Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Whitney Marmots

At the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada you will often see Marmots who are described as basically being really large squirrels or groundhogs. However the very same page says that they typically eat "many types of grasses, berries, lichens, mosses, roots and flowers." Let me assure you that around Mt. Whitney's Trail Camp that is so not the case. They will eat anything they can get their mitts on and are accomplished thieves, and will rip right into things they think contain food (including tents).

Through out a lot of the Sierra, backpackers are required to place their food and any scented items like toothpaste in a bear proof container. While you are not terribly likely to encounter a bear, you will come across marmots and the container is pretty essential at keeping them and chipmonks and jays at bay. And along with their Ursian brethren, if you underestimate their skill you will pay for it in food.

So we're at Trail Camp and I'm trying to recover enough from altitude sickness so we can move to a lower altitude. I am just starting to feel a little better when I hear a suspicious noise just outside the tent. I look up to see that one of two marmots has just nosed the lid off of one of the bear canisters that we hadn't fully engaged. I yell HEY! and throw a boot (Terri's) at them and they run off, but not before one of then graps a ziploc bag of something.

Without even thinking about it, I shift into determined "I will catch you" dog owner mode and take off after then, but Terri says "Hey what about my boot?" in which I of course pick up and throw back at her on my way after them. The "Ow!" at my back tells me I should have paid more attention to where I was throwing said boot. I call "Sorry!" over my shoulder. "What do they have any way?" "Cheese" she replies.

We are camped beside a lake surrounded by boulders. Now if you're a non-human animal the odds of you ripping into a ziploc bag quietly are pretty much nil, so it was actually pretty easy to find said marmot who was pretty darn startled at having a human pursuing him or her. So I'm facing off with Ms Marmot and her cheesy contraband which I know isn't good for her anyway, and finally a voice in my head gets loud enough for me to hear. "Helloooo? This is not your dog. You have just cornered a wild animal who has a very valued resource. They have teeth and claws and you really have no idea what she will do if you push further." I am on a rock above her hiding place and if I had a trekking pole I could have stabbed the bag and anchored it in hopes she'd leave it. She is clearly considering what to do and I decide to try to let up a little to see if she will leave it. I give a foot and call out mostly for my own amusment "Step away from the cheese." She thinks about it grabs the package and retreats further into the rocks. Terri by this time has handed me a trekking pole, but I have decided that I've pushed things as far as I'm comfortable, so I leave her be and go back to the tent to collapse as I'm still not well and have used up my energy.

Anyway the lids to the bear containers then got completely screwed down. It wasn't long after till Terri saw another one testing the lid. She's sure that they are going to evolve a nose that jutes out just long enough to test bear containers.

One enouraging thing is that while said marmot was initially ripping into the package, the ripping and rustling sounds stopped pretty quickly after our face-off. I'm hoping it's because she didn't like what she found.

Anyway the startled look on the marmot's face was pretty funny. I should say that in this area particularly, being unfriendly and scary to wildlife is tacitly encouraged. The animals are getting tamer, bolder, and losing their fear of people. With the smaller animals this is a mere annoyance albeit bad for their diet, but it's deadly to bears. A bear that starts harrassing people for food is usually shot because they're too dangerous. As the rangers like to say: A fed bear is a dead bear.

1 comment:

Elf said...

Good story.