Aminals! (misspelling intentional) In Idaho!
I think the number one reason life on the road is so attractive is the guarantee that you will see and experience things you never have before. Diversities of people, food, nature - so many aspects of life to experience! I find that the new sights and sounds and memories don’t take away from the old at all; in fact, my appreciation for the familiar sometimes even deepens.
Today my focus falls in the nature category; specifically the new-to-me wildlife we were so privileged to witness while camped in Idaho. Some animals were completely new; others were familiar in general shape and behavior but new in shape or coloring somehow.
Having grown up in northern West Virginia, I’m well acquainted with the many animals typical to that region. Squirrels, chipmunks, songbirds, crows, hawks, owls, rabbits, foxes, skunks, bats - that’s just a few of the critters we shared the woods with. Without even realizing it, you get familiar with certain animals doing certain things at certain times of the year. I associate hearing chickadees and nuthatches with snow and cold, for instance. In Idaho, I watched and heard them all summer. It created an interesting dissonance which I didn’t get completely used to.
Beautiful whitetails were frequent visitors to our yard, and are the biggest animal I can recall seeing around as a child. They were a favorite food source, too - I have many memories surrounding Dad’s successful hunts and the ensuing process of getting deer from field to table. We saw a few whitetail in Island Park; mule deer seemed about as common. Most prevalent of all were the pronghorn antelope - a new species for me. I first remember seeing them in Wyoming in roadside fields. They are active feeders in the day time, often sharing the caldera pastures with grazing cattle.
Antelope walking a ridge near Saratoga
The tree squirrels we saw in Idaho are smaller than those back east; with less-than-bushy tails. Distinctive white chests and bellies are a striking contrast against brown bodies. They seemed to me to be few and far between at all three of our campsites. Chipmunks were much more common. Just like back home, they provided us much amusement. They claimed our stacked firewood as their gym within hours of us building them, and hid nuts in the grille of the van. These were much more apt to climb trees than I recall eastern “ground squirrels” doing.
Moose, elk, and grizzly bears were all new-to-me wildlife this year. Most of our large animal sightings occurred in May (pre-tourist season) and the end of August (post-season). The grizzly encounter was the briefest, and the most exciting.
In May, there were still large patches of unmelted snow throughout the woods. One beautiful sunny morning we were walking down a service road when we came across very large bear tracks. I’ve shown you how large before, but in case you forgot, they were this large:
We saw and heard no other sign. We continued our walk, more watchful now. The tracks continued in the road for several hundred yards before disappearing. We made our way back to camp, and that was that. Or so we thought…. (Ba bum bum!)
That evening we were in the camper, settling down for the day. It was beginning to get dusky, but visibility was still good. The van was parked at the edge of the meadow, perhaps 30 feet from the Casita. A scraggly-looking moose cow was grazing in the area, perhaps a quarter mile away. The small elk herd was closer, in the next (otherwise unoccupied) campsite. Basically, it was life as usual.
The first thing we noticed was a dark shape moving against the grass. Binocs to face, then: “It’s a bear!”
It moved purposefully on all fours, tracking parallel to the van. Camera and phone were quick-drawn, but we had difficulty shooting through the plexiglass.
By this time the bear was even with the back of the van, perhaps 35 feet away. He (I think he?) turned toward camp while tossing his head, mouth open; turned again, and disappeared behind the van. Reappearing at the right front fender, he again turned toward camp, scenting and blowing. Dennis slid the screen away to get a better shot, and the noise diverted the bear back on his original track. Dennis whistled, hoping the bear would stop for a second, but he immediately broke into a run down over the hill toward the river.
WOW! The experience only lasted seconds, but it made some deep impressions! Above all: the raw strength under his hide and fur. Shoulders rolling with muscle. His gait was what I’d call an amble but it was the most powerful “amble” I’ve ever seen. His mere size was impressive; his back was even with the top of our taillights. He moved with purpose, and it seemed to me that our camp was more a distraction or side-note to that purpose than anything he really wanted to get involved in.
It took us a long time to settle down from that one! An amazing, safe peek at a grizzly, one that didn’t want to stick around, and yet got close enough for us to see him. Just amazing. That was the only one we saw all summer, though we came across a few more (smaller) tracks down by the river.
This was some of the neatest animal-watching we did. Moose came very close to camp different times. These animals appear quiet and docile; deceptively so, I’m told. We were unafraid but respectful, especially since two of them had young along.
My very first memorable moose encounter was while we were in Rexburg waiting for Island Park’s snow to melt. We heard a grunt outside our dinette window and pulled the blind to see a huge cow 10 feet away! She was munching on a large shrub by the camper:
She moved further away to graze in the field, and then we found out what she was grunting at. Baby (big enough to be last year’s) had been in the bushes behind our camp! He didn’t seem entirely comfortable with it, but he ran through camp to catch up with Mama. We had fun watching them for several minutes.
Once we got up to our IP campsite, we frequently saw a rough-looking lone cow around. We called her Molly, and it wasn’t unusual to find her bedded down in the “front yard” around supper time, chewing her cud. She disappeared shortly before Memorial Day and the start of the tourist season.
By the end of summer, we’d moved camp a little further into the woods. We weren’t as close to the river, but after one day of hard rain, there were several large puddles in the dirt roads bordering our site. We began seeing a fox almost daily...
...and 5 different moose at various times. First, the pair of bulls we deemed “The Teenagers” made an appearance. They belong in a Doublemint ad, don't they?
Shortly after that, we were treated to a truly unusual scene. We looked up from the campfire one morning to see a mother and baby (probably this year’s) in the road, getting water. Mama’s hair was up so we were cautious and quiet.
Then out of the woods steps a beautiful bull - not terribly huge antlers, but the first one we’d seen with actual paddles! I don’t know what that situation was about - we thought the mothers didn't want the bulls anywhere near their babies - but they seemed comfortable together. This afforded some very cool photo opportunities.
Another morning a week or two later, Dennis and I were sitting by our morning fire going through some old pictures together. We heard leaves and brush crunching directly behind us, in a “That’s not chipmunk-sized” sort of way. Dennis quickly turned his head, and completely spooked the big bull moose off his trek toward us. He’d been about 15 feet away! We were scrunched down in our chairs, and he may not have even realized we were there.
He didn’t run far, and moved on to the small clearing just north of camp.
Dennis eased up there, and got to watch the 2 “teenagers” come on the scene to feed with the bull. One licked the big bull’s side, and got antlered away for his troubles. That buddy-hood may not last much longer!
These magnificent animals are probably my favorite of all the larger fauna in the area. Beautiful dark coats, and a deceptive placidity. Their bodies carry strength, too - but it’s a more graceful, understated power. There is one rather undignified thing about them which I find absolutely adorkable - I’ll never tire of watching their huge floppy ears!
Hope you're all staying warm and cozy. We are very much enjoying this mild Georgia December. Till next time, stay free!