Squirrels, Sheep, and the Winds of Change

Change is coming to Squirrel Camp. The days are getting longer, my posts are getting shorter, and our crew just got a whole lot larger.  So much has happened in the two weeks since I was last able to write that I’m not sure where to begin.  At the end of April we lost two of our crew members, Simon and Sabrina, who had to head back to Montreal to continue their undergraduate degrees. Here’s the parting shot from the Winter 2014 Crew.groupphoto

Needless to say we were sad to see them go, since in the week between their departure and the arrival of the summer crew we only had 6 crew members to trap 400-500 squirrels. Hopefully that helps explain a bit why my post is so delayed.  We have been eating, sleeping, and drinking squirrels. Luckily I haven’t started dreaming about them yet. And as if things couldn’t get more complicated, in late April a tree trunk snapped while Hannes was climbing for a squirrel nest, sending both him and the pups to the ground. Fortunately after a late night drive to the hospital he is doing fine and, amazingly, has no broken bones. But his trapping and tree climbing abilities have been severely reduced, bringing our active duty crew down to 5 people. So on second thought, the only reason I haven’t been dreaming about squirrels yet is simply because I haven’t had time to sleep.

Amidst all of this the weather can’t quite make up its mind what season it’s supposed to be here in the Yukon. The past couple of weeks have been a mix of sunshine and snow.  And not just snow flurries but big, wet, fat flakes that turned the woods into a scene from a holiday greeting card. It was the kind of snow that you wish for on Christmas Eve or morning… but not usually at the start of spring. Between the wet precipitation and the snow sloughing off the trees I was completely soaked halfway through my trapping round. Meanwhile my iPod case (used for collecting data in the field) was taking in water like the Titanic and was no longer functional, and my databook was so soaked that I could barely make marks on the page with my pencil without ripping through the paper.  Plus every time I went to write the water ran right off my non-waterproof raincoat and soaked the page some more. I was praying for no more squirrels by the end of the day.

The past couple of weeks also brought my first Easter away from home and my first real feelings of homesickness since I left in February. I missed the fragrant Easter bread that we always bake, my mom kneading it with her sleeves rolled up, covered in flour, and my dad pinching off pieces of the dough faster than she can swat him away. I missed coloring Easter eggs and hiding them the next morning for Sirrus, our golden retriever, to find. I missed his nose snuffling deep into all of our shoes in search of the colored prizes and his tail held high, wagging in excitement, nuzzling our legs each time he found one, in search of praise. I missed the celebrations of Easter with our church family, the music and the time of spiritual cleansing. I found myself singing snatches of the hymns I have sung and played all my life as I walked through the woods on Easter morning, but in my mind I was hearing our choir.

Easter means spring at home and the smell of fresh grass and wet earth, the puddles of mud on the path to the house and the first crocuses pushing their heads above the melting snows. And I missed that too. I missed the first run of sap and the smell of syrup rising through the floorboards to the room I share with my sister as my dad boils sap late into the night.

Easter here at camp was a far different affair. Instead of finding colored Easter eggs we had a hunt for mini Cadbury eggs hidden all around the cookshack. Or a mad dash might be a more appropriate term, as we had all been scoping out the locations of the chocolate eggs as we made breakfast that morning and frantically pushed each other out of the way, laughing as we grabbed eggs from silverware drawer, the sugar bin, tea boxes, kindling bin, and pockets of our field pants. A few unfortunate souls didn’t find the eggs hidden in their pant’s pockets until late in the day when the chocolate was a soft blob. Now two weeks later we are still finding an occasional egg hidden around the cookshack and will probably continue to find them until the end of the summer… unless the mice find them first. And rather than getting dressed up in our Easter best, we threw on our muddy, dirt encrusted clothes and went out to use telemetry to find our Easter baskets that had been hidden around camp, which was a pretty funny site in and of itself with half a dozen of us running around in the mud with antennas held high above our heads, desperate to be the first to find our Easter cache. Emily cooked us a delicious dinner of lentil burgers on homemade bread and roasted potatoes with sweet rolls for desert. It wasn’t lamb and Easter bread but is was a home away from home. And if I had to spend Easter away from my family and those I love, I can’t think of a better place to sped it than here.

And that is the basic truth of camp life. That despite the all the angst, exhaustion, frustration, and sopping wet days of the past week, with the sunshine on my cheeks today and a fresh snowy coat lying high in the mountains I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to experience this every day and to work outside on a daily basis, not in a cramped little office, in the middle of one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Sure the squirrels have been a pain in the ass lately and the weather occasionally makes you want to crawl into a hole and hide, and I am sore and bruised and flea-bitten, but for now all of this recedes in the light of the warmth of sunlight on my face and the slight breeze that stirs my greasy tree-tangled hair.

Now our crew has sprung from a measly six members to a full working body of eleven squirrelers. Naiomi, Alec, Jordan, Gaelle, and Sarah all arrived on May 1st, and although it is wonderful to have the extra hands on board it is definitely taking a bit of adjustment to get used to eleven bodies moving around the cook shack and trying to cook breakfast and lunch all at once. We’ve had to bring in an extra table just so we can all eat dinner together, and with only three couches you have to be quick to snag a soft seat by the fire after supper is finished.  There have been a lot of lost iPods, handling bags, an occasional lost squirreler, and more than a few escapee squirrels but all of these things are to be expected and the new crew is doing amazingly well.

Just before Simon and Sabrina left camp and the craziness began we took a trip to Sheep Mountain and hiked part way up in hopes of seeing Dall sheep. The trail we took is called “Soldier’s Summit” and is a historic hike that follows the old Alaska Highway and offers beautiful views of Kluane Lake. Spurred by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the need for a overland route connecting the contiguous United States to Alaska , the construction of the old Alaska Highway began on February 11, 1942 and the 1,525-mile (2,440 km) roadway from Big Delta, Alaska to Dawson Creek, B.C was completed in eight months and twelve days. A total of 25,000 men and women, including 10,000 soldiers, worked on the highway through temperatures so cold that antifreeze froze and diesel fuel turned to lard. The completion of the highway was celebrated at Soldiers Summit, in the very place that we were hiking, on November 21, 1942. But as interesting as the history of the hike was, we were really there for the sheep, and we got incredibly lucky. Here are some photos from that day.

Our first view from Soldier's Summit.

Our first view from Soldier’s Summit.

The first sheep!

The first sheep!

Luckily we were able to get closer.


The view across the Slims River Valley.

The view across the Slims River Valley.

Our first siting of rams.

Our first siting of rams.

The same two rams butting heads.

The same two rams butting heads.

sheep5sheep4steepmtnOn the way back down the mountain the sheep came right across our path.


After Sheep Mountain we stopped at Sliver City, an old abandoned mining town.


A very happy me at the end of the day :)

A very happy me at the end of the day 🙂




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