Stewart glances up from the novel he’s reading. “Look at that.”
Hours pass like this. I sit in the cabin’s window seat while Stewart reads in the rocking chair by the woodstove, or the other way around. Whoever has the seat at the window — we call it “the perch” — has the job of announcing anything new outside.
“A spruce grouse just landed in the tree right here.”
It’s a male grouse. We know this because of his black throat patch and charming red eyebrows. Male spruce grouse are fun to watch. They chuff their stubby wings and every now and then snap their tail feathers open like a Spanish dancer’s fan. Usually this announces a meaningful strut around the forest floor, but any show of grace ends right there. Those short wings are moderately functional at best and the birds are so breast heavy that getting off the ground is a challenge and landing looks like a highly evolved accident. After flying from the tree, this one employs an all out burst of flaps, stopping in midair and plunking to the ground, landing surprisingly square on his chicken-like legs.
When I’m on the perch, I’m always looking up from whatever I’ve got on my lap — reading, writing, quilting — to peer down the trail that leads from the cabin’s clearing to the tundra. Animals do use the trail. We regularly find the scat and tracks of wolves, caribou, lynx, moose. Usually, if I see something, it’s a smaller animal. A healthy population of red squirrels lives around the cabin; at summer’s end they dash after each other, nibbling on spruce cones, uprooting and caching mushrooms as big as themselves. A pair of merlins lives in the surrounding forest; this year we saw one sitting at the top of a nearby tree, taking apart a chickadee. Last year a boreal owl grazed the top of my head, lifting up my hair and delighting me but also prompting me to wear a hat at night for the rest of my stay.
We sometimes see snowshoe hares, and porcupines are frequent visitors. One day we had a joyful encounter with a weasel that could only be called ebullient. And once, Stewart had a profoundly still and sustained meeting with a lynx. We hear the wolves, but they rarely allow folks to see them.
We keep a number of resources at the cabin to help us sort out what we see and who we meet: Peterson’s Field Guide to Mammals of North America, Guide to the Birds of Alaska, Animal Tracks of Alaska, Scats and Tracks of Alaska.
Sometimes big animals do show up while we’re home at the cabin. I spend so many hours waiting for a moose or caribou to walk up the trail that when one finally does — it typically happens at least once during a long visit — I often forget what to do. All I really need to remember to do is nothing, just keep still. Usually if a big animal senses any movement in or around the cabin, it will crash off the trail into the forest and we won’t see it again.
If we keep quiet and move carefully, we’ll sometimes get a real treat. A cow moose with two leggy calves. Or a pair of adult moose taking time to graze on small aspen trees around the cabin, the male approaching the front deck to investigate what this place is about. Once on a lovely warm day we were talking on the front porch when a young male caribou walked out of the woods. I was sitting cross-legged on the corner of the deck nearest him and he walked quietly, steadily, curiously toward me. He came so close that I got rattled and scooted my butt backward. Alarmed, he trotted off about ten feet before turning back toward us, huffing and stomping his front hooves in the clearing. Then he came back, walking straight toward me again! There was nothing threatening in his manner, but the deck put me near to eye level with his big, twitching nose and his imposing rack of antlers and I got nervous. I held my seat as long as I could and then skooched back again. Once more he turned, huffed, stomped — and then trotted into the forest. He was gone.
“Oh,” I thought, “I blew it.”
I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t moved. How close would he have come? Would he have touched me? I feel that he might have, but I’ll never know.
Next post . . . bears!
Also in the Cabin FAQ series: