Wild and Woolly

August 15, 2004

Mr. Gib and I were on our sedate way down the Two-Mile Hill this morning when a coyote loped briskly across four lanes of traffic right in front of us. He was good sized, for a coyote, sleek and well-fed, as if gophers and neighbourhood cats had been plentiful this summer.

Gibson created a helluva ruckus, all teeth and toenails as he scrambled over the steering wheel, across my thighs and halfway out the driver's side window, screaming threats and curses at the top of his lungs in his eagerness to give that big old boy what-for. By the time I'd hurled the 35 hairy pounds of whippy wire coil off my lap and back into his own seat, blatted an apologetic beep at the small white Suzuki SUV that we`d cut off when Gib stepped on the spoke of the steering wheel and moved us into the right hand lane without the benefit of a signal, and wiped the globules of dog spit and foam out of my eyes, the coyote was gone.

Ah well, easy come, easy go. Coyote sightings are a dime a dozen here in the city, summer or winter. They seem completely at home with us and are a familiar, if not especially welcome, sight. The cougar sightings, up on Haekel Hill, are a little more surprising and even less welcome.

My sister Jo and I took friends from Vancouver Island cougar-watching up on Haekel, a couple of weekends ago. Of course, we didn't know that was what we were doing at the time or we might not have been quite so insouciant as we strolled around the base of the wind changers and clambered up and over the rocks. . We thought we had made our spine-jarring way up the rough and dusty trail to look at the breath-taking view of the broad Yukon Valley, all the way from Lake Laberge's famous marge to Marsh Lake to the south, with all the wonders of Whitehorse, and Grey Mountain and the sewage lagoon in between. Gibson thought that he'd pulled a fast one on me when he was allowed to slip his collar and wander about as if neither of us had ever had dealings with By-law, much less that one of us had ever had ever spent an entire weekend in jail and requiring half a month's Old Age Pension before a release was effected.

None of us even once contemplated the possibility of a presence dangerous to our soft and chubby little bodies.

In any case, we were unsuccessful at the cougar thing, there being nary a one to report, and it was only a few days later that we heard of cougar encounters in the area over which we had trod so lightheartedly. Too bad. Scenery is nice but can't hold a candle to the thrill of being stalked by a reputedly blood-thirsty predator with breakfast on his mind. I'll bet Moya and Gerald will be sorry to hear that they missed it.

Shortly after our jaunt around Haekel, we went wildlife viewing again, but this time it was on purpose and this time we really got our money's worth.

We'd been sitting around after lunch: Jo and I, Moya and Gerald Flemming from Courtenay, and our brother and sister-in-law, Aksel and Lorene Porsild, also from Courtenay and along as tour guides on the Flemmings' first trip to the Yukon, discussing what was left to see and do after an intensely full week. We'd done Dawson with a side trip to the Tombstones. Had taken in the Follies, ridden the Trolley, walked the Millennium Trail on BOTH sides of the river, and had spent hours at both the Transportation Museum and the Beringia Interpretive Center where we'd indulged in a small contest, throwing spears to see who would buy the pizza for supper. A trip to Haines and back had filled one whole glorious day and another afternoon had been spent roaming around MacBride Museum. There didn't seem much left.

“Listen,” commanded my sister-in-law, shaking out the brochure she had picked up at a Yukon information center, “it says the Yukon Wildlife Preserve is recognized internationally as a first-rate opportunity for wildlife viewing, preservation and education. It says here that there are elk and deer and muskoxen...Aksel, I want to go.”

“That's Danny Nowlan's old game farm, Ax,” I said, adding my two-bits worth. “I was there once a long time ago and always wanted to go again. We could do that this afternoon...” Jo and Moya concurred, the men were out-voted, and soon, there we were, with our brochures and notebooks, bottles of water, snacks, cameras, sunglasses, binoculars, sweaters - you name it, at least one of us had it in a Tilley Secret Stop-loss pockets - off on a safari, Yukon style.

It was a slow afternoon at the Preserve and we had the 12-passenger bus, as well as our charming and good-humoured guide, Deirdre Nugent, all to ourselves. There were no bad seats.

Deedee, as she preferred to be called, took us on a leisurely and informative tour, taking care to point out, in addition to the animals that we had come to see, the various ecosystems contained within the boundaries of the Preserve, including aspen parkland, valley-floor meadows, wetlands, Black Spruce bogs and boreal forests, as well as rolling hills and steep, rocky cliffs. In each area, we were introduced to the animals that claim that particular territory for their own, elk, bison and deer in the meadow, moose at the edge of the wetland, the goats on the rocky promontories, and the caribou, Dall, Big Horn, and Stone sheep in the hills and the rolling parkland. The muskoxen seemed to wander pretty much wherever they damn well pleased but it turned out that they were more or less confined to a large hilly area with stout fences between them and the rest of the world.

All species featured both mature and young animals and the baby goats got our collective vote as the cutest. The old billy who appeared to be taking credit for just about everything in the Preserve, got our “most-interesting” nod as he walked straight up the cliff and strutted along the top, stiff with pride and testosterone, keeping a jaundiced eye on our bus as we slowly moved parallel to the rocky outcropping and out of his domain.

It was the muskoxen, unkempt and all of them flying ragged banners of qiviut, that truly captured our attention and held us, double-wired out of danger on a viewing stand, enthralled. They were, Deedee explained, just coming into season and the big males were a little more belligerent than usual, lunging at each other and making serious advances to the smaller females, most of which were still being coy about the whole situation. Fascinated, we watched one bull as, time after time, a bewitching little hussy gave him the come-on only to rebuff him at the moment of truth.

The whole scenario reminded me of a time when our kids were small, I'd taken them into town for a movie. Unfortunately, the choices on that particular day were: What Do You Say To A Naked Lady or Rabbit, Run. Neither movie seemed to be appropriate viewing for my little raft of offspring, aged four through thirteen but after first promising and then driving 80 miles to carry out said promise... the upshot was that I eschewed the nude and went with the bunny. I thought it might be the best choice. Wrong. Naked Lady turned out to be a Candid Camera vehicle, slightly bawdy but mostly just fun. Rabbit turned out to be a dull coming of age film, fraught with angst, violence and several pretty graphic sex scenes.

As I saw one of the latter building, so to speak, I leaned over and handed a handful of money to my eldest son, the one I thought might be most influenced by the action.

“Toby,” I whispered, “go and get some popcorn for all of us.” He never took his eyes off the screen, “In a minute,” he muttered. “Toby, go now and get us some popcorn.” “Just wait, Mom, I'll go after.” After what, I wondered, glancing at the screen. My eyes crossed. “TOBY,” I yelled, no longer worried about causing a disturbance “GO GET POPCORN, RIGHT NOW!!”

Now, as we stood on the edge of a viewing platform, watching that big shaggy musk ox bull trying to put the moves on one of his lady loves, I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to turn to my brother and scream, “AKSEL, GO AND GET US ALL SOME POPCORN! NOW!!”

Eventually, Deedee was able to herd us away from that mesmerizing scene of unrequited love and loaded us, limp and unprotesting, onto the bus for the return trip to base. It had been a terrific afternoon, informative and fun and totally satisfying. Later that night, as I thought through the events of the day, it occurred to me to wonder about that big bull and if his afternoon had ended up as totally satisfying as ours had been.

And as I drifted off, I swear I could smell...nah, couldn't be...popcorn?