Wonderful Lives

Kristina and I have made an annual holiday tradition of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” – with its message about one person’s life making a difference to so many other lives. This seems especially pertinent to me now because over the past several months so many people I was connected with passed away – including a couple of cousins, three aunts, and my blacksmithing teacher – and I’ve thought about how each of them made a difference to me and to the other people around them.

Making a difference to others isn’t just about people. In the past year Kristina and I also lost a dog and a cat, and we have often thought about the positive impacts they had in our lives.

And we ourselves have had opportunities to make a difference – not just to other people, but also to members of other species, including the hungry, sick little Siamese kitten we found at the end of our lane. We took her in, named her Loki, cared for her, and now she’s a beautiful, rambunctious member of our household.

I think we should go even further and acknowledge positive connections with all kinds of organisms, including plants. For example, Kristina and I are still benefitting from last year’s wonderful harvests from our apricot tree and our apple tree. What a great relationship – we give them some care and watering and they give us bushels of fruit!

I also feel like I benefit so deeply from wild plants and animals. I get joy from hiking or skiing in forests or deserts, and from seeing wild animals (or from just knowing they’re out there, doing the things wild animals do). And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships between forests and wildlife.

A few years ago while hiking in a nearby National Forest with my dad, sister, and niece, we were heading down a steep slope toward a stream. I went ahead of the others to find the best route down – and part way down the slope I came to a tall ponderosa tree that had a little flat area just downslope from it. This little flat area had a fallen ponderosa on one side of it, creating a protected area.

The area was covered with pine needles and had the look of a nice little bed, where wild animals might want to hunker down and rest. It looked like such a nice place to hang out – and I noticed evidence that something had been hanging-out there: a little bit of fur mixed into the pine needles, and a bunch of scat (apparently bear) downslope from the bed.

Life got busy and a few years went by, but I didn’t forget about the bed on that slope – and I kept thinking about putting a trail camera there for wildlife photos. Then one February day I called my dad and asked him if he’d like to go back to the area with me, and he agreed. It was a relatively snowless winter so conditions didn’t stop us from going there on Dad’s eighty-second birthday.

Dad hiked with me to the rim of the canyon and watched while I went down the slope and secured a camera to the limbs of the fallen tree next to the bed. Then I hiked back up, and Dad and I had a good hike back to the vehicle – talking and snapping photos as we went – and enjoyed the beautiful scenery as we drove down from the mountain.

The camera sat there for over a year and a half – until I came back last summer to check it, this time with Kristina. There were no bears in the photos, but what I saw was striking.

Many other animals had stopped at this little protected spot in the forest, from squirrels, to deer, to coyotes. Looking through my trail camera photos, I realized that it’s a place where many kinds of animals are able to take a little break from their busy lives and rest in a comfortable, cozy place.

I have come to call the area “the resting place” not only because animals like to stop there, but also because it’s the final resting place of a tree, dead and fallen but still making a difference to other lives by providing shelter. It’s amazing to see what a difference a couple of trees in the right location, alive or dead, can make in the lives of so many different wild animals.

So much can be lost when even the smallest piece of habitat is damaged or destroyed. I hope that generations from now that little place in the woods is still protected and offering wild animals a safe spot to rest.

As we begin this new year, and this new decade, may we humans do all we can to make life better – not only for other people, but for all of the other organisms we share this earth with; may we appreciate not only the things other people do for us, but the things all kinds of other life forms do for us and for each other; and may we always remember, as George Bailey had to realize in that timeless movie, that it truly is a wonderful life.

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An elusive wildman, Homo sapiens chadii, reposing

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A herd of Rocky Mountain elk, Cervus canadensis nelsoni. There are at least seven in this photo

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A red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

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Three Rocky Mountain mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus hemionus

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A mule deer fawn making a bed

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A mule deer fawn relaxing in bed

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A mule deer buck, his growing antlers covered in velvet, checking things out

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An apparently happy little mule deer fawn

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A two-point mule deer buck (possibly the same buck as earlier after a month’s growth)

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A young mule deer resting

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An elk in a December snowstorm

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A coyote, Canis latrans, checking-out the elk bed – a little over 3 hours after the photo of the elk

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A bobcat, Lynx rufus, approaching the camera

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The bobcat inspecting the camera

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A mountain cottontail (also called Nuttall’s cottontail), Sylvilagus nuttallii

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A bobcat, out and about in the middle of the day in January

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A black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia (bottom center of photo)

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A pack of coyotes. One came and laid down and then the others joined it 

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One coyote in the afternoon of the same day as the previous photo (a lot of snow had melted)

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A coyote the day after the previous photos. Note the fresh snow at the site – and on the coyote.

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A Steller’s jay, Cyanocitta stelleri (center left of photo between ground and snow)

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A coyote in April

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A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Callospermophilus lateralis (they look like chipmunks but without the facial stripes)

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An amazing woman, Homo sapiens kristinii, contemplating

Coyote Canyon

I’m so lucky to have found and married somebody who shares my love of hiking in wild desert places. I’d been wanting to take Kristina to a little canyon in the area I call “the land between” and we went there for our most recent hike. It’s a place I remembered fondly even though it had been a few years since I’d been there. I told Kristina that the place didn’t have a name and that I was calling it “Chad Canyon,” and I asked her if it would be too narcissistic to call it that. I wouldn’t really name a place after myself – even if it’s a place that’s special to me and even if, as is the case with so many of the places I hike, I never see anybody else there.

We hiked down an old road and came to a place where there used to be a bridge. There’s a well-built structure on either side of the wash that it crossed, but the bridge itself has long-since vanished. I told Kristina that I like seeing things like that – things that show a lack of permanence of human-made structures – and she responded by saying “wabi sabi.” “What’s that?” I asked, and she told me it’s a Japanese term for something impermanent. For example, in Japanese culture it could refer to a cup with a chip in it. The old roadway we were walking on was a good example of that because it showed signs of once having been covered with pavement but was now just a two-track with desert vegetation growing in it.

After a while we left the old road and headed east toward the canyon, and as we approached it we saw some pronghorn antelope in the distance – at least five of them. We watched them as we walked down a gentle slope to a flat sandstone area at the rim of the canyon. We’d been waiting for a good place to eat the snacks we’d brought with us (earlier we’d joked about staying in our car to eat them instead of hiking, but this was much nicer). It felt so good sitting on the slickrock in the warm sun. The temperature was great, and so was the view around us. We seemed to be at the point of transition from shallow wash to canyon.

After eating our snacks and relaxing on the rim we hiked down into the little canyon, which gradually got deeper and deeper, with a series of steep drops. In some places the canyon dropped over sandstone bedrock that had been eroded to form interesting holes and pockets by the action of the occasional water that flows through the area when there’s a big enough storm. There were also huge chunks of sandstone that appeared to have fallen from the cliffs on the sides of the canyon. They made a great place for doing wild yoga, and we enjoyed doing some poses there.

This is my kind of area! It meets three of my criteria for a really awesome place: no stumps (easy because there are no trees), no ATV tracks (too rugged for them), and no sign of cows (evidence elsewhere but not down in the canyon). What we did see a lot of was rabbits and rabbit tracks.

We also saw a lot of coyote tracks. In one place there were a bunch of their tracks next to a little pool of water left from the most recent rain storm. It had been a few days since the storm but the canyon walls and rocks had sheltered the water from the sun and kept it from evaporating, and the coyotes were coming there to drink. Kristina noticed those tracks first, and as we looked at them she commented that with all of the tracks we were seeing maybe we would get to see a coyote, and I replied that I certainly would enjoy that.

We saw more cool rocks, did more yoga, and admired some cliff swallow nests built on one particular cliff. We also admired a beetle, and marveled at some vegetation that was barely hanging on despite the erosion around it. We got to the place where the little canyon joins a big wash and we stopped there for a break before continuing our journey. As we hiked up out of the wash I was busy taking pictures of the view of the below us when suddenly I heard Kristina say, “Look, a coyote!” I looked up just in time to see a beautiful coyote run up the slope above us and over the horizon. I was reminded that sometimes getting caught up taking photos of one thing can let you miss, or almost miss, another thing.

I was hoping for another view of the coyote as we came out onto flat a area above the wash but Kristina thought the coyote would be long gone – and she was right, because we didn’t see it again.

“I can understand the coyote taking off since it has fifty dollars hanging over its head,” I said and explained that in Utah taxpayer money goes to pay fifty dollars for each coyote a person kills. It’s done in the name of keeping deer numbers high, even though a brochure published by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources points out that coyotes don’t actually have any effect on the state’s deer population.

The coyote that we saw was the first one Kristina has ever seen and one of the few I’ve seen. It was a fleeting moment, but one neither of us will forget. In honor of the coyote, I’ve decided to give up my namesake. We both decided “Coyote Canyon” is the best name for our secluded little canyon.