Going wild

Where are these guys going? Photo by Steve Martaindale

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One thing that often figures its way into travel stories is the wildlife.

I was reminded of this a few days ago while Leah and I were on our morning walk. During the COVID-19 strangulation of our traveling lifestyle, a 2- to 3-mile stroll down the country road from our RV park is the highlight of our average day.

(To be totally transparent, nothing compares to grocery day, when we drive into the city, pull up to curbside parking at HEB, open our trunk and wait for a friendly voice behind a mask to chat for a minute while unloading our purchases. Ah, what memories we’re making!)

Back to wildlife.

Walking along, talking about whatever, I grabbed Leah’s arm to stop her. Lying in the middle of the road was the copperhead snake pictured here. We eventually confirmed he was dead, perhaps his head punctured by a vengeful bird, but that got me started thinking.

I didn’t have to go back very far.

Just last week, on the same road, I noticed something strange among the tall grass and weeds on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. That was no weed sticking up in the air – black hair with a white streak. We hustled on past before the skunk developed a concern for us.

Through the years, we’ve had numerous – mostly fun – wildlife encounters.

Checklist

* While on a dive boat traveling the Andaman Sea from Ao Nang, Thailand, to the Phi Phi Islands, sharp eyes on the boat spotted a whale shark, the largest living fish on the planet. A filter-feeder, the giant fish is considered endangered. Everyone on the boat seemed to appreciate the chance to putter alongside it for several minutes.

* In South Africa, we did not attempt to go on a camera safari, but we had a strange encounter while walking the promenade along the shore of the Indian Ocean in uMhlanga. We had paused at a rest room area for a water and snack break and saw a band of strange creatures scurry en masse from a residential area across the street, huddle behind or beneath a car, and then race off into a wooded area. We were quizzing each other about what they might be when a local walked by and answered: meerkats!

* While touring the Rock of Gibraltar, we observed at least one troop of the Barbary macaques that live on the rock. In fact, one literally ran across Leah’s feet, much to her delight.

Leah and a Barbary macaque hanging out being cool.

* During our first RVing experience in 2004-2005, we spent almost three summer months at Seawind RV Resort, a park owned by Kleberg County in far south Texas. It sits on the shores of Baffin Bay and caters mostly to winter campers escaping the frozen lands of the north. That is to say, it often seemed that summer we had the place to ourselves.

One hot July afternoon, Leah and I were strolling along a bush-hogged trail through the cactus and mesquite area behind the park. We rounded a corner and saw, strolling away from us, a sizeable mountain lion. Our hearts racing, we retraced our steps without incident. One night, we were roaming the almost empty RV park as things cooled down and came across a family of skunks between us and our trailer. We looped another way and came across them again … and again. Leah compared it to a game of Pac-Man with us trying to avoid the ghosts. Yet another night, we spotted a great horned owl, the only time I’m aware of seeing one.

* While working in Antarctica, I encountered Adélie penguins, Weddell seals and Arctic skuas – the only wildlife (including insects) that I saw during a four-month stay.

* Once, we swung by Rockport, Texas, while in the area judging scholastic competitions, mainly so we could take a walk on the beach. There, we spent several captivating minutes watching a shorebird swallow a fish.

* We lived five years in Port Aransas, Texas, on Mustang Island. We devoted many hours at Roberts Point Park to watching the Corpus Christi Ship Channel for dolphins, which often escorted ships in and out.

* The first summer we worked at Mount Rushmore, late in the season, we drove into Keystone for a drink. Driving back to the dorm on the dark, winding road, my headlights hit a mule deer with a full set of antlers standing in the middle of the two-lane road. I stopped and waited for him to move, thinking he was one of a trio that I often saw in the area. He wasn’t really paying me attention and basically seemed out of character. Giving up, I cut the car back toward the right shoulder to start around him, when my headlights lit up a crouching mountain lion. In the next moment, the deer darted off to the left, where his two companions were waiting. A second later, the lion raced off to the right.

* A rather odd discovery took place during multiple walks down Mount Rushmore from the memorial to where I often parked my truck at the employee dorm. A short portion of the trail is better groomed with a gravel path. To entertain myself, I would often kick a cone from one of the ponderosa pine trees that blanket the Black Hills, the object being to see how far I could continue kicking it down the trail before it escaped off the path. I started noticing, particularly in the graveled area, that a kicked pine cone often seemed to lure a least chipmunk into chasing it. I never could figure out why.

* Another critter fun to watch at Rushmore was the yellow-bellied marmot, waddling across an open area or sunning on a rock. In fact, one worked its way into playing a key role in my mystery, “The Reporter and the Marmot.”

* Our summer working in Yellowstone National Park was full of wildlife, spotting elk, bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, pronghorn, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, coyote, wolf, deer, and, of course, bison.

Bear sightings usually took the headlines of our outings, but one bison experience made quite an impression on us. We were in the Tower Junction area and our planned hike was nixed when we found the trail closed. There was a bison carcass somewhere along the trail, which increases bear activity. So, we set out on the nearby Specimen Ridge Trail, which starts at a small roadside picnic area and climbs up to run between the ridge to the east and the Yellowstone River canyon to the west.

It wasn’t a particularly spectacular trail, but there were nice views looking down off the ridge toward Lamar Valley and down into the river canyon. As we got deeper along the trail, we started seeing some bison ahead. Since we were occupying such a relatively narrow piece of land, we were debating whether we should try to go around them. One of our group, another Steve, volunteered to move forward to check it out while the rest of us took a break.

We watched as he reached the top of a hill and promptly started back, moving a little more quickly than he was going out. Before he got to us, we started seeing bison top the hill behind him (the photo at the top of this post), then also toward the river. We immediately decided a retreat was wiser than to try and get around or through them. As we moved quickly down the trail – thankful it was going downhill – we kept an eye on the bison, which we decided must be headed to water because they were moving with more purpose than usual.

There was no real drama, of course, and we got back to the picnic area, where we took advantage of the rest rooms and seats. Then one of the people there came up and asked, “Were you the group we saw up on the hill being chased down by the bison?” That made us feel less like we overreacted.

As always, we’re looking for you folks to share your stories. That’s what the comment boxes are for!

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