Monday, November 15, 2010


My favorite time of the year is April. We ski in about 3.5 miles from where the road closure begins. The Upper East River Valley is snow-machine free. It’s also essentially uninhabited—two or three caretakers at the RMBL and Billy Barr (the lab’s beloved business manager and year-round resident)—except for the coyotes, blue grouse, ptarmigan and foxes. If we time it right, the marmots haven’t even emerged yet. Stirring beneath 1-3 meters of snow, they prepare to awaken from their 7 or 8 month hibernation.

We spend several days hauling in supplies. I have already stored a lot of food and all of my equipment is in my cabin, but we haul computers, books and papers back and forth, and my students and assistants need their food and clothing. It’s a time of year when I learn about plumbing (want water, gotta fix what broke over the winter…), when I get to think a lot (sitting in the snow waiting for marmots to emerge gives you a lot of time for thinking), and, when it snows, a time when I get to carve some tracks down the valley’s slopes. It’s not that uncommon to get over 100” of new snow between mid-April and when the snow finally melts. Of course, in recent years the warming has led to foreshortened winters…

Our work is entirely weather dependent. If it snows the marmots aren't going to come out. When the snowpack gets isothermic, we posthole up to our waists and getting around in the warm afternoons becomes pretty difficult. However, with patience, we begin to see the stirrings of life. Birds migrate back into the valley: we always arrive after the Robins are back, but I like keeping track of the first white-crowned sparrow.

The sounds change daily. As it warms the East River melts and the quiet valley comes alive with water noise. Birds begin singing, and we start hearing the first marmot alarm calls. This is a pretty risky time for marmots and we've seen coyotes catch marmots on the snowpack far from their burrows and kill them. Coyotes have to eat too.

When I’m not out observing, I get a lot of writing done. It’s quiet. There are no disturbances and there’s no where to go. Once, while writing in my cabin, I watched a male blue grouse persistently court a female. She was so uninterested in him. I felt bad—he was strutting with his feathers out and his red throat sacs inflated and he really looked great. She was just interested in eating and flew into an aspen by my bedroom window. I laughed as he flew up and continued displaying at her until he lost his balance and she flew off. This is why I feel so privileged to do what I do…watch the beauty and the humor of nature…and try to explain it.

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