Several weeks ago, Betty and I camped in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge enjoying the buoyant high desert weather and all the bounty of life that accrues to two wet years in succession. Malheur is a moniker for many things in southeastern Oregon; a county, a river, a region. Not too far from Boise, we go most every year during the month of May to see the monster mule deer, beaver, shorebirds, pronghorns, water birds, the Kiger tribe of wild horses, cranes, and a lot of other kinds of life. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning, lots of coyotes.
On our first balmy evening, within a half-mile walk along the Donner und Blitzen River, we encountered three separate coyotes. One was lying in the grass, only his (or her) head and ears visible. Another was hunting something small, maybe a white-crowned sparrow or yellow-bellied marmot. It was fun watching that curious coyote leap, or is it a jump, or is it a hop?…as it hunted. A third canis latrans (that’s the scientific name for coyotes) trotted along the fence at the P Ranch headquarters where some of the rangers who manage the refuge work. All these canines showed almost no fear of us as we swatted the evening mosquitoes and tried to take photographs of coyote antics.
Later that evening, the night sounds of American robins and sandhill cranes and Wilson’s snipes and frogs and other peepers whose names I don’t know were drowned beneath the wild coyote howls that echoed back and forth between the hills that encircle the upper reaches of Malheur.
I smiled when I heard that wild singing; something about the howling of coyotes speaks to me of the tenacity of life. This is a species that in the last century-and-one-half have not been popular with the rural folk of the American west, and yet they seem to thrive in almost every environment.
The next night I was awakened by sounds more sinister. A pack of coyotes was right outside our RV, yapping and, dare I say, laughing? I am of course anthropomorphizing here, but the sounds felt ecstatic, almost dangerous, and I had a notion that outside, they were deciding who would get the first bite of the jack rabbit they had just killed.
The name Malheur is French and, among other things, means trouble, misfortune, grief, misadventure, curse, and as I lay in the rack listening to the gleeful racket (here again, I humanize the vocalizations to fit my interpretations) I thought about those notions: grief, misadventure, trouble.
When I was young, I worked in the sheep business for a while in Arizona, and in that milieu the coyote was the most dangerous, heinous, worthless creature on the face of the earth. We trapped them, shot them, poisoned them.
I toted an old World War I Mauser 98 in the cab of my fencing truck always looking for a chance to plug a coyote or stray dog. Once while traveling from Casa Blanca to Sacaton on the Gila River Indian Reservation, while the early winter sun spread its low hanging light across old alfalfa fields cut by the shadows spun by strands of barbed wire, a lone coyote, about a hundred yards out, sat on his haunches looking at me. I had a pair of binoculars in the truck cab so I stopped to get a better gander, but old coyote leaped up and began to trot east at a handsome pace. If I wanted to kill that coyote, I’d need to get closer. Yet once I started driving, the coyote stopped. This time I grabbed the binoculars as I kept moving. I could see the coyote’s yellow eyes and its tongue lolling out the side of its mouth. Something about the way the pointed ears stood up, alert, the subtle turn of the head as I got closer made me wonder about that critter, its habits, its needs, its intelligence.
I stopped to shoot it. It got up and ran. I followed it, this time with the Mauser barrel riding out the window and the rifle butt in my lap so I could get a shot before the coyote escaped. Driving, I admired the easy lope. Again, it stopped and watched me. I stopped, too and jammed the Mauser butt into my shoulder, but the coyote was already gone.
Intelligence, I thought. Intelligence. I didn’t shoot another coyote that year. Around the lunch table at the sheep camp I took a lot of ribbing from the herders about my poor aim. I dared not reveal that I’d decided not to shoot any coyotes unless I found them in the field with the sheep.
Several years ago Betty and I spent time with our late friend Trisha Pedroia at her vineyard in the Sonoma Coast hills. Just as we got ready for bed, right outside our bedroom window, a pack of coyotes churned up a litany of trills, yaps, barks, yips and short howls. Not loud, but more like a conversation…between themselves or with us, I cannot say. I remember the moment being sublime in some ways, and a little frightening that they could sneak like that, beneath our window, as if they could do anything they wanted to.
The mixture of elation and I will say it right here…trepidation, not severe, but trepidation still, made me feel very human and very exposed. Like for just a moment, instead of constantly being a predator of some kind, I had become prey. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been prey…or if not prey, having felt as if I was dinner for some creature. As if I was being hunted.
My good friend and old hunting buddy, Robert Moser, used to wax eloquently about the feeling one must have when he becomes aware that he is being stalked by something intent on eating him. The dimming of one’s brassy confidence with the realization something might be stalking him who believes he is the ultimate stalker.
Once, in the deer shooting season of 1988, Robert dropped me off at the head of a canyon on James Ridge, in southern New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains. He drove down and got on a stand at a place called Spud Patch. I was to saunter down the draw driving any bucks down so that one of us could get a shot and hopefully a kill.
It was evening-time in mid-November and the sun was waning fast. Slants of light cut through the fir trees and oak brush, reminding me of shattered glass. In the middle of my path I found a massive mound of bear scat…steaming, still steaming. The cold of approaching night invaded the metal on my weapon and a soft breeze got up and whistled in the tops of the trees. Huge bear tracks dented the snow. Fresh, big. Chills scampered up and down my spine. My mind ratcheted high speed images of a black bear bursting from an alder thicket, or hiding around the next bend in the trail. As I walked down, rifle safety off, finger on the trigger, I turned around and around and around. Imagining where I’d better shoot him, or her, when she exploded towards me.
Not that coyotes will kill me like a bear would, but they might. It’s not unheard of. It’s not my fear of that…I think it’s more the realization that we are not bullet-proof in our existence here. There are things that can and will kill us. For dinner. We are mortal; we are in some ways the same as those yodeling coyotes we like to shoot.