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July 5, 2010

The Rocky Mountain Barracuda

I'm out back on the redwood deck drinking coffee in my underwear, staring over the dying gasps of a mortally wounded campfire. We got a good rain last night and the birds are flitting about like mad in the 68 degree morning.

This is my dawn.

I'm out here watching and listening to the birds. House Wrens, Downy Woodpeckers, Western Bluebirds, Cordillera Flycatchers, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Crows, Ravens, Magpies, Stellar Jays. Many others I'd don't recognize.

The woodpeckers and nuthatches scramble up and down the forest's trunks, picking at the insects that would infest the pine trees.

The shrill scream of a Red-tailed Hawk shatters the morning air. Only it's not a Red-tail, but a Stellar Jay imitating the hawk for reasons only he can know. A bluff to run off the songbirds? One can only guess.

As the piercing cry of the faux hawk fades from the land, a reddish brown blur flashes across the forest floor. This animal moves through the trees like nothing I've ever seen and now it's gone and I'm wondering what I just witnessed.

Nothing moves through the woods like that, really. The closest thing I can think of was reeling in a Strawberry Grouper in the Bahamas when a lightning fast Barracuda ate my fish. Seeing that fish moving through the ocean at 50 mph left an indelible impression.

That's the closest thing I can think of. The rare and elusive Rocky Mountain Barracuda.

Possibly it was a fox. But it seemed larger than that. Maybe a coyote. But not colored like a coyote...more brownish. Whatever it was has piqued my interest and I'm staring into this forest and valley out back...peering across the freshly mowed meadow between the gently waving trees. Across the smoky embers of last night. Gazing into this Rorschach test of woods, meadow, mountains, and smoke.

The firemen came again last night to inspect my fires, tape measure in hand. They slip up behind you. Silent as deer in the woods.

"Is this one OK?" I ask, hose at the ready.

"I dunno. This is Evergreen's fire. We'll see what they want to do with it," he replies.

"Evergreen's fire? Seriously? As in 'The King's fire?' I thought it was my fire."

It's hard to reconcile this with the 4th of July specials on television celebrating our freedom. Our freedom to do what, exactly?

I've seen the book of what is illegal. Watched the police and firemen flipping through a tome as thick as a King Jame's bible on the trunk of the police car. Preciously little, is left, IMHO. Might be easier to make a pamphlet of what is legal. Print it on tattoos and sell it in Cracker Jack boxes to the serfs of the next generation.

"You have the right to do nothing."

"Are you having a party?" they ask.

"No. Why?"

"We saw all the vehicles and..."

OK. So this is a fair point. I have a DUKW, a Weasel, an M37, two Tahoes, two motorcycles, and three four wheelers. Fair enough. I have a problem. Point taken. Nobody's perfect.

I knew they'd show up. The bastards always do. There's no fire ban in effect, but that doesn't matter.

They tell me that the fire can only be three feet by three feet by three feet. I don't get cuffed and stuffed into a cop car or anything. (You'd be amazed at how pissed people get when a lowly serf starts waving a .45 around.)

And then firemen melted away like prey into the forest.

And there it is again. Something flashing through the trees like mad. Silently. Ghostly. It appears, and then disappears. Racing through the woods like madness. Here. Gone. Here. Gone. What moves like that? And so silently. What could be the reason for this grotesque waste of energy? Fight or Flight?

I've shot a lot of animals. Some on purpose. Some on accident. Coyotes, foxes, deer, elk. But this is something else. Something I've never put a bullet into.

And it's not that I feel compelled to do so now. That's not the point. I'm just trying to take the mountain's pulse. Trying to reconcile what I'm seeing with the reality I've come to terms with over the last 40 odd years.

I put down the camera. Useless as tits on a bull. Like trying to photograph a shooting star. This thing bounces through the woods like madness. Like nothing else. A singular motion meant for what? For what purpose would an animal race silently through the Choke Cherries, across the Ponderosa Pines, felled by blizzards of a lost spring.

This is what triggered the Stellar Jay's cry. A warning as this creature raced through the grass like wildfire.

Now, I see the doe. These are her fawns. Covered in golfball sized white spots, they're playing with each other. The fawns race back and forth through the woods. A celebration of life. They're playing, but their play serves a purpose. They're learning to use their legs. Improving their chances of surviving an encounter with the local lions.

Jennifer and I saw them once before about a week ago while building the treehouse. I'd raced for the camera but when I returned, they'd melted into the forest. Disappearing like ghosts.

This time, it would be different. I focused my camera through the woods and tried to predict where the next flash of fur might appear. Nothing.

I ran inside, threw on my camo, and stalked them out back. I tried to use every trick I'd ever learned about hunting from dad, Ron, and Steve. Deer are practically blind and have no color vision. But they have an excellent sense of hearing and smell and they can spot motion a mile away.

Move slowly. Choose each step carefully. Approach from downwind. Take a few silent steps, lean against a tree, and freeze. Listen. Watch.

Where is my fence? Where does the property end? The forest is thick with Russian thistle and downed spruce trees. Embarrassing to admit that this is my land. This is my failure. That the snows of a decade of lost Springs has somehow accrued into this calamity. Or maybe this is what the deer want. It's hard to know.

Eventually, I find the fence and spy them again, as they're slipping back into the woods. I move in for a shot, and they bolt, frightened, across a ridge on the back of the property.

The fawns aren't playing anymore. This is for real. Gone is the puerile prancing. This is survival. Silently, they fall into line with their mom. I try to follow them, but they melt into the forest once again, leaving me sweating in camo, with nary a decent photo for my efforts.

Posted by Rob Kiser on July 5, 2010 at 12:41 PM


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