The Birds

“Silent Spring,” I thought to myself, recalling Rachel Carson’s book.  It was 2006.  Doug and I had just started our first six month residency at Campbell’s Ferry.  Among the many things that I had anticipated about living here was the thought that I would write to my mother (who had recently taken up bird-watching) about all the birds I saw living in the wilderness.  Small problem…no birds.  It was April.  Perhaps it is too early for birds, I mused, and waited.  Eventually a few nosy crows and desultory robins appeared.  Not much to write home about.

Through the years as we have worked on the land, kept the old ditches from Trout Creek running, irrigated, planted gardens and a few new trees, we gradually began to notice more varieties of birds arriving for short or extended stays with us.  Now, twelve years later, we awaken every morning to bird song outside our open windows.  Before I rouse myself from bed, I watch their flight patterns as they zip past…we are O’Hare International Bird Airport. I am not sure exactly why more and more birds keep coming. Doug says it is the increased water and greenery. It is probably not our irresistible personal charisma.  In any case, as we have made the place more sustainable for ourselves, we have obviously made it more enticing for other creatures.

DSC_0009We scramble to keep up with their appetites, filling bird feeders and hummingbird stations several times a week.  Black-chinned, Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds guard their feeding stations as fiercely as Samurai warriors.  House Finches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and brilliant Lazuli Buntings squabble over the bird feeder.  Washing dishes one morning, I gazed out the window into a young tree just beginning to leaf out.  It was set in motion by a flock of Cedar Waxwings in their chic feathery attire, breakfasting on insects.  Yellow Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers and Western Tanagers create flashes of gold amongst the deep green foliage of trees. We try to discourage the Barn Swallows from making nests under our eves. Spotted Towhees, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and dozens of others we have yet to identify amuse us with their calls and antics. A Northern Flicker issues bold squawks from its nest in the hollow trunk of an apple tree near the garden. Downy Woodpeckers turn the pine trees into percussion instruments. Robins perform their twitter-pated courtship dances in mid-air. In the fall Doug takes the dogs out hunting Blue Grouse for our dinner table.

DSC_0003In one of my most beautiful sightings took place in a deeply shaded spot lush with tall ferns, lilies of the valley and wild roses next to a tumbling creek. Shafts of light fell through the leafy canopy. I had just taken a few steps beyond when I was stopped in my tracks by a melodious song. I turned slowly back to see a Mountain Bluebird perched on a delicate branch, illuminated in a shaft of sunlight, glistening turquoise and singing his heart song. Standing riveted to the spot, I did not move a muscle for fear of spoiling the moment. Suddenly the glorious bird flew directly towards me. I could feel the air movement from its wings on my cheek as it passed. Magic!

We watch Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles soar in lazy circles high above us. One morning while standing on the bridge above the Salmon River I saw two Bald Eagles fly under the bridge below my feet. For some years now an Osprey has maintained a nest in the top of a tall pine opposite a small beach where Doug and I go to cool off in the heat of the summer. She circles above, sharp eyes scouting for fish just under the surface of the river. Occasionally she dives like an arrow into the river. Grabbing a fish with both claws, she shakes the water from her feathers and turns the unfortunate fish headfirst to decrease wind resistance as she flies back to her nest with the prize.

I have two favorite bird stories. The first I have already reported in my blog entitled Fawn Frolics, the dance duet between a wild turkey and a fawn. The second occurred in 2015 when Doug and I were living in the historic cabin (the Cook cabin) at Campbell’s Ferry for seven weeks while our smaller cabin (the Crowe cabin) was being renovated. A river group had come up and was sitting under the walnut tree while I was telling them history stories about the Ferry. Rita (our dog) was being her usual Miss Congeniality self, spreading her attention among the guests, when I noticed that she had focused intently on a little bird that she was now stalking in slow motion. The bird was hopping along nonchalantly, staying just beyond Rita’s nose. The river guests worried that the bird was having trouble flying when suddenly Rita lunged at it and the bird flew up into the walnut tree…no problem. Nondescript in looks, it seemed abundantly endowed with personality.

After the folks went back to the river the bird hopped about, perching on logs, rocks, and chairs nearby, coming closer and closer to me. If I sat quietly it would hop up right next to me, looking at me curiously. It would not let me actually touch it, hopping just out of reach if I tried and then returning to my side. As long as I stayed on the porch it would hang out with me as if we were old friends sitting quietly. Doug and our neighbor, Greg Metz, who had been working at the barn came down to have lunch on the porch. The bird stayed on the porch with us during lunch, hopping around under our feet.

When lunch was finished the men got on the tractor, drove up the airstrip and walked into the woods to do some milling with chain saws. Suddenly they noticed that the bird was up there with them. It hug out under the log they were milling and stayed with them all afternoon despite the activity and noise from the chain saws. When they drove the tractor back down to the Cook cabin it flew past Greg’s shoulder and landed on the side of the road until the tractor had passed. Then it flew up to hitch a ride on the log they were pulling on the trailer and rode back down the hill with them. Back at the cabin Greg pulled out his towel and began to wash off in the ditch. I know you are not going to believe me but I have two witnesses…that little bird jumped into the little ditch beside Greg and began to take a bath! When Greg stood up and started drying off, the bird hopped up on the table and began drying its feathers. Afterwards the bird stayed around during cocktail hour until we moved inside. I tried to get the bird to come to my hand to take some food. It would let me get within 6 inches before it would move slightly away.

We did not see the bird the following day but some folks who had come up from the river told me they had encountered a little bird behaving strangely and following them around our place. We never saw it again. I don’t even know what kind of bird it was. From some research I suspect that it might have been a Hermit Thrush or a Pine Siskin and I am annoyed with myself that I did not document its appearance. If anyone knows of a bird that behaves like this please get in touch with me!

It seems that there are more birds every year. We fight them to get any share of our cherries so word must be out on the Avian Trip Advisor website. Now that the birds are here my mother is gone. I cannot write her the bird stories I know would amuse her. Perhaps it is now perpetual Silent Spring for my mother in that place where we all are destined. But I like to imagine that the birds are singing songs of her. They must be… for I think of her whenever I hear their melodies.

 

 

Ferry Food

Clamped to the kitchen counter in the historic cabin sits a neglected strange device that stares reproachfully at me every time I pass. It has been at least 30 years since it has been put to

2009-06-03-001use. Visitors often ask what it is. In response I ask them to guess.

“A meat grinder?” “A coffee grinder?” “A juicer?” Nope.

Rarely someone recognizes it as a device to clamp and seal the lids onto cans of fruit, vegetables, and meat prepared by far more proficient homemakers of the past. Under the counter a box of empty cans still awaits their destiny.

When you live in a roadless wild place surrounded by 4 million acres of wilderness, people have questions. One of the common questions is how we get our food. William Campbell first came here in 1897 for the purpose of answering that question for folks who worked in the mines in the surrounding mountains. Since the mines were in the high country the seasons were too short to grow most crops. William had hiked down into the river corridor looking for a spot to farm…a low, open, flat area with tillable soil, sun and good access to water. On a bench above the Salmon River he found what he wanted, a place that later became known as Campbell’s Ferry. His crops were transported to his customers by horses and mules or sold to folks who were passing through the area.

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Ferry Garden in the 1960s

It is simpler problem today than it was in past but it definitely takes thought and planning, as well as getting dirt on the knees of your jeans. Where William Campbell had extensive fields we have a small garden growing vegetables and berries. Since we are typically feeding just the two of us for the six to seven months we are in residence, it is enough. Unlike the few spots along the river where people live year round, I do not have to can, freeze and dry food supplies for the winter months when travel in and out of the canyon is risky or impossible. Year-round residents not only have larger gardens but also green houses where they can give their plants a head start in the early spring. The strange canning device at Campbell’s Ferry will remain idle during this woman’s residency.

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Ferry Garden 2009

We arrive in April but the danger of frost keeps us from planting seeds until the snow melts from the tops of the surrounding mountains, usually mid-May to early June. As I have mentioned in earlier writings, our neighbor Barbara (twelve miles down river) always sends us some of her extra baby plants to jump start our garden. Her husband Heinz drops them off on one of his passing jet boat trips. Although people have been growing crops here for nearly 120 years the soil is not particularly rich so each year the garden soil is augmented before planting. As those of you who garden know, it is a lot of physical, dirty work but it has rewards. The two moments I love most are seeing the tender new plants emerging and harvesting the first crop.

I hate the weeding. My mother always kept a garden when we were growing up on Yankee Farm in Santa Barbara. I did not mind picking things from the garden so much but despised the weeding chores.

“Mom! Why can’t we just buy our food at the store like normal people?”

I vowed I would never have a garden. Look at me now, growing lettuce, arugula, cilantro, basil, kale, chives, garlic, rosemary, oregano, dill, string beans, peas, potatoes, peppers, chilies, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, and strawberries.

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In addition to the vegetable garden we have an orchard of apple, pear, peach, walnut and cherry trees. The first pioneers planted a variety of apple trees some time before the first homestead report was done by the newly formed Forest Service in 1906. That means over a century of conditioning for the local wildlife to think of Campbell’s Ferry as a food source. Local bears have become accustomed to gorging themselves on the apples each fall. The sows bring their cubs, teaching them when the apples are ripe, so each generation of bears learns in turn. We have counted up to 8 bears in the orchard at the same time.   If the Ferry bear1humans want any apples we have to be quick and we don’t argue with bears.

The pears and peaches are also at risk. We planted dwarf peach, cherry and pear trees six years ago that produce beautiful fruit but the trees’ delicate size makes them vulnerable to being destroyed by the bears. The moment we spot the first sign of bear we take the defensive tactic of harvesting all the peaches and pears, fully ripe or not. The bears have not caught on that the cherries ripen earlier so we only share cherries with the birds, so far. Each of the fruit varieties ripens all at once, an avalanche of each particular fruit. Since we cannot keep up with the fresh fruit, the overflow peaches and img_2619cherries are pitted, stuffed into baggies and consigned to the freezer. The pears don’t freeze well so the excess is baked into cakes, pies, and breads. Last spring we planted dwarf apricot and plum seedlings but it will be another year or two before they are producing.img_4143

The huge beautiful walnut tree next to the historic cabin was just a seedling when it was planted in 1963, a wedding gift to Frances Coyle Zaunmiller (who lived at the Ferry 1940 until her death in 1987) from her third husband, Vern Wisner. Its off shoots are found at many of the homesteads up and down the river. The size and strength of this original tree allow it to withstand marauding bears. The walnuts are particularly attractive to the packrats that secure dsc_0001them in their winter vaults. The historic cabin is not rat-proof, so it is not uncommon for us to return to the Ferry and find hordes of walnuts stuffed into the attic, drawers or our mucking boots.

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John Crowe with Steelhead 1960s

 

There are some wonderful old photographs of earlier Ferry residents with their fishing catch or hunting trophies but we don’t do much of either. My brother and our grandsons have caught fish on each of their visits. As one might expect Trout can be found at the mouth of Trout Creek where it enters the Main River. And there is a well-known hole below the bridge on the big river that migrating steelhead visit every fall. Smallmouth bass and whitefish are common, too. In season Doug will take the dogs bird hunting for grouse, chukar and quail but it makes up only a small portion of our diet.

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Grouse for Dinner – Thanks Rita!

We do our hunting in April before we come into the Ferry. Our hunting ground is the Boise CostCo where we venture forth armed with our six-month shop list and credit cards. Suffice to say, we are almost guaranteed to win “The Most Stuff Bought Award” for the day, probably for the month, and maybe even a contender for the year. You don’t want to be behind us in line.

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Cessna 206 delivers supplies

We descend on the home of our partners Patricia and Brad Janoush with our harvest in tow where we package the various meat, chicken and fish products into meal-sized portions and stuff all the baggies into the Janoush’s freezer. There are also some frozen vegetables for the weeks before and after the garden is producing. On the morning that we make the hour and a half drive to Cascade for the flight into the Ferry we rise early. The frozen goods are quickly packed and sealed into ten cardboard cartons designed to hold approximately two-weeks worth of meals. Once we arrive at the air taxi service, nine cartons are stashed in their walk-in freezer and the tenth one stuffed into the plane along with our gear, the dogs, and, of course, us for the forty-five minute flight into the Ferry. Arnold Aviation (the air taxi service) brings the mail into the canyon every Wednesday, weather permitting, and will bring us a new box on request. They will also go to their local grocer and add 10% to the bill for fresh items like milk. Food and anything else that can fit in the plane can come to the Ferry for $.33 per pound. It is a great bargain!

Once we are in residence our neighbors six miles up river at Yellow Pine Bar send down four “loaner chickens” to Campbell’s Ferry Summer Camp to supply us with eggs. One of our simple joys is watching the free-range chickens scurrying abodsc_0027ut the premises. This summer, however, a family of foxes took up residence, helping themselves to a chicken dinner without an invitation. As a result the remaining three chickens were restricted to the chicken coop for the duration of their visit. When we leave in the fall, the chickens are sent back up river for the winter.

2009-05-01-001Not long after we arrive each spring another hunting season is on…for wild morel mushrooms and asparagus. The season is short and both are elusive but we delight in the search, rather like an Easter egg hunt for grown-ups. The morels in particular are tricky, expert at hiding in the under-growth of the forest. Some years are better than others but we have found two hundred plus morels in a season. Naturally we cannot eat so many while they are fresh so I freeze some for later, like the peaches and cherries. We have also tried drying but find that we like the frozen method better.

Not being able to run to the neighborhood grocery store for last minute forgotten items forces careful planning and, when that fails, creativity.   But we have had few, if any, “meal disasters” in the past ten years and we have never gone to bed hungry. While it is much easier for us to eat well than it was for previous residents, the work involved gives us insight and respect for the challenges they faced. The canning device, however, remains in retirement.

Light Musings

It is creeping toward me, accompanied by a quiet drumroll of crickets. I sense it coming before I perceive it. The sky outside the windows is dark but the stars are already shying away from its approach. I lie in bed peering steadily in its direction trying to catch its first appearance. Is that it just behind the pines?

Of course it is not really creeping toward me but I who have been traveling relentlessly toward it throughout the night, traveling at more than 700 miles an hour perched here on my small point on the earth’s surface hurtling toward this rendezvous. There it is! I see it now, dimly, but perceptible nonetheless. The outline of the trees to the east is more clearly etched. Stealthily the light is changing but so discretely, it is impossible to catch it in the act. From the east, greyness is titrating into the black sky, evolving from gunmetal to a rosy-grey sky. The apple tree branches outside the bedroom window become a black lace applique to its surface. The greys melt into pearl, spreading upward until the sky becomes a quiet brightness. Pink streaks appear before dissolving into a flame colored horizon behind the stalwart pines. I am so busy watching the shifting colors I fail to notice that a translucent tender blue has overtaken the sky.

Our historic homestead lies deep in a canyon carved by the Salmon River, poetically known as “The River of No Return.” Because the property is a narrow bar along the river encased by mountains, the sky becomes light long before the sun climbs over the eastern ridge. An old growth forest wraps its pines and firs down the mountains and around the homestead’s clearings. Once the sun breaches the mountaintop its rays are filtered through the trees in downward slanting shafts of light that hang in the air and create complex patterns on the forest floor. The effect is ethereal, almost holy, the trunks of trees transformed into a many-pillared cathedral illuminated by the stained glass window effect of the early sunlight sifting through the branches. Were the early builders of churches thus inspired? The little time I have spent in churches was as a gawking tourist craning my neck at the brilliant windows and soaring columns of Europe’s cathedrals or standing in awe of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. But now this forest, this hillside, these mountains and this river have brought me this feeling of reverence. This has become my church. The mundane act of the morning walk to the outhouse is transformed.

In the cloudless bright of mid-day when light permeates everything I rarely notice it as something extraordinary.   But there are days when heavy grey clouds race across the sky and the lighting becomes dramatic. The clouds become a theater light board and call the cues, controlling shafts of light that create an illuminated mosaic on the earth. The orchard is covered with follow spots that feature an apple tree, then a patch of green grass, then the cabin. Light sweeps across the hillsides focusing on some place it finds particularly intriguing. The soloist might be a rock face or the flash of a waterfall. Perhaps I am fascinated as a result of sitting in darkened theatres for so many years watching lighting rehearsals, captivated by the capricious qualities of light that can transform a darkened space.

Summer rainstorms regularly provide us with dramatic performances. On one such occasion the sky down river was a glorious azure blue with grey-blue and ivory-apricot clouds looking oddly silky-smooth…like an Aubrey Beardsley sky. Upriver the sky was dark and ominous. Thunder rumbled in the distance and occasional flashes of lightning announced the approach of the storm. Earlier Doug had attached a large tarp to the front of the cabin that served as a shade and rain awning… the big top. As the storm arrived Doug and I sat out under the big top, audience to a dramatic show featuring relentless spears of lightning and percussive thunder. The electrical storm was just the first act. As it exited down canyon the rain made its entrance…so violent…as if it were pummeling the earth with its fists. The temper tantrum gradually wore itself out as the clouds began to break apart, gentling the rain as shafts of sunlight reappeared. Suddenly the rain was brightly backlit by the sun, creating the illusion of a million strands of spider silk slanting from the clouds to the earth, land and sky woven together with a drop stitch. Veils of rain glided down river while shards of mist drifted in the opposite direction, vaporous ghosts that tucked into the side canyons playing hide and seek before they melted into the rain. Birds, seemingly undisturbed by the storm, darted across the sky. Hummingbirds cavorted from feeder to feeder to background music of birdsong and the percussion of rain on the tarp.

In the late afternoon I take our dog Rita with me, walking down the trail to the riverbank to sit in the shade. The river is now rising as a result of the warm weather, in fact I can watch it rise in the hour we spend at its side. Watching the water gradually inch upward along the bank made me think of childhood days at Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara when we would sit on the sand and watch the tide slowly rise toward our toes. I think of a quote by Loren Eisley, “If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water.” The river’s surface is blindingly bright, burning gold in the low angled sunlight. Eisley’s poetic quote fires my imagination and I think, “If there is magic in this universe it is contained in light.” Bright green grasses glow at the feet of a regiment of dark pines and firs that march up the canyon walls from the river, like a romantic illustration in a fairy tale book. The effect is heightened by a hatch of tiny insects on the river that rise into the air in waves.  At this distance they look for all the world like depictions of fairies. Backlit by the sun they sparkle against the dark backdrop of the forest for their brief aerial dance, meant only to find a mate. From my fly-fishing books, I know they are the final stage of metamorphosis of their species, basically nothing more than wings and reproductive organs bent on creating the next generation in the few hours they have left to live. I think of fairies prowling the night, hell-bent on finding sex, their biological clocks ticking away. I don’t remember any fairy-tales with that plot but If you only had their few short hours to live this would be one of the better places to spend them, glittering in the air currents above a golden river looking for love. Surely the legend of fairies had to be born along a river in a fly-fishing country.

Some afternoons Doug & I sit on the porch of the 1905 rustic log cabin toward the end of the day, like so many souls must have done over the last 111 years. The low sun filters through the tall pines, imbuing their millions of needles with reflected light. You would believe that each needle was crafted of freshly polished sterling silver. In contrast to the pines’ reflective glitter, the firs seem to absorb the light, glowing softly from within. For whatever time we have here, this view is ours…the luminous firs and shimmering pines swaying capriciously, like metronomes unable to agree on a tempo.

 Our evening ritual is to sit together on the terrace that Doug created in front of the cabin. From here we watch the sun setting in the panoramic view of the canyon, an Albert Bierstadt painting come to life. The Rainbird sprinklers irrigate the hillside below and, although it sounds mundane, it is beautiful to watch the water droplets falling through the light. Caught in a swirling breeze the mist travels across the landscape in shape-shifting translucent veils, the diamond-bright vapor creating ghostly figures. We pretend that these are the souls of those who lived here in the past, their spirits made visible by the mist clinging to whatever ghosts are made of. They share our cocktail hour. The coda to the evening is watching the earth shadow encompass the historic cabin, then creep stealthily over the meadow and orchard toward us. Once it has us in its grasp we not only see but also feel the difference. The planet turns its other cheek to the sun’s radiance.

At the end of each day the sky-show is unique. There are summer nights when the heat seems to burn the color from the atmosphere but tonight the sky burns with hues from across the color wheel. Clouds lying along the western ridge are lit from within. One could imagine a cavalcade of Renaissance angels erupting from the heavens, cascading down the canyon walls, darting in and out of the trees. A few thin-feathered clouds are sprinkled above, looking as if one of their depressed, compulsive members had plucked the marabou out of her wings and thrown it out into the heavens.

During cocktails Doug and I had a discussion that morphed from the beauty of nature to the nature of beauty. Do all living things experience awe? Why are we wired for wonder? Several nights ago, on my way back to the cabin from putting the chickens to bed, I raised my eyes to the pearl-grey sky, dazzled by the sight of a white-gold sliver of a moon wreathed in chinchilla dappled clouds. Did the world’s first woman on her journey under African skies stop in her tracks stunned by such a sight? While I am not someone who believes in any organized religion, this powerful, inherent sense of reverence is the best argument I can think of for the existence of the supernatural.

 I call our tiny bedroom “The Star Chamber”. The windows that make up two of the walls begin at the level of the bed and rise to the ceiling. Most nights the air is as clear as glass, inviting starlight to invade the room. Lying in bed, you can see the silhouette of the mountain ridges, black against a million sparkling pinpoints of light. I watch the star formations creep across the sky, in and out of the spaces created by the dark pines. Sometimes the pines seem to capture the stars in their branches so that they twinkle like lights on a Christmas tree. I wonder if that is where the idea of a lighted Christmas trees originated…from someone like me long ago watching this phenomenon in the dark.

Waking throughout the night I catch glimpses of the constellations sliding past, this spherical planet rolling through the cosmos on its miraculous journey. Living here, folded into nature’s heart, the immensity and luminosity of the universe slaps us up the side of the head and says, “Look here! See the light!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ferry Serengeti Part 2: Cats

We have tried keeping cats at Campbell’s Ferry. It hasn’t worked out too well. They were brought in to address our on-going rodent problem. Unlike the cats, the mouse, pack rat, and marmot populations thrive unabated. Our attempts to encourage their departure have ranged from glowing travelogues of how lovely it is at our neighbors’ down river (complete with detailed map and directions) to less humane measures falling just short of Hellfire Missiles. The cat strategy was one of these.

We fixed up a cozy spot under the historic cabin with an on demand feeder that Doug constructed for them. I lined their beds with fabric from an old cashmere robe. They could come in and out at will through openings large enough for a cat (or rodent if they wanted delivery) but small enough that a coyote, fox or anything larger could not enter. No avail. The cats did not survive. I suppose it is possible that they came across those travelogues we made about the glorious life down river, studied the maps and moved on. However, finding the occasional cat skull or an amputated tail makes me think otherwise.

This year, however, we do have a cat living at the Ferry and it seems to be thriving. We have not actually seen it with our own eyes but we have caught several photos of it on our game camera. We have also seen evidence. The young couple we brought in to help us with the “start up” chores three weeks ago were walking down the trail to the river when they spotted something suspicious. Clumps of deer fur dotted an area where somethinTracksg clearly had been dragged across the trail.

They followed the drag marks over the side of the steep hill and bushwacked through the brush to come upon a fresh deer carcass well hidden in the thick undergrowth. It was partially consumed. Doug mounted the game camera nearby, focused on the kill. That night the mountain lion returned three times to feed…all caught on camera. We captured more photosLion3 over three nights until the deer was gone. Whatever remained was moved elsewhere.

It may be the same cougar we saw in 2011.  It was early evening when I was standing at the window over the sink in our one room cabin.  Something was coming toward me from the far side of the orchard.  Instinctively I knew it was a mountain lion from the way it moved, still it was hard to trust my eyes since it is so rare to actually see one.  I reached for the field glasses to confirm the sighting, then called to Doug who was at my side instantly.  We had 2 Navy Seals visiting us at the time.  We stood mesmerized and watched the cat approach.  It was stalking five deer standing on the hill just below the cab1 BigCatin. When the deer caught wind of the cat they bolted down hill toward the river, the cat following.  We congratulated ourselves on the unusual sighting, believing it was over.  Doug had just stepped out the door of the cabin when a commotion ensued.  The five deer bolted past heading up the hill into the trees, the cougar hot on their heels.  The deer stopped just uphill of the cabin and the cougar froze just yards from where Doug was standing.  Naturally we don’t want a mountain lion hanging around so close to our cabin.  Doug came in to get his 357-magnum pistol.  It was not lion season and he didn’t want to kill it anyway.  He just wanted to frighten it off.  He shot the pistol in the air over the cat’s head.  A 357-magnum is a big powerful gun so it makes a loud noise.  The cat did not move a muscle.  It did not flinch or look in his direction.  It’s rapt attention was focussed on those deer.  After what seemed like a very long few minutes the deer moved on up hill with the cat still stalking them.  The next day we searched the forest uphill of the cabin but found no evidence of a kill.

These days I find myself looking over my shoulder when taking the dogs for a walk. It is unlikely (but not unheard of) that the lion would attack a human but dogs might make an attractive target. I wish there were a way to encourage the cougar to clear out our rodent population instead.   Yes, they are small but there are so many of them…think of them like caviar, the smaller the better. My friend Jon Scoville calls deer “rats on stilts” and, come to think of it, I see what he means, especially when they are eating my flowers and ripping the branches off the fruit trees. Now if I can just convince the cougar about the rodent caviar.

Ferry Serengeti Part 1: Fawn Frolics

In 2009 my husband Doug & I, along with my sister’s family and friends went to Tanzania to view “The Great Migration” across the Serengeti Plain. The trip was number one on our “bucket list” and it exceeded all expectations. The sheer numbers and varieties of animals were staggering to behold. When we returned to Campbell’s Ferry Doug started calling the orchard, where our wild animals congregate, The Ferry Serengeti. Though not as exotic as 1 Ferry Serengetithose on the real Serengeti, they nonetheless provide great viewing and (sometimes exasperating) entertainment. As an aside to anyone dreaming about a trip to Africa, I highly recommend Wildlife Explorer and the outfitter Gary Strand. Of all my world travels, including an earlier trip to Africa, this 2009 safari was THE trip of a lifetime.

In the early spring the pregnant does populate the orchard with their yearlings. The young deer romp and chase each other, sometimes chastised by the adults with a quick kick or bite. Once their fawns are born, the does tend to sequester the babies away, hiding them in hollows or in thick clumps of bushes when they come to the meadows to feed.

In June of this year Doug and our visiting friend from New York, John Filo, went up to the woods south of our airstrip to harvest some downed logs. While Doug was scouting logs, John spotted a stump that would make a fine stool for him to sit on and wait. Fortunately as he approached it, he happened to look down. He had nearly stepped on Fawn1a day-old fawn that the mother had left in a small hollow in the ground for safe keeping. John called to Doug and they were able to get a photograph of it. The fawn remained perfectly still, moving nothing more than its eyelids for the entire time they were in the vicinity. Doug and John returned to show the photo to my friend Jackie and me. Leaving the men behind, Jackie and I hiked up to the spot they described but by that time the mother, who must have been nearby, had moved the baby. We found the small hollow but no fawn.

Later in the summer, when the does deem it safe enough to bring their fawns out into our viewing, we often see them in the evening as we enjoy an adult beverage on the terrace area in front of our cabin. It is fascinating to watch the sweet curiosity of the fawns when they notice us. I know I am projecting my interpretation of their behavior but first they seem astonished, opening their big eyes even wider and freezing in their tracks. If we remain still, one might begin to approach, lowering, raising, and cocking its head as it studies us, moving forward on slow, tentative hooves. I wrote about one such encounter in my journal:

A second fawn appeared, and like the first one, stopped in its tracks to examine me. I sat perfectly still. This fawn was much smaller than the first. In fact it was the smallest fawn I 2Fawnshave seen out here. Its delicate legs looked no bigger around than my fingers. It slowly and deliberately walked toward me, its eyes locked on mine. It moved in slow motion, exaggerating each lift of its leg and setting it down cautiously. It would move toward me a few halting steps and then stop….and repeat, until it came within 10 feet of me. I remained still. When it dropped its head to graze I noticed something that I had not seen before. Not only did it have spots but also white stripes on either side of its spine from its ears to its tail. I recalled being a first grader in Germany when our gardener brought a very tiny fawn, barely walking, to our house for me to see. I don’t know if he meant it as a gift but, in any case, my mother would not let me keep it. Mother told me he had probably killed the doe, which made me very sad. Now that I know more about deer I think it is possible that he found the fawn in a spot where its mother had left it for safekeeping, which somehow makes me sadder still. Somewhere I have a photo of the fawn beside me on the carpet in our living room. Coming back through the years to where I now sat on the hillside with the fawn in front of me, I thought about how past memories cycle through you and pick up riders of new memories as they pass. I have never forgotten the little fawn from my childhood but now the memories of this one are linked to it.

Twice I have had the joy of watching what may be my favorite “National Geographic Moments” at the Ferry. The first time I was working in the cabin when I happen to glance out the window, my eye caught by movement on the hillside. A fawn and a wild turkey gobbler were engaged in what I first took to be a kind of faceoff. As I watched, the scenario became a dance duet. The fawn would move toward the turkey with an exaggerated high stepping stalk. The turkey then spread its tail feathers, shaking them at the fawn and moving toward it with mincing steps. At which point, the fawn would prance side-to-side, dancing backward several steps. The fawn advanced once more and the turkey shuffled right and left as it retreated with rippling tail feathers. This duet was repeated with minor variations in choreography for more than a quarter of an hour before the fawn scampered off to join her mother, leaving the turkey without a dance partner. Several years later I saw a similar dance reenacted down in the orchard but of course, with a different cast.

We do not miss having television in the wilderness. Each spring we look forward to the antics and frolics of the Whitetail fawns at Campbell’s Ferry. Each year we watch them grow into yearlings, then, year after year, into mature deer that bring their offspring to entertain us for another season. The Ferry Serengeti live performances continue to receive rave reviews from the limited audience.

Women of the River: Part Two

Women of the River: Part 2

Although we seldom see each other, river sisters share a generous spirit of helping each other. Because of our isolation and common roles, we depend on one another. Several who live in the canyon all year have green houses to jump-start their gardens. When Doug and I come in April, we bring seeds and must wait until warmer weather to get them started. Each year a passing jet boat or the mail plane delivers extra seedlings from Barbara at 5-Mile Bar, Lynn at Shepp Ranch or Sue, up river at Yellow Pine Bar, all sharing their bounty with neighbors. Unexpected treats and gifts often arrive by plane or jet boat. Questions, answers, and advice flow back and forth, although it is usually me asking the questions and being the beneficiary of their wisdom. If there is any kind of emergency, an email to the river sisters always finds someone who is listening and can get help.

Most recently some friends were getting ready to float the river. On the day of their departure, the wife received word that her father was ill. They gave her family our email address so that they could stop at our place to get an update on his condition while on their trip. The day our friends were due to arrive at Campbell’s Ferry to check in with us, we received an email that her father was in serious condition and failing. When our friends arrived we relayed the message and it was determined that she should immediately fly out from the Ferry to Boise to get a plane home. I emailed the air taxi service in Cascade but when 30 minutes passed without a response I knew that Carol, who handles their email, must be doing something away from her desk. At Campbell’s Ferry email is our only quick and reliable communication with the outside world. We have a satellite phone but one can wait for a long time for a signal. Most places on the river are connected by backcountry radio but, for some reason, we cannot get reliable radio reception. After waiting for a response I sent an email out to the river sisters explaining the situation and asking for assistance…”Would someone please get on the radio to alert Arnold Aviation that they need to look at their email and get back to me.” Almost immediately I had a response from Barbara. She had contacted Arnold Aviation and let me know that a plane would be on its way within minutes. Our friend was able to get out in time to be with her father before he died.

Sometimes it is not an emergency but just the knowledge that someone else is facing the same challenges and concerns, struggling with the same issues or sharing the same joys is comforting.  My friends in the “outside world” often find it hard to relate to life in the wilderness…”What do you DO out there?” A recent email from my friend, Sue, perfectly captures a day in the river sisters’ lives. I felt Sue had entered my brain, captured my thoughts and expressed them far better than I ever could, so I gained her permission to share it.

First, a few cues to the short hand and river language in Sue’s email:

The inverter…. converts direct current electricity from solar or hydro-power stored in a battery bank into household 110 current. We all have systems to generate electricity. When they act up you can’t call the power company. YOU deal with it.

 

Ypb…short for Yellow Pine Bar where Sue lives.

 

Float groups…white water rafters coming down the Salmon River, either self-guided or outfitted groups. They regularly stop at our places on the river and come up to talk or look at the natives.

 

Fire Suppression Reservoir…AKA, the swimming pool at YPB.

 

Sun oven…basically a black metal box with a glass lid that lifts and aluminum panels that fold out like the Mars rover to direct sunlight through the glass into the black box where you put the food to be cooked. Depending on the weather, temperatures can get up to nearly 400 degrees but typically range from 250 to 300 degrees. Since the sun oven sits outside, it doesn’t heat up the cabin like a stove and it is not eating up your electricity. You have to remember to keep repositioning it to keep the best angle from the sun for a consistent temperature but, should you forget, at least nothing will burn because the temperature will drop as the sun angle changes.

 

Shepp…Shepp Ranch, a place down river where river sister Lynn lives.

 

Sue is a brilliant writer. See for yourself:

Salmon River Sirens!

Every day, this is what happens.

I say to my sweaty self…..”TODAY I will email my girls……………

…….once the power at ypb is stabilized enough to dare USE any sacred electricity.” Major Inverter/Battery drama is ongoing with daunting messages on the display panel and excessive zingy, colorful flashing lights all I can think of is “alien abduction!”

…….or….”I’ll email river sisters after this float group leaves.”……then another one or two follow and I’m talked-out (yes, that can actually happen to me! :)………

……”I’ll email canyon broads when I’m finished cool-morning weeding … harvesting …. choring …. laundering ….. mowing”…… but either there’s zero power left to compute after fridge and freezer have their way with it, OR a group arrives, OR I’m grumpy from the heat and all digits on hands and feet are puffy like Vienna sausages even if I worship shade and guzzle lots of water……….

So at this moment, I’m not checking the power panel to see if there’s enough juice to compute. I’ll just wait for the smoke billow or an alarm to go off 🙂

If floaters show up, they can wander around since they do anyway. And so what if there’s a big basket of peas to shell, strawberries to top, and beets that need their skins’ slipped in hot water……(oh god….is it just me or is it hotter than Satan’s basement and who even wants to THINK about stirring hot jam in a steamy pot unless it’s dark-dark….or JAM-uary?)

Just had to check in and say HELLO! MISS YOU! HOPING ALL IS WELL DOWN RIVER!

Thought of you all last night as I made my way to the Fire Suppression Reservoir. Haven’t dipped into that holding tank of chlorinated water yet this year, so why not a midnight submersion?

Tossy-turny sleeping these days, right?

Even if I’m fairly certain I’m on the other side of the plenty-long adventure of hormonal heat waves, beads pool up even when a body is still and supine.

To the pool she goes to ooh and aah over the moon and splendor of water, knowing the odds of strangers showing up are minimal, and that “hooray! it’s dark enough to not spend even a second screening the 1/4″ layer of dead whatnot’s from the surface.”

The only thing that would have brought it over the top would have been if you guys had been present with chilled Prossecco, and maybe some of those Alabama dark chocolate bites of dreaminess Lynn shared with us this spring at Shepp!

We would have given the crickets a run for their chirping money for sure with giggling in free-style water ballet, or just plain splashed and jawed!

Pretty sure this nocturnal reprieve out yonder will become a habit. Slept like a Disney character afterwards.

Garden-wise, I’m sure you all have the same things going on – weary looking plants by early afternoon, some things WAY ahead of the normal or abnormal (garlic is out and cleaned up by June 30th?).

Everywhere you look, something needs to be tied, picked up, harvested, freed a bit from the biggest-leafed purslane I can recall, or otherwise hydrated (if you have H2o) so the layin’ down plants can make it to sun down.

I’ve already pulled some fried flowers & pea vines that succumbed to the determined triple digit marathon.

The dream I had of 2015 being the year of ‘not’ weeding the ever-so-long flower beds flanking the garden by way of weed fabric and heavily mulched perennials with random barrels and pots of annuals hither and yon. (always wanted to say that:) isn’t quite what I originally envisioned.

Now it’s crystal clear that, in my attempt to fill the fuel barrel “pots” Greg cut in sections for me, I shouldn’t have been so skimpy with the dirt involved in filling them.

That’s what you get for cheating. I thought it was genius, saving on potting soil and/or dirt mix by loading up the bottom 2/3rds of the barrel sections with feed sacks filled with non-toxic trash – aluminum and tin cans, balls of discarded chicken wire, bunched up newspaper or old weed-guard fabric, flakes of straw……anything with bulk to take up some space to ration what I thought was an ample amount of amassed dirt from all kinds of sources.

But now, the top foot or so of skimpy-dirt piled atop “trash” has wiggled and settled down into the crannies of bulk below.

It’s like looking down a man-hole in order to see the annuals down there in the dark, sunk to bottom.

Feel like I should throw them a rope:)

But there’s still plenty of unexpected beauty and bounty – all so jungle-like at this stage with the squash vines traveling like you know they will but can’t “see” that at planting time……..and how, as much as you convince yourself that you’ll stay ahead of the trellising, deadheading or harvesting game, and that you’ll pick ALL the cucumbers that are the best sized baby dills so there’s not that jalopy that magically appears a day later…………..

Whoosh!

It’s just “plants gone wild” cause you’re too preoccupied with playing tag with water, chit-chatting with visitors, troubleshooting inverter woes, sweating in motion or while idling, nursing an injured tourist, putting something in, or taking something out of the Sun Oven, trying to be efficient (as in “not lazy”) in all things domestic (okay….who has vacuumed or washed windows everywhere else but their own domicile?)

And how can you not stare out into space to think about Winter or pass up on a hot minute of laying in the sun-burned lawn to look for animals shapes (or Jared Leto) in the clouds?

All I know is, wouldn’t it be so humbling, entertaining, and most likely mildly (or wildly) embarrassing, to be able to play back the audio version of thoughts, revelations, and conversations we have with ourselves in just one day?

That’s why I’m a HUGE fan of the fresh slate of morning – to have another stab at making it the best day it can be, promises made to take things less seriously in some respects and more seriously in others.

There’s just so much promise and optimism in the AM – in all the seasons, but especially summer when most days feel like a fire-drill even if we “live for a living” for the most part.

Don’t you love the welcomed humidity in the garden after the plants have sucked in their 10 minute drink?

I swear song birds sing the happiest they’ll sing all day. The air is clean and filled with butterflies, giving no indication of fires that burn in the canyon or mayhem that ensues out there in the big world.

To me, the simple act of re-filling the hummer feeders feels like the most satisfactory thing a person can do while holding a coffee cup.

And so, I just had to send you girls a cyber hug to let you know that, through the hundreds of things that go on in a day and how it isn’t always possible to connect as often as I’d love to, you are the people I’d most like to share my hundreds with – telepathically or typingly:)

May all be “morning” in your worlds down river.  I’ll meet you at the pool at midnight!

oxoxo sue

Women of the River: Part 1

Women of the River: Part One

In 1955 Frances Zaunmiller wrote of seeing a rare creature at Campbell’s Ferry. Frances, who lived at the Ferry from 1940 until her death in 1986, chronicled life in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness through a weekly column for the Grangeville, Idaho newspaper.

The sight of this exotic creature brought a high degree of excitement. What was this unusual creature? It was a woman.

There were other women in the backcountry but the chance of seeing one outside her natural habitat, the place she lived, was unusual, especially in winter. There are countless reports of men moving through the canyon on a regular basis at all times of the year. Frances’ husband Joe Zaunmiller regularly rode his horse to Dixie (the closest tiny town) even in the dead of winter, often making the 26-mile round trip in a day. But someone had to be at home to care for children, animals, and the property while the men were out and about. It was the women.

My husband Doug describes the situation as, ‘a woman was the anchor on the place.’ They were the ‘mooring’ that attached each family to their homestead.

Things are not so different today. While I rarely see the other women who live in the canyon, the men make regular appearances. They appear via jet boats, airplanes, rafts, hiking and horseback. Often there are men staying here with us, helping with various projects. Since April 22, we have had nearly 30 “guy nights” with multiple men here at the Ferry.

I was discussing the lack of female companionship with Heinz, the jet boat maestro of the canyon and our neighbor from 5-Mile Bar (10 miles down river). Heinz and his jet boat haul the heavy construction supplies and machinery for our renovation projects from the road end, four miles upriver, to the Ferry. We’ve seen him a great deal this summer. Three days after our talk Heinz’s partner, Barbara sent email invitations up and down river for a girl’s night garden party and sleep over at their home at 5-Mile Bar. Every river woman was to bring a bottle of champagne, a dish for a potluck supper, clothes that she no longer wore (for a clothing exchange) and a pair of high heels to wear to aerate the lawn.

The evening was great fun with a dozen ladies in attendance. They ranged from owners of backcountry properties to full-time caretakers to part-time helpers. We ranged in age from 74 to 19. After glasses of champagne, the clothing exchange, and supper, Heinz built us a huge bonfire in a fire pit on the beach next to the river. As the darkness crept in around us we talked about the ladies who came to this river before us: their strength, idiosyncrasies, origins, and life stories.

Frances and her “frenemy” Rheo Wolfe, probably the best-known and most colorful women in the canyon during their era, were prime topics. Rheo’s daughter Linda was at the party. Rheo’s oldest child drowned in the river in 1945 and is buried at Campbell’s Ferry, an event that forever strained their relationship. There are earlier residents of the canyon whose stories are every bit as compelling, including two other tragic deaths connected to Campbell’s Ferry: Rose Cook & her baby died during childbirth in 1905 and Emma Zaunmiller in a horse accident in 1938.

The generation after Frances and Rheo offers the story of the three wildly beautiful Wilson sisters who grew up on horseback at Wilson Bar, stomping rattlesnakes and riding bareback along the Salmon River. Legend has it that Alice Wilson was Marilyn Monroe’s double, swimming her horse across the river, in a scene from The River of No Return film with Robert Mitchum.

The girl party beach scene went on well after midnight but I slipped off to bed just before. In bed with the muffled sounds of the campfire filtering through, I thought how, without really knowing our predecessors, we had chosen to live their lives. We are a sisterhood of women on the river that reaches back more than a century. The canyon has changed little in that time. The things that delighted their eyes are now in mine. My day-to-day struggles were also in their bodies and spirits. The women at the party had been called to live a life so different from their contemporaries…just as my life is so different from most of mine.

A jet boat engine woke me at 6:30 AM. It was Heinz taking my river sisters down canyon. The few remaining “up river girls” staggered into Barbara’s kitchen for breakfast and morning talk over coffee. When Heinz returned with a Forest Service trail crew on board headed for a job up river, we rode along to our homes.

It was delightful to be back where I belonged and next to the man I love at Campbell’s Ferry. I felt full, like a sponge that had soaked up “girlness” and was expanded by it. It would have to last me a long time.