It’s hard to believe we’ve now been here a month. Sickness and exhaustion have taken their toll and kept my writing to a sad minimum. Even my daily journal entries have taken a hit, with gaps of three to five days between entries and long full pages of rushed writing to fill in the blanks. Gone are the long winter days of last year, sitting by the fire at night with time to read and write and still climb into my sleeping bag by 10 pm.
Our crew has shrunk and grown again. Amanda and Ben have returned to their posts in Alberta and Michigan, respectively, where they will keep the squirrel crew well supplied and well manned. We have gained Anni, a post-doc from Finland who worked on lemurs in Madagascar for her PhD (How cool! I’m afraid red squirrels may not live up to the expectation…) and Marina, a volunteer from Italy, who came to us with more squirreling experience than most everyone at squirrel camp! She completed her Master’s on the species of red squirrel in Italy, Sciurus vulgaris. Both are wonderful additions to our crew and have been helping me chase down squirrels on Agnes almost every day.
The weather has begun to change rapidly, the temperature hovering around a balmy 5° C in the daytime and dropping to -15° C at night. Already the sky begins to lighten around 7 am and doesn’t return to darkness until almost 9 pm at night. The mud is starting to flow in the sunshine and the feel of spring is just barely in the air. Snow buntings flock to the roadside and swirl up and around passing cars, moving as diving swirling visages of white, like a living snow drift caught up by the wind of passing vehicles. Common red polls flock around grid; bright against the melting snow with their distinct red caps and soft pink chests.
The challenges of a large crew continue to plague our camp. It is easy to feel restless in a small building crammed with 16 people and exceedingly difficult to make any decisions that pertain to the entire group. A couple weeks ago, after a morning of indecision about where or when to hike, it finally got too late to do anything, and to be honest by that point I was pretty frustrated with trying to get 16 people out the door in a timely fashion. So the group finally decided to head to an old stone quarry just up the road and go sledding. Now, I’ll be honest, I dragged my feet the whole way up the hill, reluctant to walk the distance for what I anticipated would be a mediocre sledding hill at best. The night before we had 5 in of fresh powdery snow so the landscape was pristine, not a footprint in sight, trees coated in a frosting of sparkling fluff. By the time we reached the quarry, after tromping through knee-deep snow without snowshoes (yeah, we still weren’t well prepared) we had a gorgeous view of the mountains with snow clouds rolling in and out over the freshly snowed peaks. With the sun beating down on us I could have happily laid down in one of the sleds and taken a nap.
As it turns out, sledding was a blast and wiped my grumpy face right off. For an hour in the sun I was a kid again, romping through the fluff with my little sister, a puppy at our side. Of course the setting couldn’t have been more different, on a hill overlooking jagged mountain peaks, surrounded by the sharp scent of spruce, not in the hardwoods of the Finger Lakes sledding down a steep slope onto the frozen surface of a pond. And the five of us, Naomi, Monica, Sean, Kat, and I, once strangers now fast becoming friends, can hardly replace the best friend and best dog in the world, but the shrieks of laughter and giggling through faces full of snow was the same, and somehow it all brought me back. I felt full to bursting, catching air over humps in the snow, cheering wildly when I made it further down the hill than the last person, shrieking in fear and excitement as I barreled down the hill on my stomach, stopping only when I face-planted into the snow back. And then the breathless excitement as I jumped out of my sled into thigh-deep snow and trudged my way back up the hill, laughing, complaining and eventually crawling when my legs no longer wanted to bear my weight after a week of snowshoeing 5 hours a day.
On the way back down the hill Naomi and I rode double, she plopped down on her stomach and I jump stomach down onto her back, giggling wildly until we were both laughing so hard that we tumbled off the sled into the snow. We tried again but the laughter had taken a hold of us so completely that neither of us could stay on the sled long enough to get started. As we trudged back through our tracks in the snow I couldn’t help but stop and stare at how picturesque out little group looked, the sun in our hair and glinting off the snow, a single zigzagging track disappearing into the horizon amid a sea of sparkling white.
* * *
Nests are now in full swing and so climbing season has begun in earnest. I think climbing always comes with a mixture of excitement and anxiety since you are never quite sure exactly what kind of tree you may be climbing or how hard the climb might be. Two days ago we had a “sneeker” nest on Sulfur, meaning that the squirrel had a small nest hidden at the very top of a tree. It was the kind of nest you looked up at and your stomach dropped through your toes a little bit, knowing there were squirrel pups up there and it was up to you to get them one way or another.
So out of pure excitement (unlikely) or nervous energy, I hopped up on the tree and started climbing, trying not to think too much about what I was doing and mostly trying to avoid running a way in panic. I got three-quarters of the way up, probably about 25 feet in the air, the nest was within my sight… and I chickened out. The climb itself turned out to be pretty easy, with another skinning tree at my back I could scootch my way up, feeling a little more secure with that support pressing back against me. It was certainly more comforting than nothing but pure air at my back! But near the top the tree narrowed considerably and I had to straddle two skinning little trees to find enough branches to stand on. Given the way the trees were swaying in the breeze I got too nervous to make the last push and returned to the ground to radio for a climbing harness. After 20 minutes of trying to figure out exactly how the climbing harness fit, I scrambled back up the tree again and secured myself to the trunk about 25 feet up, before going for the last 5 feet or so. While I was peeing my pants a little bit, the view from the top was beautiful as the sun had just crested the mountains and was bathing the top of the trees in an orange glow. Happily there were pups in the nest so I scrambled back down to rest my limbs while the pups were processed before the third and final climb to return the pups to their home. By the third time around the tree was an old friend and I sat happily at the top, strapped in and enjoying the slow shift in colours and sunlight filtering through the spruce needles.
But despite my badass harness waddle back to camp, yesterday I tried to fire-pole a tree for a nest… and was unceremoniously defeated. I then had to watch in humiliation as Sean shimmied up the tree with ease. Really going to have to work on that upper body strength. But it just goes to show that everyone has their good days and bad days at squirrel camp and the wilderness is happy to dump you flat on your face in the snow or on your butt in the mid nine days out of ten. So I take my victories where I can and count my bruises with pride at the end of the week.