy" last March. I had been camera-trapping down in the ravine near my house. No, not trapping for cameras, but using automatic cameras to capture images of wildlife. You know, the sort of thing country folks do to scope out the big bucks before hunting season. On that fateful morning I found my camera torn from the tree. Something had chewed through the bungie cord that had held the camera there. Pieces of yellow cord were scattered on the ground like a gopher snake that had encountered a lawn mower. Was some punk kid toying with me? No, that didn’t add up. A kid would have swiped the camera. More likely it was local wildlife to blame. I didn’t think that a digital camera smelled good enough to eat, but the critter must have been hungry. It stripped the camouflage tape from the plastic conduit box that held the camera, and gnawed the corners. We’re not talking about the kind of cuttings made by a squirrel. Big pointy teeth made those marks.

But let me back up a bit. I had been using dead white-footed mice to lure a grey fox to an old cedar log in the hope of getting some nice portraits. The mice had been disappearing, but I was only getting pictures of a wood rat. I knew the mischief wasn’t the handiwork of a fox, nor the rat. There was something uncanny about this interloper. It could eat the mouse and manhandle the camera without being photographed. In other words, it had passed by the camera’s infra-red sensor so quickly, the camera didn’t have 3 seconds of time to fire up and snap a picture. I was nagged by a fear that whatever it was, it was going to destroy my precious camera trap. I decided to abandon my woodsy pastime until I had a deterrent.

Several months passed. Truth be told, I rely rather heavily on my neighbor Richard, a submarine veteran with a garage full of machines. Richard can make or fix anything, but he had been busy making a torpedo. Not a real torpedo, just a fake one for a float in a parade. Anyway he helped me make a couple of nail-studded metal collars that clamp on the cameras’ housing. They looked like medieval chastity belts for one-legged damsels.

Which brings me to that July morning. I stuffed the camera trap, steel cable, u-bolts, and tools into my rucksack, and rattled down the dirt road in the Green Hornet—my derelict 1980 Toyota pickup. My new destination hopefully was far from the whereabouts of the interloper. It was a glorious summer morning in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The temperature that I found so debilitating—it was in the mid 90s--was energizing every insect in the woods. They looked like charged particles as they flashed through the bright dappled light of the woods.

I parked where the road forks on the lower saddle of the ridge, sprayed myself with Off, swigged ice water, donned the pack, and waded into the poison oak. In a few minutes I located the old miner’s track, and plodded down the switchbacks into the dark ravine. This is definitely off the beaten track, and probably a splendid place to watch wildlife. But for the sake of survival I shamelessly abandon the stealth of Magic Shoes the Kickapoo. No, I thrash about, crack dead wood, and try to sound like a red-eyed sex-crazed bull moose in the peak of rut. True, the mountain lions in my neighborhood are fond of toy poodles, and the bears seem to prefer what they find in bird feeders and garbage cans, but you know, there’s always that chance you will meet up with one with different tastes.

I was 200 ft into the ravine when I arrived at the abandoned miner’s camp. I discovered the place last winter. There was a break in the rains, and I had cabin fever. I wanted to see how much water tumbles down these creek beds that are so dry most of the year. As I was wandering about something crunched under my foot--an old amber bottle labeled Himalya—the Cola Compound. I was standing in an old mining camp. I looked around and found what remains of the mine—a shallow tunnel filled with silt, a couple of collapsed mine pits, and tailings of rubble washed from the canyon wall. When I got home I fired up the computer and googled "California mines", but there was no record of this mine in the California register. The place is long forgotten. Then I googled "Himalya". "Nature’s cure for asthma" was manufactured in New York and Cincinnati in the 1890s. Snorting mine dust, pollen, and wood smoke, not to mention snuff, must have given the sourdoughs some horrendous sinus problems….

Anyway, I recognized the boulders in the creek bed from last winter, and climbed down the last100 feet to the bottom of the ravine. Hallelujah! A trickle of water greeted my ears. This was what I had been looking for--a little oasis, a veritable ojo de agua to draw in the parched game during the long hot summer. But the water looked kind of hairy. With my glasses on, I saw that the surface was thick with water striders. For 5 months in the winter and spring, creeks here literally boil down these stony trenches, but by late spring they are dry, except for a few pools that lie over bedrock. Apparently, the underground bedrock channels the water into these pools. They are ideal water holes for camera trapping, few and far between, in rough and nearly inaccessible terrain. But it seems the water striders get a little crowded.

I took off my pack to find a suitable tree to attach the camera, and my presence set off the jays. There were a few thick grape vines, but they were too limber. A huge dogwood also didn’t pass muster--it grew at the wrong angle and was covered with knobby growths. I settled for a Douglas fir about 15 feet away. Not the ideal place. It was 8 feet around the trunk, and my steel cable was half as long. Feeling like the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, I encircled it with three bungie cords. It was no mean feat. Then I had a flashback of the chewed bungie cords last March, followed by a horrible vision of my camera, a piece of chewed wreckage floating in the pool.

By this time I was dripping wet, and a fleet of mossies was following my every move. It was time to get the hell out. But there was no escaping it. If I used the bunjies, Murphy’s law would inevitably kick in, and I knew I would regret it. I went back to the house, guzzled Gatorade, got a 12-foot length of steel cable, and returned to finish the job. It was 103 degrees in the shade when I got home.

Refreshed from a week of camping, I returned to check the camera trap in early August. Of 12 exposures, 9 were of me putzing around taking pictures of the setting, and two were blank. But the last one, exposed at 7:00 in the evening was strange. On the camera’s LCD it looked like a dead leaf across the top of the lens. But on my computer screen it was clearly something hairy--a pale brown-haired forearm, dripping wet and soiled with fir needles and leaf litter. Sure enough, the critter had been in the water hole, and once again it had foiled the camera’s passive infra-red sensor. The imposter had skirted the camera’s gaze like an Indian scout.

The next day I showed it to my older daughter, the biologist. "Sasquatch", she pronounced solemnly. Okay, she was pulling my leg, but you know, two years ago I heard a presentation on Sasquatch at the annual meeting of the esteemed American Society of Mammalogists. Why not make a concession to the improbable?

I pondered the image and concluded that only the modesty of the fairer sex could have compelled Sasquatch to bathe in the secluded but decidedly inferior pool that was hidden from the camera’s eye. I reconstructed her encounter. Looking up, she saw the intruding electronics, and thinking, ‘There’s that damn thing again’, she interrupted her bath to decommission it. Thus the image of her brawny arm, and the camera’s position slightly ajar, no longer aimed at the deep pool. But, the spiked deterrent had circumvented her mischief. Sasquatch had failed to dislodge and gnaw the offender as she had done last fall.

Several more weeks of camera-trapping passed. I captured images of the usual assortment of squirrels, wood rats, skunks and foxes, but there was no sign of Sasquatch. Maybe she was keeping tabs on me. I built a second camera trap and "spike protector", and set it up at a water hole much farther down the creek. Ten days later I pulled the memory cards from the two cameras, trudged slow motion out of the ravine, and after a wash, downloaded the images. To my amazement, Sasquatch had lost her inhibitions. The new camera captured her sitting pensively by the clear pool. Some grease on the lens gave it a magical soft focus effect. The second camera took three pictures. First she waded into the water and paused to enjoy the coolness. Then she sat down to soak, but not without a measure of modesty—her back to the intruding eye of the camera. Finally she took her ablutions—delicately combing the hair on her shoulders. She was svelte and young, with large ears and excusably small eyes. This was Sasquatch all right, and she was a dead ringer for a bear.

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