First of all, you will ask the question: What does Zen have to do with badgers?
Zen Buddhism is an ancient Asian religion. We won’t get into it deeply here, but there are teachings about enlightenment and kharma. A student gathers kharma from good deeds and practices.
A badger is a furry carnivore, Taxidea taxus. Known as an amazingly tough digger, it can dig almost any prey out of a burrow. A typical badger weighs anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds and lives in its own burrow. In fact, badgers seem to like to dig just about
anywhere you give them a chance. Badgers live in many of the western United States, and a group of badgers is technically called a cete. Badger colonies are called clans, and one badger den is called a sett.
I still don’t get it. What does Zen have to do with badgers?
Some months ago, I had a wildlife photo shoot all lined up. The organizer promised me for weeks in advance that I was going to be able to photograph a badger, so I showed up with my camera gear. Badgers probably live within 100-200 miles of my home, but I had never seen one, and I had surely never photographed one. That’s why the photo shoot
organizer had my interest, and I traveled a longer distance for the opportunity. Upon my arrival, the organizer told me that there was no working badger.
So, I have sought a working badger for my camera lens. Prior to my visit to Yellowstone National Park, the badger was still on my target list. I’ve been doing my study and trying to gather kharma all along the way.
The Great Western Trip
I had been contemplating a photographic tour of some of the national parks in the western third of the United States. Some of the parks, such as Yellowstone, I had not visited since I was a child. Other parks, such as Glacier, I had barely entered. Some of the
parks, such as those in southern Utah, I had never seen at all. As the summer of 2009 approached, I planned in earnest and got 90GB of flash memory cards readied up for my cameras. In June, I departed, hitting Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley and Arches within the first 72 hours of travel. Initially, I was plagued a bit by weather.
At Bryce Canyon, Utah, all I had at Sunrise Point were clouds and no sun. The Kodachrome Basin was a disappointment for scenery, and the “dotted-line road” that showed on the highway map was a four-wheel drive trail of dirt and potholes. At Antelope
Canyon, Arizona, while I was inside the actual slot canyon, a rain shower began up on the surface. The next thing that I knew, big globs of wet sand were falling from the top onto my camera and me. Not good. At Monument Valley, I had wind and sand blowing around. Not good on an expensive camera.
At Arches, it wasn’t so bad. The weather was going to be hot during the afternoon, but I was up shooting all sorts of rocks and arches soon after sunrise while it was still cool. My plan was to do the uphill hike to Delicate Arch (the symbol for Arches National Park) in the mid-afternoon and stay there until sundown or later. Unfortunately, a rain shower was blowing in about every hour at my spot about 50 yards from the Arch, so I simply crawled inside a large, clear plastic bag with my camera gear to wait it out. Each shower lasted only 15 minutes, so it wasn’t a big deal, but that was some indication of the cloud coverage. I had a bad feeling that the sky was not going to cooperate before sundown. From high on the plateau of Delicate Arch, I could see nothing but clouds approaching for
a couple of hours away. So, reluctantly, I shot my last frames of the Arch and wandered on down the trail by 5 p.m. to begin another overnight drive.
Almost instantly, I found myself in Jackson, Wyoming. Amidst the bison and the backdrop of the Grand Tetons, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with a half dozen other photographers, each with his camera pointed the same way. The subject was the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row. This 1913-era wooden barn has been the subject of thousands upon thousands of photographers for many years now. Then after a few more scenery stops along the Snake River, I was soon rolling into Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone is known as the Serengeti of North America, even though its herd animals don’t quite compare to the spectacle of the eastern African park. I spent a day here and a day there around the busy central areas of the park (Old Faithful Geyser, etc.), and then I went to the Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park. Lamar is known as one
of the prime wildlife areas of Yellowstone, partly because of the herd animals which graze the wide-open spaces there, and partly because of the predator animals which depend on the grazing herds for their livelihood. Periodically there have been some wolf problems, so the National Park Service takes great steps to minimize wolf-human incidents.
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) had existed in the Yellowstone region prior to the park’s
establishment in 1872. Yellowstone National Park was the first national park anywhere in the world, and it took some decades for the proper management philosophies of the park to get worked out. Around 1900, Theodore Roosevelt and others took great delight in hunting mountain lions and wolves in the park before they realized the upset to the ways of Mother Nature. Without those apex predators, the elk population blossomed. Some years later, it was determined that all animals of the park should be protected, grizzlies, elk, and even the skunks. However, that didn’t do too much good for the wolf population that had been completely extirpated by 1920. More recently in the mid-1990s, some gray
wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone. Immediately, the new wolves thought, “Cool. There’s elk!”
In the years since then, Mother Nature has most things balanced up again. Due to the bison, elk, and wolves, the Lamar Valley is the place to go to watch. This is especially good since the area is mostly a wide-open sagebrush valley with few trees. A person with
binoculars or a telescope can park by the roadside and see large animals a mile away.
One morning I was driving eastbound along the Lamar Valley road soon after sunrise. After I had photographed some mountain goats and a river otter, I started my westbound
return. Before I could get as far as Soda Butte, I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye (driving at 45 mph). It was a badger coming out of its den amongst the sagebrush. I almost couldn’t believe it! The nearest place for me to park my car was 250 yards ahead, so I parked and hurriedly walked back to the den with about 30 pounds of camera gear strung over my shoulder.
The National Park Service rules say that you are not allowed to approach dangerous wildlife such as grizzlies and wolves within 100 yards, and non-dangerous wildlife within 25 yards. So, I set up my camera tripod at 75 feet away from the den with the sun at my back and waited for the badger to re-appear. Nothing happened. After 60 minutes, I got bored and moved on. However, the den location was firmly set in my brain, the species identification was firm, and the target species was still on my list. I walked around and noted that there were two separate openings to the den separated by 20 feet or so. The badger was no fool. If some larger predator tried to dig him out, he would use the opposite opening as an exit.
Two days later, I returned to Lamar Valley, and I went directly to the badger den a little earlier in the morning. I set my tripod at 75 feet away and waited. Here I am bundled up in a wind parka and warm clothes, staring at the other cars whizzing by on the road. For more than an hour, nothing. At 90 minutes, Mister Badger poked his head up and I got the shot.
So, do your study, gather your kharma, and maybe you, too, will find your working badger.
What’s a vixen? Isn’t that some sultry female character in an afternoon soap opera?
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is another predator, albeit a small one. It is only the size of a small dog and weighs maybe 10-15 pounds. It specializes in gophers, mice, and voles, although I think it could take a good sized ground squirrel if it was hungry. In the world
of red foxes, the adult male is known as the Dog, and the adult female is known as the Vixen. Their young are referred to as Kits. Don’t be confused, since a Kit Fox is a different species (Vulpes macrotis).
I had heard about a den of red foxes that was slightly outside of Yellowstone Park, and since the NPS had no jurisdiction there, the 75-foot rule was irrelevant. Very early one morning, I drove to the location, figured out the likely spot for the den (the crawlway
under an old hunting lodge building), and simply staked out the opening that was about 30-40 feet from my parked car. About 45 minutes later, the mother red fox came out for a morning yawn. Snap. Despite that short distance, the fox didn’t seem to care at all about me.
I noticed that the fox was missing one of her canine teeth. That didn’t seem to slow her down too much, and I’m sure she had mouse on her breath.
Glacier National Park
I had briefly visited Glacier in the late autumn when the Going-To-The-Sun Road had already closed for the season. This is the narrow mountain road that climbs up over Logan Pass and connects the east and west sides of the park. On that earlier visit, I had seen just enough of the park to feel the need to return. However, this time I needed the Going-To-The-Sun Road to be open. When I was trying to complete my preparations prior to departure from home, the road was still closed with snowplow operations underway. On an average year, the road opened by June 8, so I kept assuming that the road would open then or very soon afterward. However, apparently the winter snow avalanches had wiped out some necessary guard walls along the steep parts of that road. Then some federal stimulus money had to be spent to do the road repair work. When I departed from home, the road was not open, and there was no valid prediction as to when the road would open at all. If the GTTS Road was not going to open at all while I was around Montana, I intended to bypass the park entirely.
One week or so after my departure from home, I was in Yellowstone, just a few hundred miles away from Glacier. I inquired at a NPS visitor center, and the nice park ranger was able to look up NPS.GOV and Glacier on the web. To my satisfaction, the road was suddenly due to open the following day. So, I finished up my last Yellowstone bison shots
and finished my last geysers, slept the last night, and rolled out toward northwestern Montana, leaving my campsite at 4:30 a.m. About the only real danger of driving so early in the morning was that wildlife might be out on the road at that hour, so I kept my car speed at or below the posted limit.
By noon, I was on the east side of Glacier Park finding a convenient campsite. The following day was allocated toward trail hiking in the Many Glacier Valley, and it was fabulous. Good trails, good wildflowers, good scenery. As I wandered along uphill, my eyes stared mostly down at the ten feet of trail in front of me and a little on either side. Suddenly I looked up, and a bighorn sheep ram was right in front of me. Whoa! I stepped off the trail and let four bighorn rams walk by. Then I collected my composure and looked around, and there were a total of 13 rams quietly munching on anything green. This is what is known as a bachelor herd, and the males keep to themselves this way until breeding season when the ewes are sought out. Snap, snap.
I hiked up to a trail closure sign placed by NPS. Steep snow and ice was across the trail just ahead, so I called it a day, turned around, and headed back downhill. I had been the first hiker on the trail that morning at 7:30 a.m., so now I was passing the Johnny-Come-Lately hikers still on their upward march. As I got down to the last mile before the trailhead, I greeted a lady on the trail and asked if she had seen any interesting wildlife. She said that a moose had been swimming across the lake. Hmmm, that sounds good. So, I thanked the lady and headed off in the right direction toward the lake. No moose in the lake. No moose on the east side of the lake. So, I climbed into my car and headed out onto the highway. Immediately, there was the moose.
This was a young bull moose in the woods beside the highway, and it was munching on anything growing. I parked on the shoulder of the road, grabbed my camera gear, and walked down the road in the direction that the moose was heading. I was not going to approach it too closely, but I could let the moose approach me. I knew very well that a moose can be a dangerous animal, but that is why I had my dispenser of bear spray on my belt. The short trees were distributed in a fashion that would have made for an
interesting game of cat and mouse. By the time that the moose moved closer, I could tell that it simply wanted to cross the road. Snap, snap. I had no intention of following it into the woods.
Early the next morning, I drove up the GTTS Road toward Logan Pass. About a mile below the pass (still on the east side), I spotted a hoary marmot (Marmota caligata) along the roadside. I was all too familiar with their smaller cousins, the yellow-bellied
marmots of California (Marmota flaviventris). This larger animal of the North was easily twice the weight of the California variety. Very nice.
By 8 a.m., I was at the empty parking lot of the Logan Pass visitor center. There was another bachelor herd of bighorns right across the road. Since the visitor center was not yet open at that hour, I donned my winter clothing and headed out over snow south toward Hidden Lake Pass. It would have been excellent if I had gotten there a few weeks later when the snow was gone and the Glacier Lilies were coming out. However, the snow didn’t bother me, so off toward Hidden Lake I went. When I reached the overlook point, the scenery was simply stunning, flowers or no flowers. With a long camera lens, I could spot another hiker in the distance, probably a half-mile away. The hiker was sitting down on a big rock, and the two mountain goats which had been following him quietly walked
around the rock and continued uphill toward their grazing spot. I wish I had been that hiker.
Upon my return to the parking lot, I got my longest camera lens pointed in the direction of the north side of the pass. There was a family of mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) up high on the cliff, and they were slowly making their way around the mountain. They had been on the sunny east side (just right for a 35-degree F cool
morning) and were headed toward the shady west side where the edible greenery was growing. Through the long lens, I could see five in the family. The adult female (the nanny) was in front, followed by one spring baby (the kid). Another kid clung back next to the adult male (the billy), and slightly above the four was a yearling sub-adult. The kids could clamber over the talus rock debris fairly well, but not as fast as the parents. By my estimate, their route high on the mountain accomplished three things. One, it led them to something to eat and water to drink. Two, it led them from place to place where the air temperature was most suitable for that time of day. And three, it kept them up so high on
the steep cliff that no normal predator would have dared a chase.
Now, let’s think about it. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats are approximately the same size of beast, and they are distantly related animals. They live in close proximity to one another. The bighorns keep the male and female herds segregated except for breeding season, and the males play no part in the upbringing of the offspring. In contrast, the
mountain goats keep the whole family together as a single family unit.
Hours later that day after leaving the park, I was covering some backroads highway miles near Plains, Montana. To my surprise, there was a large herd of bighorn sheep just off the highway in the sagebrush hills. It looked like a scene out of the Old West.