Tag: squirrels

How Squirrel Camp got its bear fence

Squirrel camp, like many wilderness camps, has an electrical fence surrounding it. Normally they are called bear fences, but they can in fact keep many kinds of animals out. There was a time in fact, where there was no fence at all. The bears knew all the food in camp was safely locked away in coolers or tupawares or tins or other containers that require opposable thumbs to open. Therefore, they did not bother camp, and the campers were happy. Occasionally the camper would spot a bear opposite a grid, browsing for berries or inspecting a dead porcupine, and they would wave to the bear, and it would wave back, and everyone would continue with their days. However, an unfortunate series of events would cause this homo-ursine utopia to unravel.

People of all shapes and sizes come to work at squirrel camp, and some of these people are of particularly dashing shape.  Ones of these dashing types was walking along the highway after a morning of squirrelling, when a family from a nearby town pulled up. They enquired as to whether she was lost, and upon learning that she was not, enquired about her motivation for being in the Yukon. She explained what Squirrel Camp was and their research goals in a manner interesting and accurate but not complex or condescending, bid them good day, and strolled back for her lunch. Now it may have been her charming manner, it may have been her good leg tone and core stability after days of trapping in the field, or it may have been the way the autumnal sun caught her auburn locks in a frankly heavenly manner, but the eldest son in the family was captivated. While she talked he stared, while she gestured he drooled, and when she walked off she had already stepped into his dreams. They went back to their home town and all he could picture was her face, her hair, her luminous trapping vest! She had said they were others, and before long he had convinced himself there was a whole group of dashing young ecologists holed up in the woods. If only he could get back to her or find one like her he would be truly happy. But devoid of a car, much charm or practically any redeeming features, it seemed hopeless. 

However, one of his few qualities was cunning, and after a few nights spent sleepless in his box room under the staircase, he hatched a plot. Our desperate teen, “Chet”, assembled his cronies, “Chad” and “Chez”. He carefully slipped the keys to his father’s new truck into his pocket and stole into the night. Chet, Chad and Chez gathered in the dark of the garage. The others were scared and timid, but Chet bribed them with promises of a harem of dashing women, and threatened them with jabs of his hockey stick, and eventually they got into the truck. None of them knew how to drive, but fortunately this was an automatic, so after some squabbling, bickering and tedious name calling, Chad wrenched the truck into drive and off they went. Fortunately it was dark, so no police officers noticed them rolling past stop signs, and none of the teens had watched Nascar, meaning turning both left and right was not alien to them. Once out of the town they became giddy with excitement. Chad revved the engine, Chet pounded the horn, and Chez turned their obnoxious nu-country up to the maximum. This cacophony of noise and raging hormones careered up the road through the woods. This disruption greatly disturbed the bears foraging on the roadside berry bushes, upsetting them greatly. To discover the source of this irritant they followed the truck up the road. Of course this then meant that when Chet, Chad and Chez arrived at Squirrel camp, a posse of bears was not too far away.

Chet, Chad and Chez tumbled out the truck and began hooting and hollering. Chet yowled and cried for his love, while Chad and Chez yelped and wailed for anything at all. Alarmed by this noise, the campers tumbled out of the cookshack to see what was amiss. Unfortunately, at this moment the posse of bears arrived at camp. It was chaos. Chet, Chad and Chez scattered. Bears growled and prowled around the camp after them, and the campers tried simultaneously to find and eject Chet, Chad and Chez, while dodging around pissed-off bears. There were many near-misses, close scrapes and on more than one occasion a bear’s maw was only a hair’s breadth away. Finally though, Chet, Chad and Chez were corralled by the bears and the campers into their truck and sent packing. The bears dusted themselves off, took a couple of swigs of some cider they had unearthed in the chaos, and returned to the forest. Camp was a bit of a mess, and everyone was a bit shaken, but ultimately all was ok. The campers then agreed that such a thing could never happen again. Therefore, to preserve the chastity of camp from further bands of horny teenagers, the campers erected a crotch-high electric fence around camp to keep out those directed by their genitals. The bears however misunderstood this gesture, thinking it was directed at them after the cider pilfering. This mistrust grew between the bears and the campers, which was a sad outcome from such an unfortunate night.

So that is Squirrel camp got its “bear” fence. Over time Chad and Chez were forgotten, and the original purpose of the fence lost, so its ability to keep bears out was recognised as its function.  The bears largely stayed away from camp,  but occasionally they would sneak back into camp, looking for a sip of delicious  cider.  As for Chet, he became a psychology major, and spent his days diagnosing his infrequent dreams of a loud truck, angry bears, and shining auburn hair by the side of an open highway.

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Squirrel camp and the great storm

Squirrel camp today is not completely like the camp first built. The original lacked a place to store new vs old eggs, or a spot for each persons’ electrical wires, or a place for hare poo, or other essential things. The original did however have all the huts to sleep in arranged together in a block. This provided warmth and security to the camper, who slept soundly. This was how the nights passed, with the days of spring, summer and autumn filled with work on all the animals of the boreal forest, from caterpillars to grouse, moose to wolverine.

One year in the not too distant past, as years tend to do, turned into winter. Oh my, what a winter. The wind howled, the snow blizzarded, and even the snow-shoe hares could be seen wearing little boots and mittens to keep warm. The campers huddled closer and closer around their stove each day to stay warm. One night of this dark and foul winter a particularly terrible storm blew in. The spruce trees heaved and swayed and the boreal animals hunkered down in their earthy homes. A particular strong gust swept through camp, and with a great crash picked up the sleeping huts and tossed them into the air. They were tumbled and tossed together, before being thrown back to the ground; scattered through the woods. Never had the camp seen such devastation.

The young ecologists were miraculously unharmed. But as they stepped out into the night, they moaned and wailed at what had become of their sleeping quarters. They slept the rest of the night in an awkward pile in their cookshack, and in the morning their gathered their tools and set to work. Seeing their great struggle to rebuild their homes, some of the animals of the boreal forest came out to help. The squirrels, being energetic with nimble paws and obsessed by neatness, dashed around gathering nuts and screws, which the humans ate or used to repair their huts appropriately. The snow-shoe hares hopped out of the woods and, being soft and fluffy and of calm dispositions, packed themselves around the campers, keeping them warm and soothing their worried brows. The lynx, being excellent and stealthy hunters, disappeared into the forest and fetched meat for the campers to sustain themselves while working hard on their huts. To all these animals the young ecologists were very grateful. However, other animals were not so helpful. The bears never rose from their hibernation, and slept through the whole ordeal. The coyotes snuck in through the unguarded date and stole away all the meat the lynx had collected, leaving the campers to subsist on the nuts the squirrels had bought. The moose and the wolverine decided they would prefer to go mountaineering instead and so only returned after all the work was done. And the less said about what the jays did with the chickadees when the ecologists’ backs were turned the better.

Despite this, working with the squirrels, the hares and the lynx the ecologists repaired the camp. They were greatly pleased with the help from the squirrels, hares and lynx, and so decided from then on to focus all of their research efforts into these majestic, helpful and interesting critters. The other animals would be left to their own devices in the woods, as they had left the campers. And it was ever thus

And so due to the great storm, that is why the ecologists at squirrel camp only study squirrels, hares and lynx, why all the sleeping huts are scattered around the woods, and, due to the to the coyotes’ deceit, why there is no meat to be found in the camp.

Woah, bear!

Online bear-awareness courses are a bit of a laugh. See a bear? Try to ascertain the species, whether it has seen you or not, and it if is behaving aggressively or defensively. Presumably while praying that you did leave your family pack of Snickers back home. And not in your ruck-sack. Oh dear…

At least they haven’t given me a false sense of confidence if I do come in contact with a bear. Perhaps that was the intention all along. Maybe there used to be a really good, informative online bear awareness course, with interactive videos and challenging scenarios and a scratch-and-sniff section, to prepare you most fully for a bear encounter. Perhaps this lead to too many hikers boldly striding up to bears, pointing out to the bear that it is merely a lone black bear and not a mother with cubs or a grizzly, and so that it is unlikely to attack said hiker unless it felt threatened, which of course lead to much mauling and rendering of expensive Gortex jackets and the soiling of expensive sweat wicking underwear and that sort of thing. So they did away with it and went back to the 1980s version. With questionable hair styles, questionable shot transitions, and more prosaic advice. The only good encounter with a bear is no encounter with a bear. Announce your presence by singing, walking loudly, or saying “Woah bear” every few strides. Noted. Thank you.

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woah, bear indeed

Now I am sure you are pleased that those striding into contact with bears will be prepared for it. Possibly elated. But why was I doing such a course? Well, as luck, ambition, and a first shaky step on the academic ladder would have it, I am heading up to the Canadian Yukon to carry out field work for my first post-doc after my PhD in evolutionary biology. “WITH BEARS?” Erm, nope. With a closely related mammal, the North American Red squirrel (coming from working on crickets and before that fruit flies anything quadrupedal and fluffy is pretty closely related.). I’m joining a bunch of other researchers, graduate students and volunteers up near Kluane national park to carry out the work that has, in part, been continuing for over 25 years, monitoring a population of the little ginger squirrely blighters. And as it’s a bit out in the wilds of Canada, there is indeed the small chance of encountering a bear. Hence the mandatory training.

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Terrifying…. Derek Bakken

Its always a bit daunting heading off on field work, especially when its new (I’ve blogged about this a little before, nice to see nothing has changed). Have I packed the right stuff, will I make the plane, will the camp be as rudimentary as some make out, while the work be easy or hard, will I learn quickly or drag everyone down? Exciting, but nerve wracking. But its what I am here for, so the bag is packed and my loins have been gird up. Lets go.

I may be able to do the odd blog post or upload the odd picture while I’m away, but no promises. So don’t assume silence means I did indeed encounter a bear, and failed to enact my training:

 

“Hmm lets see, humped shoulders, slightly upturned snout, large claws, yes indeed. Ooh, it’s seen me. Aggressive and defensive, bit of a box-to-box midfielder. And I brought my pack of Snickers. Oh shit wait, that’s not quite ri…”