What’s an adventure? It’s where you get into a little bit of trouble, or a lot, but come out of it mostly unscathed. Now that I’m getting older, I have fewer adventures. Why? Because I’m smarter.
Take the other day. It was hot so we went for a hike on a tree-studded hillside. A small creek ran at the base of a large mountain. Shade, water, and lots of berries, which might mean bears. I know to keep close to my person, and keep a good watch over her. That’s my job.
After a nice hour of fun, we were returning by way of a hillock when, in a small meadow below the rise, I spotted a bull moose. I froze and when I do that it’s a sign to my human friend to pause too. We were downwind which means the moose never smelled us, but I caught a strong whiff of him. I watched for several moments, and then just turned to my left—a sign to my friend that we were going around this big beast. No barks, no running.
Now if this had been an ‘adventure’, I might have charged that moose, making him run after me while I skirted and danced around him. What fun, and what danger, that would have been. But I’m older and wiser. So there’s no story here. On the other hand, I lived to tell you this short tale.
But I would be remiss for not telling you at least one adventure I had this summer. This summer was a hot one. So instead of hiking in the valley, we sought out higher country or shady areas. One day, when some fellow dog friends were visiting, we took a walk along the old dirt road that used to be the highway. The road is now in the deep shade of spruce and fir trees, next to a large swamp where muskrat, ducks and Sandhill Cranes live.
My friend was chasing squirrels (she’s young and I am so beyond that game) when she flushed out a wolf sleeping in the cool underbrush. The lone gray ran off, but not before I got a good look at her. She was young and alone. I wondered where the rest of her pack was. I love seeing any canine, yet I had to chastise my young dog friend to not mess with wolves. See, another adventure that I survived.
Usually if I were to see one grizzly bear in a whole season, that would be a lot. But this season bears were hungry. A cold wet spring had ruined the berry crop coupled with poor fall crops of pine nuts, while the moths in the high talus slopes were sparse as well. Today we were hiking to Stockade Lake in the Beartooth Mountains just outside of Yellowstone Park. In spite of the mountain’s name, I had never seen any grizzlies in the area.
The hikes around the Beartooths were the best because there were thousands of lakes to swim in. The day started out perfect. I went into every tarn and lake along the trail. It was a usual routine—swim, a few treats, swim, run after sticks.
We approached a large lake called Losekamp when I smelled an unusual scent—something nasty and musty. The pungent odor came from behind a car-sized boulder bordering the trail. I sniffed cautiously, following the scent around to the back of the rock. Without warning, a very large, brown animal rose up and growled. That sure scared the wits out of me and I growled back. Nose to nose. I could see the grizzly bear was just as startled as I was. He had been taking a nap, and because he was a youngster, just around two and a half years old, newly kicked out from his mom, he had not a clue what to do. I expected him to either charge or—more in keeping with what most bears do—run away. But what we didn’t know at the time was that the bear had already had contact with people, so instead of his hightailing it out of there, he just began chomping on the grass by the rock. I had learned long ago not to chase bears. This happened after I pursued what I thought was a deer out of a brushy stream, only to find, once I was out in the open, that I was chasing an animal with an enormous butt! So this bear I gave a wide berth and Leslie and I continued on our way.
That bear had a twin sister. She was sleeping somewhere nearby. Some weeks later we went returned to the Beartooth Mountains. We were going backpacking, starting at a trailhead by the Beartooth Lake campground. That’s when we heard this story from the ranger.
“Those two bears, siblings, got into food left by campers. They’ve been cruising around the campground ever since looking for food rewards. We might have to move them somewhere else.”
A truck at the trailhead had a ticket on its windshield with a note that read:
“You left some food in the back of your truck which we had to confiscate. This is grizzly bear territory and special rules apply. Thank you. The Forest Service.”
During our backpack trip, I saw two more grizzlies, a mom and her young cub. I stopped on the trail, stayed very quiet, and pointed my nose in the direction of the bears. That alerted Leslie and her friends to be cautious. The bears just kept their distance and we went on our way.
On our return from our backpack trip, we heard more stories about the young twins. People had been feeding them from their vehicles. And like all grizzlies—and certain dogs, once they are able to get human food, they continued to bother people. They had even been trying to climb into cars. Food-sensitized bears, Leslie explained, usually are killed. Hopefully these young bears would stay safe. As the ranger had predicted the bears were moved into the backcountry, far away.
In late September we were back in the Beartooths again, walking several miles on a beat-up road at the timberline to Sawtooth Lake.
Near the lake, not far from the road’s end, a car was parked. Beyond the car, the remaining portion of the road was really rough. Large rocks and deep ruts peppered the road. As we got close to the lake, I heard gunshots. That always scares me. I hate those loud noises. I then saw several men on the far side of the lake, target shooting at trees. Lucky for me, Leslie was headed around the lake in the opposite direction to a small feeder lake downstream. When we returned, the shooters were still there but seemed to be packing up. As they were across the lake, they were easy to ignore. We passed their vehicle and continued along the road, which now bordered a small wet marsh. The hillside beyond was thickly wooded. I stopped and sniffed the air. A strange deep huffing noise boomed out from the trees. Leslie stopped too and we both listened. These were plaintive sounds, communicative cries of distress that went on for several minutes, rhythmically. What were they? I’d never heard these sounds before. Huff, huff, huff like a very large animal with a cold. We stared into the trees across the meadow. Suddenly we saw a large grizzly bear. She appeared to be running towards the lake. One little cub, then another tiny cub were running after her. And a few minutes later, picking up the rear, was a third. The huff, huff, huff probably belonged to the third cub trailing way behind, calling for mom to ‘wait up’. Maybe mom had smelled us on the far side of the meadow. Just like most grizzlies, she picked up and ran off, not wanting a confrontation.
“Koda, she’s headed right for the lake where those guys are. Should we go and warn them?”
In a split second I think Leslie had already figured it out she’d never make it in time.
“Well, we’ll just have to leave those Montana fellows to their own good senses. That grizzly shouldn’t be a problem for them; it seems she’s leading her cubs away from us. Plus, there seems to be three of them, and there’s only one of me.”
Several days later we heard the full story from the Forest Service bear biologist.
“I got a call from some guys. They said there was a big grizzly bear with two cubs at Sawtooth Lake.”
“Did they have a Toyota 4 Runner with Montana plates?” Leslie was smiling when she asked. “By the way, there were three cubs.”
“Why yes. So you saw them?”
“I saw the guys’ truck and I saw the bears, but I was already up the road. The mama was heading towards the lake when I left.”
“Well, they were carrying their coolers and backpacks to the car, and when they saw the bear they dropped all their gear and made a run for the car. Those bears got a big food reward.”
“Why did they run? That’s the worst thing one can do, didn’t they know that? And drop all their food? That mama bear was running from us and we were hundreds of yards away.”
“One of the guys said the bear was over 1000 pounds!”
Leslie and the biologist laughed. Our bears don’t get that big. Even I could see this mama grizzly was only about 300 pounds.
“Well, those men jumped in their car and drove all the way back to Billings as fast as they could. They broke their car axle on the way back they were so scared. They didn’t call the Forest Service to report this for two days.”
“Why did it take them so long? I mean, they left a cooler full of food. Something they need to report.”
“After a few days, they thought to themselves ‘we left all that stuff there, our backpacks and everything. What if someone finds it and thinks the bear ate us.’”
Leslie and the Forest Service biologist laughed again that I felt like joining in, barking.
“After I got their call I had to go clean up their mess. The bears had eaten everything in their cooler. But didn’t touch their backpacks which just had some fishing equipment. Those fellows told me they had a thousand dollars worth of equipment. I’d say more like $50. Anyways, those cubs got a lesson in human food rewards that they will never forget now. Bad stuff. Bears never forgot and I hope those cubs don’t grow up to be problem bears.”
“I’m thinking that Mama Griz is the same bear that kicked out those troublesome 2 ½ year old cubs earlier this year because she had three new cubs to tend to. They are all in the same territory.” Leslie told the biologist.
“You’re probably right. Those guys told me they want to come retrieve their backpacks from our office, but, they said, it will be a while because they need to get their truck fixed first.”
Here’s an update on my book. Geared for kids around 8-12, but every adult will love it too, the book will be about 60 pages. Each chapter describes my life in the wild with some animal–wolves, bears, pikas, cougars–or other interesting dog phenomena.
Tails of A Red Dog: One Dog’s Adventures in the Wilds outside Yellowstone National Park is the title right now. And it will be an eBook to begin with, full of drawings and maps. Here’s a preview drawing of me!
I might even give away the book for free as an eBook. I really want to have a paperback, but color pictures cost money and so does printing. Maybe we’ll give away the eBook, and if you like it, you can donate to a special Kickstarter campaign. My goal is to get it into Yellowstone National Park and turn every kid in the world onto wildlife and saving these special places. I’ll keep you posted–
Hi Folks, I’m working hard on my own book, told from my point of view with drawings (I won’t do the drawings, I promise!). There will be some good wolf stories in there from my younger days. But today’s wolf story comes from yesterday.
I woke my Person up at 5am. I start getting hungry for breakfast, but she usually just pats my head and turns over back to sleep. Then I have to wait another hour before I bother her again.
This morning we did awaken early. I was fed while she dressed and warmed up the car. I knew something was up as we were going for a ride before sun up. I ran out the door into the snow and hopped in the back of the truck. The dawn light was emerging, and although still dark, we drove without the headlights on.
The meadows where the elk usually graze at dawn were empty and I knew something was up. When they aren’t there, that means wolves are around, and maybe a kill nearby.
Soon I was proven right. We stopped the car, and I jumped out as the smells were strong. A fresh elk leg lay right on the snow, still warm with meat on it. Wolf tracks were everywhere. I sniffed and smelled and of course gave those wolves my calling card as well. Leslie always remarks “You tell ’em big boy” when I do that and she laughs at me. She threw the leg in the back of the truck for a snack later.
Back in the truck, we crawled just a bit further. We knew if that leg was there, the rest of the fresh carcass was somewhere in the trees up the snowy ridge, which meant the wolves were around. And sure enough, the singing began.
For over an hour I listened to a large pack calling back and forth to each other across the valley–half on one side of a ridge, the rest on the other side. The elk herd waited in the field between the ridges, some vigilant, some feeding.
At first I listened intently. But after a while I was more interested in chewing on that elk bone. Those wolves were speaking to each other, and besides, they were happy because their bellies were full. Now for my belly.
As we drove home hours later, we watched some wolves playing and wrestling. Then the rest of the pack appeared from the trees and called them all back. The sun was beginning to come out. Time to bed down for the day. digest and sleep.
And what did I do? When we arrived home, I jumped out of the car with my prize bone and buried it for later.
When Leslie came that day to take me to her home, I never dreamt I would have one of the best lives a dog could ask for. I’m getting older now and have learned so many things—whether it’s being a dog in grizzly country, keeping my distance from wolves, pursuing a jackrabbit in a cacti field without getting spines in my paws, settling in snow amongst feeding deer, swimming through an icy river, or enjoying the autumn scent of elk on the wind—it’s all about wilderness.
And although Yellowstone National Park is not a place for dogs, these wildlands surrounding the Park are some of the last and best places we have–for people, well-behaved dogs, and all free creatures big and small.
Some of my best times have been with my person, Leslie, hiking up into high country surrounding the Park, carrying my own backpack.
We climb to the highest peaks at the Continental Divide and sleep under the stars. Some nights I awaken at 2 a.m., trot to a nearby hill, and smell the wet earth with its rising tide of aromas. Wolves or coyotes howl and I feel their canid antiquity echoing inside me. An owl screams as it catches dinner. A bear ‘woofs’, calling its cubs to safety. Or I might hear a mountain lion scream in the distance, searching for a mate. These remote places cause my very soul to stir. It’s here that I am home, whether sleeping under the stars or in my little house next to Yellowstone Park.
I see Leslie enjoying the same heartfelt love for wilderness as I do. That deep-rooted yearning for the wild is our special bond. Perhaps for her it acts as a meditation, but for me it is my very nature.I wish I could pass along this lifetime of learning, but all dogs must develop their own catalog of knowledge. We dogs come from wild wolves. We left the wilderness to serve, protect and befriend humans. But those ancient connections are never very far from our hearts and noses, maybe only a puppy or two away. We dogs are all instinct and intelligence, the perfect combination of the need to roam and the need for home. Allow us to escort you humans along the Spirits Path of perfect wildness, perfect love, perfect loyalty and perfect freedom.
When I was four months old, Leslie felt I just wasn’t learning much human-dog disciplines—you know, all those manners that humans like to have dogs know. One day she took me and Soona to a ‘trainer’. This lady was named Sandra. I didn’t understand a word Sandra was saying, but something about her I liked. She seemed to ‘get’ me. She told Leslie that I paid too much attention to dogs, like Soona, and no attention to people. Hey, dogs ‘like’ dogs and besides, dogs are a lot smarter than people, and of course, more interesting. She told Leslie to have me come back when I was six months old.
The day finally arrived when I had to grow up. I was only six months old but I was going off, by myself, for three weeks, to live with Sandra and her dogs. It was boot camp alright—as tough as the Marines. Every day was training. Every day I resisted and tried to be tougher than Sandra. But Sandra was a lot of tough love, and way tougher than me. Sometimes she’d have a class with lots of dogs and people. She’d make me lay down for the whole class on a mat. And if I got up, yank!, I’d be right back on that mat.
One day we were at the beach with her dog, who I played with a lot. Sandra was throwing a ball for her dog. He jumped and came down on a piece of rebar. We all went to the dog hospital and they said they were going to take off his leg. But Sandra said “no”. She took good care of him at home and he got better; but because of that I had to stay a whole extra week for the training that I missed. You can imagine that after one month at boot camp, I never took my eyes, or ears, off Sandra. When she said ‘jump’, I said ‘how high?” And you know what, I felt a lot better about myself, and the world, than when I was a wild child. And boy did I love Sandra.
I had already forgotten about Leslie. I thought this was my new life. But one day Leslie appeared and took me home; only to do all the same things Sandra was doing with me every day. Sandra had told Leslie that I was one of her toughest students ever. That made me feel good. That, I thought, is character—dog character. But I’d changed. I was still the same ole’ me inside, but now I had some real discipline and could keep my attention on something for a long time. I’d grown up. Sandra said that my only ‘flaw’ was that I spooked at things that were ‘novel’ or different. But you will see as I tell my story that my weakness turns out to be my greatest strength for life in the wilds.
After ‘Camp Sandra’ I started to really like dogs AND people. From that day on my life really started. What I didn’t know was that Leslie took me to Sandra to prepare me for the kind of smarts and discipline you need to be a dog in the wilds, rather than a wild dog.
Leslie’s Notes: For a dog in the wilderness, a few commands stand out as more important than what a city dog might need. But the command every dog, whether in the wilderness or in cities must know and pay attention to right away is ‘Come’. That one command could save your dog’s life and maybe even yours. If your dog encounters a bear or runs across a busy highway, ‘Come’ is the go-to command.
Next is “Stick Around”, which means your dog must stay within 10′ or 15′ feet from you. Wild animals have their comfort zones of varying distances. This distance will keep you and your dog safe when hiking on or off-trail.
‘Leave it’. I’ve used this command in so many situations. For instance, it’s winter and your dog finds a food cache. It could be left by a wild animal and be fine to eat, but what if some crazy person has tainted it with poison, intended to kill coyotes or wolves. I’ve also taught Koda not to run after deer, turkeys, and other animals by this command alone.
Lastly, Koda knows the word ‘Wait’. If he’s getting ahead of me, sniffing around, moving too quick, that command is different than ‘stay’ as it just means to wait for me to catch up.
One day, when I was still only 4 months old, Leslie took me and Soona to a pond. We still lived in a suburb near San Francisco, so this pond was not really natural. Nearby were the bay area wetlands. Next to these wetlands was a big golf course. And by the golf course was an old World War II missile site on a small hilltop. The missiles were no longer there, but the hill had been flattened and covered with concrete. The pond lay between the golf course below and the hilltop above. The Open Space Ranger told us that when the people dug into the hillside to place the missiles underground, they hit a spring which created the pond.
Leslie, Soona, and I walked along the hillside and down to this beautiful pond full of cattails. Swallows were flying all around catching bugs. They’d made their nests on the concrete undersides of the nearby water treatment holding tanks. On the trail down, we found a big snake. And I mean big. Leslie picked it up and said it was a King snake. I wasn’t scared, just curious. Kingsnake
When we got to the pond, Soona jumped in and started swimming. At first I was afraid. I thought I didn’t know how to swim. I really wanted to swim with Soona, so little by little I went further and further out. And you know what? I found out that I could swim without even one lesson.
Swimming is really fun and Leslie threw sticks and balls for Soona to catch. While Soona was busy with her balls, I saw a head of some animal pop up in the water. Then as suddenly as it appeared, it disappeared. I swam to where I saw this head. It popped up again, but this time in another part of the pond. I really wanted to catch that head, but as soon as I got close, it disappeared.
What was this animal? It was a river otter. The otter and I played ‘hide and seek’; he would pop up, I’d swim to him, but just as I got there, he’d disappear. Then I’d look all around the pond, and he would pop his head up somewhere else. We played this fun game until the otter disappeared for good and did not come up for air.
This otter had a friend. They were eating crayfish in the pond. Leslie said that every year the two otters traveled from the wetlands across the golf course to the pond. They came for only one week, ate all the crayfish they could find, then traveled back to the wetlands.
I found their crayfish shell leftovers on the rocks by the pond. They were messy eaters and left a lot of otter scat next to their shells. It all smelled very interesting, but I wish they’d left some of those little lobsters for me to eat too.
Leslie’s Note: You can see River Otters in Yellowstone National Park. The best place to catch a glimpse is at Trout Lake, a short hike near the Northeast Entrance. River Otters are in the weasel family and are very playful. They can hold their breath for up to three minutes underwater. They eat fish, crayfish, and frogs.