Friday, 12 August 2011

the Golden hunters of the West- and you

for August 2011 by Deborah Greaves : The Golden Hunters

Around the time our family moved to the Okanagan Valley in 1996, a powerful, quick-witted and incredibly brave woman, Cindy Parolin, died in the mountains in the jaws of one of North America’s most fabulous wild creatures.

The woman who died so courageously was not the predator’s intended victim. The creature had chosen Cindy’s youngest son, mounted on the smallest horse. When her child was dragged to the ground, Parolin beat off the attacker, shouting to her older children to rush the wounded child to safety and summon help.

Now the mother’s own body was in the grip of the assailant’s jaws. Parolin managed to fight for her life for an hour, but ultimately lost her battle. The heroic Cindy Parolin, in her mid-thirties,  was killed near Tulameen, BC by a cougar. 

Cindy Parolin is a member of a fairly large club. Almost every year, several people in Western Canada or the Western US are attacked by huge golden cats. There have been many maulings and deaths of humans and their pets. The exquisite cougar, usually silent and unseen by human eyes, is often a lethal hunter.

I’m not writing these lines to deter you from enjoying the “super natural” lands that surround the Okanagan Valley. Time spent in natural land is good for the human soul. However,  I’m telling you about Cindy Parolin to remind all wilderness visitors to be respectful - and wary-
of the wild inhabitants there.

Certain incidents are unavoidable, but most animal attacks, including those by bears and cougars, can be prevented by remembering a very simple rule:  ‘There is safety in numbers.’

In the wake of another set of attacks on human beings by several large predators this summer, I’d like to share some information with you that could keep you safer. The most important concept to utilize to protect yourself and your loved ones while exploring the wilderness, especially those small in physical size, is the safety in numbers strategy.

I was disappointed recently when a biologist interviewed by CBC Radio in the wake of a cougar attack in Alberta referred to the big cats as being ‘very sneaky’ but made no mention of several potentially lifesaving facts.

It so happens a cougar can sometimes be repelled by humans it is stalking, even if the cat indicates it plans to attack. Cougars can be driven off by people who make themselves appear to be as large - and apparently troublesome to eat-  as possible. Children and small adults should always remain close to the rest of the hiking party, as cougars are attracted to lone, deer-sized targets.

In my opinion a group of people walking in known cougar country should stay close together no matter what size they are. A single hour of internet research on ‘cougar attacks’ has more than convinced me that this policy is a sensible one.

When snowshoeing in the winter, particularly at night, my friends and I decided to ensure there were always four adults and at least one dog. The dog is to be on the leash, as parks authorities state that running dogs sometimes attract large predators to the humans they’re accompanying. Everyone should stay close together, even in the daytime.

These rules may sound a little over the top to you, but perhaps you haven’t removed entire forelegs of deer on several occasions from the mouths of leashed dogs. Various animal parts are strewn all through the forest. It wasn’t my friends, dogs or I who ended the lives of the deer and moose whose parts lay at the side of our favourite trail, nor did we tear the front legs off their torsos.

To help keep you safe while you enjoy the Okanagan Valley’s beautiful wild places, we’re publishing some professional advice at the end of this column. I’d add the suggestion that your party goes into the wilderness equipped with a few weapons – some metal hiking poles, a hunting knife, even just a solid stick. Stay together and talk or sing to let wild animals know you’re passing through.

My last recommendation is that you cherish the fact that where we live, the world of the wild is so lovely, so fascinating and so close. Later I will post a fabulous photo by Summerland's Ole Westby. Please read the list below, and continue to experience Happy Trails.

Cougar advice from BC and Alberta conservation officers:
"While cougar attacks are rare, the public can limit human-cougar encounters by taking these actions:
Stay calm and keep the cougar in view. Pick up children immediately. Back away slowly, ensuring that the animal has a clear avenue of escape. Make yourself look as large as possible. Keep the cougar in front of you at all times.
Never run or turn your back on a cougar. Sudden movement may provoke an attack.
If a cougar shows interest or follows you, respond aggressively. Maintain eye contact, show your teeth and make loud noises. Arm yourself with rocks or sticks as weapons. When picking up objects, crouch down as little as possible.
If a cougar attacks, fight back. Convince the cougar you are a threat and not prey. Use anything you can as a weapon. Focus your attack on the cougar’s face and eyes."

not-quite hidden treasure

Being Out There July 2011 :  Tic Tacs in the forest

It was a few years ago now when something tiny in the forest startled my friends and I. We were walking along a wide path in the lower northern section of of regional park when we spotted something we never dreamed we’d find in such a location.

This was not a remote, sheltered path, one of those half-hidden trails you may find and lose again. This path is one of the main accesses to the creek at the bottom of the canyon. Though it winds downhill into mature forest, this path boasts enough width for two to three people walking shoulder to shoulder, with a thick layer of packed gravel on its surface. There’s nothing subtle about this path, and yet, during the summer of 2008, a construction worker weighing about an ounce decided to build a home there, dangerously close to traffic.

This tiny builder was small in physical stature but determined and fastidious.  The home was about four inches high, shaped like a perfect heart, and decorated exquisitely with several materials of different textures. We found this petite home suspended from a small twig that leaned part way across the path, reaching out from a bushy, broadleaved shrub that stood at the pathway’s edge. We gasped at the brazenness- or outright recklessness- of the minute developer.

As we examined the tiny home, its owner zoomed over our heads, her body moving with astonishing speed, clearly checking to see who or what was threatening the site. It was a hummingbird. She moved too fast for us to note a description for later consultation with a bird book. Worried we would upset her and concerned that she’d built her nest in a disastrous location, we nevertheless moved on.

Later, we returned, expecting the nest to be destroyed by a human brushing it off its fragile twig support as he or she passed by, likely oblivious to the little house so precariously suspended over the path. The nest could be spotted from one side of the shrub but not the other- perhaps its only disguise. Lo and behold, the tiny home had survived since our previous visit, and we heaved a sigh of relief. The builder wasn’t home when we arrived, but she appeared within a couple of minutes. Now we were emotionally involved. 

My friends and I abandoned our regular walks and returned to check on the tiny homebuilder. Now, we were enchanted to find two pure white eggs, the size of Tic Tac mints, within the lovely little nest. We gingerly lifted a nearby branch to photograph the nest. We were even more worried about its location, wondering if the tiny mama would have a chance to raise her little ones. When it was time to go home it was hard to tear ourselves away.

Next time we arrived at the hummingbird’s nest, mama was out again, and we carefully peered inside the nest. The white Tic Tacs were gone, and at first it looked empty. We looked more closely, trying not to touch or breathe, and there in the lined, symmetrical interior of the nest were two clumps of wet and impossibly small feathers. Each clump was about an inch long, and feebly moving. We strained our eyes and saw minute, pointed beaks. If I recall correctly, we had no camera that time, but the sight of the tiny hummingbird babies, hidden away and swinging in their precariously located nest, was engraved in our brains.  

It’s funny. I and one of my favourite hiking companions are both terribly nearsighted and have to wear thick glasses, yet we somehow spotted some clue, some subtle change in the foliage next to the path, that alerted us to the presence of something special.

Perhaps long-ago hunting and gathering skills percolate now and then to the surface of our consciousness, leading some of us to possible sources of food and medicine that our culture has long forgotten. Now, we’re only vaguely aware of a weak, unrecognizable voice from the distant past, a voice we can rarely hear and no longer understand.

 Yet, I am blessed to have several precious friends who are in the same state as I am while moving through fields and forest or exploring beaches or snowy landscapes. When we’re outside, we hear the leaves rustling against one another, note the squeak of branches rubbing against trunks of trees. We see birds flitting through the light and shadows, spot berries, flowers, droppings and animal tracks and sometimes see the creatures themselves. We are alert and curious, each of us feeling lucky to be out on the trails.

In unspoiled natural territory, I feel the presence of miracles all around me. I’ll never look at a package of Tic Tacs the same way again.