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A Wedding and “Wild” Blackberries

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 18, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

We spent the weekend at Anderson’s Bambooland, just east of Monroe, Washington, nestled between U.S. Highway 2 and the Skykomish River. The wedding was perfect, thank you. Thus, as of last Saturday, my young ever-eager fishing partner – formerly known as Boyfriend-in-Law Brian – graduated to Son-in-Law Brian.

Upon completion of the ceremony and all necessary pronouncements, the wedding guests and party surrounded the now-all-in couple. As Katie and Brian mingled, glowed, laughed and caught their collective breath, more and more of their fans drifted toward the perfectly-chilled malt beverage tap and growing piles of the amazing food one finds at these celebrations.

Bambooland is known for its acres of fine flower beds, orchard, and bamboo plants. And, virtually everything on the property is surrounded by blackberry brambles – those ubiquitous, unstoppable, Himalayan blackberries. At some point in the post-ceremony festivities, Cousins David and Debby Yount asked when we would pick blackberries. After all, they surmised, Diane and I would have to pick berries for Daughter Tena in Denver anyhow, so why not make a party of it on Sunday morning? Done.

As they turned back to more pressing matters, one of the other guests asked, “So what about all these berry tangles? I hear these are native to the West Coast… and not. They’re everywhere. What’s the story? How did they get everywhere?” Thus, another gauntlet dropped and I was duty-bound to pick it up.

We have three “growing wild” blackberries in the state.

Our only native blackberry is Rubus ursinus, commonly known as the wild mountain blackberry or the trailing blackberry, with some calling it a Northwest dewberry or Pacific blackberry. Some maintain that the “ursinus’ part of the name comes from the fall bears fattening on them. This is not a sprawling tangle, it trails across the ground. Its berries are smaller and sweeter – more delicate – and not that shiny black. Mountain blackberry’s juice runs a bright red and its seeds are tiny. They seem to be most commonly found on burned- or logged-over slopes of our east Cascades and on islands along the west coast.

Our two non-native blackberries produce large, seedy, and delicious berries. Both were introduced as food plants and both are now considered invasive Class C noxious weeds. The lesser known plant is Rubus laciniatus, the cut-leaf blackberry or evergreen blackberry – native to northern and central Europe. It has deeply incised leaflets in groups of three along its long thick trailing stems. Our more common blackberry is Rubus armeniacus, the Himalayan blackberry or Armenian blackberry its rounded, fine-toothed leaflets are in groups of five.

Both plants are highly invasive and almost impossible to control. You can’t miss them: they form large, extremely vigorous thickets of long tangled, dense canes covered with long (very sharp and backward-angled) thorns. (Blackberries are in the rose family, after all.) Plants joyfully reproduce with new canes forming almost wherever an older cane touches the ground, and the roots almost constantly send out new suckers. In King county, both species are on the non-regulated noxious weed list. Control of them is not required because they are so widespread throughout the county and the rest of Western Washington. (Control is recommended in protected wilderness areas and in natural lands that are being restored to native vegetation.)

The backstory of these berries is as tangled as the thickets themselves. Ann Dornfeld told the tale on Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW, in August, 2016. At the end of the 19th century, Luther Burbank, a contemporary and friend of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, was determined to help folks moving west to easily grow local fruits and vegetables. Looking for seeds and plants which could take the rigors of rail and sea travel, he traded seeds with European colleagues and crossbred plants to produce those he considered to be best for certain areas – like the Pacific Northwest. His work in Santa Rosa, CA, produced plants like the Shasta daisy, freestone peaches and plums, elephant garlic and the potatoes most used today for fast food French fries.

Burbank worked to develop a thornless blackberry, but in a package he’d ordered from India was a huge, great-tasting blackberry. He called it the Himalaya Giant (now believed to have originated in Armenia). The blackberry grew like wildfire in temperate areas (that’s us). A mere decade after its 1894, introduction Burbank’s berry was moving across the Puget Sound region. It was soon known simply as “the Himalayan blackberry.”

Our Sunday picking? Well, true to form, we paid blood and skin for our many gallons of black beauties. (Best man Ed might have called it, “The cost of doing business in brambles…”) As the four of us worked our way down a long wall of thorny, fruit-laden Himalayan blackberry canes, various exclamations drifted by. I kept hearing “Wow, look at the size of these – Ouch!! Oh da#$@! – berries.” And “These are so – Ouch!! Ouch! – sweet and abundant! Ouch! Ach!”

Thank you, Luther Burbank. RIP…

Backyard Mountain Lions

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 11, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

You have, no doubt, heard that Brian Kertson, DFW’s carnivore research scientist, will be at Ellensburg’s Hal Holmes Center Monday evening. At 7 p.m. he will be talking about backyard cougars. This is fascinating stuff. You are invited.

You may recall Project CAT (Cougars and Teaching) – the early-21st-century alliance of Cle Elum/Roslyn Schools, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Pacific NW Center for Spatial Information and a handful of other high-profile partners. Evelyn Nelson, Super of the school district at that time, grew up in a hunting and outdoor-oriented family in Carson, down along the Columbia. With a long-burning desire to get kids hooked on the outdoors, she grabbed the chance to partner with Fish and Wildlife biologist Gary Koehler to start Project Cat and immerse her students in science and nature.

Over several years, Project CAT put Upper County K-12 kids at the front of research into the relationships between people and cougars. Brian was one of the grad student researcher involved with Gary Kohler and other biologists. A great deal of the CAT research involved remotely tracking and mapping cat movements. There was (and still is, really) no shortage of cats in the Upper County.

As it all came together, Gary or students would find a track and the Montana “cat tracker” contractor’s dogs would find the cougar, which ended up wearing a rather sophisticated geographic positioning system (GPS) collar. That collar stored the cat’s location as it went about its life. Periodically, the data in the collar was downloaded to a computer, and students would map a particular cat’s schedule and locations, plotting its range and paths.

Other groups of students worked on most everything from track or prey identification to necropsies. (One seventh grade class cleaned and reassembled the complete skeleton of a collared young male which apparently died from injuries inflicted by an elk or two.)

From several handfuls of collared cats, as hoped by Superintendent Nelson, those Upper County kids learned some things.

A typical male cougar’s summer territory covered 136 square miles, with three females occupying 50-60 square mile ranges generally within his. On average, there was one dominant animal per 46 square miles. With near-constant dispersal of young adults, one or more transient cats were regularly moving through the Upper County. (Two young cats actually traveled south to the Columbia River Gorge and back – several hundred miles.)

Using that GPS data, the kids plotted lion kills, identified prey species and age, and knew how much time the cat spent feeding; 60% of prey animals were deer and 40% were elk.

It turned out that cougars DID take deer and elk in people’s backyards, but they didn’t hang around, sitting and waiting; they were always moving through their home ranges. Interestingly – and no surprise – it was obvious that, if people FED elk and deer, or created a sanctuary, they greatly increased the odds of having cats in their backyards and neighborhoods.

The kids’ GPS data showed lions all around us – in the hills and in our backyards. In fact, if you’ve been hiking in the hills or woods, you likely have been seen or watched by a cougar.

Cats are several million years old, and in the last 200,000 years cougars have become highly evolved predators. Pound for pound, they kill bigger prey than any other predators (a 100 pound female lion will take down a 500 pound elk). By the way, cougars don’t chew; their carnassial (adapted for shearing) teeth bite off chunks of flesh for swallowing.

Although the odds of a run-in are very small, most problem cats will be young vagrants looking for territories. Rules of engagement are simple: stop, stand tall and don’t run; pick up small kids; don’t break eye contact; be as large as possible (wave arms, hold up branches or coats); back away; pick up sticks and stones and fight back if attacked. Carry pepper spray. (Remember, Teddy Roosevelt called the cougar the greatest coward among the predators of North America.)

Funny thing about lions and people. Colorado wildlife buddy Bob Hernbrode often spoke of people and bears. Hear his words with [lion] replacing “bear.” “People who live in [lion] country will almost always tell you so. While it is sometimes presented as a warning, it is in reality an effort to describe some ephemeral value of the land. Most people will never see a [lion] in their mountains, yet the mere possibility of doing so imparts some vital uncertainty, mystery, danger, a need for respect, and greater depth to the landscape. We need [lions] in our mountains.”

We know a great deal about the backyard cats of Paradise. Brian Kertson has carried his work and research into the heavily-populated west side of our state. Thus, Monday night’s talk.

See you Monday evening at the Hal Holmes Center.

Another Kenai River Adventure

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 4, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

I was explaining to Homey that, while the Upper County fishing hike would be one I have wanted to take for some time, I could not join him. I had to be in Alaska during that time.

“What’s this HAVE to be in Alaska business?” “Well, I have to go to the Kenai for sockeye salmon,” I explained. “There are a couple good reasons. First, if I do not get my new nine-weight rig onto the Kenai River, it may never behave properly when I take it elsewhere. Secondly, I go with Homey Bill Boyum and his son, Honorary Homey Jon, the thoracic surgeon. They depend on me for comic relief. I have to go fish in Alaska with them.”

I’m not sure he bought the story, but he did finally acquiesce. Maybe he understood the importance of honoring the tools of our outdoor pursuits. And perhaps the value of tradition and deep friendships. Be that as it may, Alaska called.

We convened a bit over a week ago, on a late Monday night, at Anchorage International Airport. We piled into a simple and significantly overpriced rental car and found our way to a night’s lodging. Early the next morning, we pointed the vehicle more-or-less south, skirting Cook Inlet and moving through forests and mountains toward the town of Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula.

The two and a half hour drive took us to our cozy cabin – home for the few days – at Steve and Lea Stuber’s Red Fish Lodge on the Kenai. Since it was too early to check in, we piled our luggage on the office deck, grabbed our gear and headed to a salmon-likely reach of the river.

Somewhere in there, Bill reached out to John Wensley, a friend from his early DNR days, now retired from teaching and living over in the town of Kenai. John had a couple suggestions for less crowded fishing.

As you may know, these sockeye do not hit a lure in the traditional sense. It seems a mystery, but somehow a hook with a bit of brightly colored floss bounced along the bottom gets us fish. The sockeye move up the river in relatively shallow channels rarely more than 10 or 12 feet from the gravel bars or shorelines along which we stand. One casts 15 or so feet out, and swings the flossed hook in an arc across the channel. If you hit a snag, but it moves, you attempt to set the hook. Any fish hooked outside the jaw, or behind the gills, is foul-hooked and released. My vision of all this is that the fish snap at our floss as it tickles their noses or jaws and as they “breathe,” moving water over their gills. These are beautiful, shiny, and delicious six to 15-pound red salmon. Once you find the groove, and present your hook successfully, the whole experience is seductive and habit-forming.

We added some new experiences this year. For starters, Dad Bill caught his limit of three salmon before Son Dr. Jon Thinks-Like-A-Salmon for two days in a row – some sort of new record.

We hired a fishing guide (Alex of Chasing Tales) for a day: partly so we could get to new places and learn new techniques; partly for some trout fishing; and partly to see more of the river. The day yielded limits of salmon and some very enjoyable catch and release trout fishing for Dolly Varden (a char, really) and rainbows up to 16 inches. Somewhere in there, however, Dr. Jon caught a stunning 25-inch, five-pound-plus rainbow. And we all upped our skill levels.

We hiked in to several new reaches of the river. We never found the crowds (walking by 70 to 80 fishers to find a spot, for example) of past years, but there were still fishers everywhere – easily 1,200 to 1,500 along the Kenai’s banks and islands on any given day.

At one point, Bill and I were working a very productive channel. In walked a young fellow with his apparent squeeze, and as he explained his expertise to her, he walked directly into the channel, and the sockeye moving upstream. I bit my tongue for a short time, but when he moved directly in front of me, within my cast distance, I explained in a quiet, but clear, way that I would not do that to him and he shouldn’t be standing in the fish’s channel, and maybe a couple other things. Bill, fishing on the downstream side of them, was chuckling and tempted to tell them that I was just a cranky old #@$& and he would take me home. As we wrapped up and worked our way to dry ground, I stumbled over a slippery rock and took a wader-filling header – just as we had been noting that none of us fell in this year. Some sort of karmic moment, I suppose.

On our last day, we hiked in to one of our favorite spots with Bill’s old friend John and a fellow teacher, Jeremy. Not wanting to hike our nine salmon back through the woods, Jeremy opted to filet them at the river. He laid the stringer of fish up on the gravel. As he worked on the first two, a speeding boat pushed a big wake up onto the gravel shore, and the seven remaining fish, with stringer, headed down the river – sort of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. During our hike out with our now two fish, we noted that no one got hurt, no one died, and the bears would likely find the fish. Bill mourned the loss of his all-time favorite 69 cent stringer.

Even with that loss, we brought back more than 100 pounds of filets, plans for next year, new friendships, warm memories, and plenty of laughter.

I think that’s why we went.

[Photos of Jon and Jim, and Jon and Alex, by Bill Boyum.]

Of Abbagoochie and Burrowing Elk Farces and Scams

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 28, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

For some reason, as former Homey Bob Kuhlken (made famous by his search for the “Ghost Trout of the Potholes Lakes”) was sorting and clearing books for his return to current home in Virginia, I started thinking about those Abbagoochies again.

The whole story is well-documented in Alex Boese’s 2003 book, Museum of Hoaxes: A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions. (Alex founded the Museum of Hoaxes in 1997 in San Diego.) Be that as it may, while I loaned my copy of Alex’ book to a forgotten someone years ago, I still have notes on the somehow-ever-alive Abbagoochie scam.

I admire a good tongue-in-cheek story relating to wildlife. If a farcical story turns into a scam, so much the better, since the success of such scams reflects the lack of outdoor and wildlife education of too much of our public. It is always my hope that such obvious prevarications will stir folks to more study of Mother Nature and her vagaries, but it rarely happens.

I have played in this “tall stories of wildlife” realm a bit, myself, but admit to amateur status. An elk-hunting homey a week or so ago asked, “Whatever became of those Utah ‘burrowing elk’ you reported several years ago?” Hmm. You may recall that I reported brother-in-law Jerry Johnson’s discovery of a new subspecies of wapiti (elk) in his southern Utah stomping grounds. This elk actually dug, or Ashook@ itself into soft, sandy ground to escape detection, leaving only brushy-looking antler tips above ground. As you know, the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association holds several of the finest minds in the West – often at the forefront of wildlife science – and we were excited to break the news about Jerry=s Aburrowing elk@ discovery. Jerry=s elk became officially known as Cervus elaphus johnsonii – sort of.

Shortly thereafter, I was in discussion with Idaho family members who spend large amounts of time outdoors. They fish, they hike, and they climb mountains. They do not hunt or intentionally watch wildlife. When the story of Jerry=s elk came up, and I talked about local hunters who enjoyed Jerry=s humor, they wondered what the big deal was. “Why wouldn=t the elk just run away, like they all do?” “Frankly,” the younger said, “I just don’t get that one.” A farcical spoof taken seriously is often both problematic and diagnostic.

Then came the reports from several outdoor magazines, including Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, about the “Abbagoochie.” This strange, terrible creature incited fear and panic in much of West Virginia.

According to the story (with a photo of something like a cross between an owl, a fox, and a deer) in the weekly Webster Echo, published in Webster Springs, West Virginia, wildlife officials had imported the critters from Costa Rica (where they were called “dry land piranhas”) to deal with coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and other nuisance species. Apparently, West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials traded 372 possums for 13 young of the Tasmanian-devil-type animals. The plan awry.

Reportedly, the 13 carnivorous, chimp-sized Abbagoochies were devouring everything and anything they encountered. It was said that they had eaten everything from squirrels and rabbits to deer and a black bear. People claimed to have heard the pack screaming at night, many actually saw them, and one man called authorities to let them know he had run over one of them with his car. The FBI and state officials were reportedly assigning missing persons to death by Abbagoochie.

No one, of course, wanted to cross paths with an Abbagoochie – said to be willing to frantically consume itself with its own teeth and claws when cornered. People sat up, armed, to guard their livestock, and nervous parents escorted kids to and from school buses.

The whole thing, of course, was a farce. Columnist Jim Wilson had taken a photo of a taxidermist=s creation – a head fabricated from the butt of a whitetail deer, with the intense yellow glass eyes of an owl and the snarling muzzle of a fox. Once Wilson had the photo, the rest was so obvious he made up the story. (This is the kind of guy with whom I would have loved to share a few cool malt beverages.)

The reaction and panic Jim Wilson stirred, in my opinion, is evidence that large numbers of us have too little understanding of wildlife and wildlife communities around the world – or even our own back yards.

Once the regional panic became obvious, the Echo=s editors published a story about the hoax. Google “Abbagoochie scam” today and you will find a continuing interest in these critters. Even in the last year or two bloggers have claimed tracks, sightings and other proof of the existence of these nasty animals which – despite all the stories to the contrary – still exist in the backwoods of West Virginia.

You gotta love a good tongue-in-cheek wildlife farce.

Chipmunks and Ground Squirrels – Tiny Fun

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 21, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Sometimes, topics just become obvious.

I was weighing options for this week’s column, and was about settled on that old standby about the conflicts between moral values and day-to-day living. I especially enjoy thinking about the conflicts relating to those sudden magic moments when veganism, spiders, rattlers, birdseed, plastic, leather and fruitcakes all merge. Sadly, that will simply have to wait. Again.

You may recall that Deborah Essman – the Bird Whisperer of Paradise – recently presented her program on birds and wildlife of the Quilomene. The event was the July joint meeting of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA). Her photos ranged from excellent to spectacular, and what really caught my attention was her correct identification of a tiny ground squirrel. This was to the consternation of a couple audience members who had instantly, and in error, whispered, “Chipmunk.” Time is always spent wisely with a well-prepared and well-presented nature program.

In line with how the universe usually puts these things together, a couple homeys stopped me in front of the Ellensburg Pet Center the next morning. They had been enjoying a number of great day hikes and picnic lunches in the hills around us, and were curious about all the little chipmunks they encountered. (“Or were those little squirrels?”) As chair of the Wildlife Education Subcommittee of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I am sworn to set aside all other interests to settle such confusions.

This is important stuff, really. After all, what is a picnic or camping trip without ground squirrels? Their friendly hustle, bustle and scurry delights children of all ages. To most of us they are just “chipmunks,” but only three of the eleven ground squirrels in Washington are the real deal.

One ground squirrel or another will be found most anywhere in our state. It could be a tiny least chipmunk (four inches long, one ounce), a hoary marmot (30 inches and fifteen pounds), or one of the in-betweens. Whichever, it will eat seeds, nuts, berries, flowers, grasses, leaves and insects.

All eleven are ground squirrels, but not all the striped ones are actually chipmunks (which all do have stripes). So which is which?  We can easily eliminate our three marmots, as well as the spotted or dappled ground squirrels. Simple, now, to separate chipmunks from lined ground squirrels; chipmunks all have “masks.”

In addition to the masks, there are other, less obvious, differences.

While they seem to hibernate in some locales, chipmunks generally put away food for mid-winter snacking in between several-day-long underground naps. In some Native American cultures, this trait is a teaching – a reminder – of gathering and preparing for winter. The chipmunks of Paradise are the least, Townsend=s and yellow-pine, and are quite similar in appearance (even experts can have trouble differentiating one chipmunk from another). The Townsend=s is most widespread, but any one of them could race up to your table during your next picnic or camping trip.

Our three marmots are found in rocky pasture areas from the lower foothills to well above timberline. They do not store food; they lay on masses of body fat to see them through winter’s hibernation.

The remaining five of our ground squirrels (California, golden-mantled, Columbian, Cascade golden-mantled and Townsend=s) are also generally hibernators, living off body fat reserves.

In keeping with the by-laws of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I offer the following scientific names for our ground squirrels. Marmots: yellow‑bellied (Marmota flaviventris); hoary (Marmota caligota); and Olympic (Marmota olympus). Chipmunks: yellow-pine (Tamias amoenus); least (Tamias minimus); and Townsend=s (Tamias townsendii).  Ground Squirrels: California (Spermophilus beecheyi); golden‑mantled (Spermophilus lateralis); Columbian (Spermophilus columbianus); Cascade golden-mantled (Spermophilus saturatus); and Townsend=s (Spermophilus townsendii).

To learn more, check out the National Audubon Society=s Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest or another good field guide. You may be interested in Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson.

Our little ground squirrels will find you at most any picnic. Look closely, laugh and enjoy. Resist the urge to feed them, as they may carry fleas – or bite – and they must still survive after you leave.

And remember, chipmunks have masks.