Letter to an Old Friend

Letter to an Old Friend

Page Type: Article

Not Forgotten

Coyote, Lamar Valley

 

There you were, bold against the snow in the Lamar Valley, ears erect, snout down, ready to pounce, listening for the self-betraying movement of your prey in its dug-out tunnels a few inches below.

You paid not a bit of attention to me. In one sense, I was glad; it's not worth getting the perfect picture of an animal if doing so means disrupting it, and such disruptions can be harmful or even fatal to the animal. But in another sense, I was a little saddened not to be acknowledged; some part of me, the part that thrives on feeling like a part of the pulse of the wilderness, craved your notice and subsequent acceptance-- not friendship but not fear, either-- just acceptance.


Payson Peak

Other places I have seen or heard you...


The moments we shared stay with me more than any other wildlife encounter that stands out in my memory. More than the time I watched mountain goats dance down the sheer cliffs of Mount Timpanogos as I plodded along the ridge trail. More than the time I saw a cougar in the Absaroka Range. More than the time I thought a bull moose in rutting season in the Wasatch Range was about to charge me. More than the time a black bear in the Sierra Nevada made a bluff charge at my brother and me. More than the time I surprised a young grizzly and found myself within spitting distance of it in the Great Bear Wilderness of Montana's Flathead Range.

I like to think you were the same coyote featured in a National Geographic video I’d seen a year or two before. The location was the same. The movements I saw were dead ringers. But maybe that was owing to the remarkable way your brethren have adapted and evolved; it only makes sense that what works would be adopted and repeated by all struggling to survive in the white hell and sublime wonder that is the Yellowstone winter.

Cardiac Ridge

 


In all likelihood, you are no longer alive. Your lifespan in the wild is up to 15 years, and you were no pup when I saw you nine years ago. Age could have taken you. The wheels beneath a rushing tourist could have. Maybe you strayed from the protection of your home to find yourself targeted by the poisons, traps, or rifles of your human neighbors. Furthermore, the numbers of your kind have dropped in the Lamar Valley since the reintroduction of the gray wolf became such a success. Your larger cousins, in establishing their dominance, have driven off or killed so many of you. You had become the largest of your kind, much larger than the average coyote; in fact, you and your regional brethren were often mistaken for wolves. 

On balance, I am glad the wolves are back, but I still find it sad that their success also comes at your expense when it is you, despite the romantic image of the wolf, who truly embodies the strength and the resilience of the natural order perhaps more than any other animal in the great American West does.

And you do. The bison, who shook the earth when they ran and sustained an entire culture that practiced the now-forgotten ethic of taking just what one needs and honoring its lifeblood, were nearly slaughtered and needed the hand of the federal government to save them. It was the same with the grizzlies. And so it was with the wolves. But you have endured and even thrived.

Clearing Storm from Cape Royal

 


You have been chased, trapped, poisoned, and shot, but you endure. You can outrun, outwit, or outmaneuver dogs; avoid traps; get through or over fences; and change your habits. Mixed into you are the craftiness of the fox and the endurance of the wolf. You lack the purity of the former’s cunning and the chase-ending lethality of the latter's strength, but you have enough of both to do, on the whole, better than both, for you know how to do what survival demands and have always eluded the best efforts of those trying to exterminate you, no small feat in this age when entire species vanish forever each year solely or primarily because of our activities.

There is always more than one side to any story, I know. For every time you and others of your kind have moved me, there are probably at least three ranchers or farmers with a story to tell about lost sheep, chickens, dogs, or other animals. The monetary loss you have caused farmers and ranchers, and the heartache you have caused pet owners, are real and should not be ignored or celebrated, but there is no doubt that many of your enemies have developed a grudging respect for you, the kind of respect evenly matched foes anywhere often discover. And I daresay that if we kept score, we would find we have done far more harm to you than you have ever done to us, so I won't get to feeling too guilty for admiring an animal some people see as nothing but a pest to be eradicated.

Badlands National Park, SD

 


Despite the campaigns against you, despite attaining the shoot-at-will label of “varmint” in so many states, you are reputed to live in every U.S. state except Hawaii. You have been sighted and photographed in New York’s Central Park and Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, hardly bastions of wilderness. Governments of suburbanized areas such as my own hometown, where all is supposed to be middle-class bliss and the worst that ever happens to most of us is a traffic jam making us late for the nightly joy of trying to get our kids to eat what they don’t want to eat, issue warnings to pet owners, saying that coyotes pose a particular risk to cats and small dogs. When I found a mutilated fox on a neighborhood basketball court recently, I did not suspect a shotgun-wielding yuppie, an abnormally aggressive dog, or one seriously rough racoon; I thought of you. (But please leave my cats alone; if you’re smart, as I know you are, you’ll avoid Eowyn, anyway, because she just might tear you to pieces-- I can tell you that from personal experience, as can some dogs I’ve known.)

I have seen you, as I have already said, in Yellowstone, America’s wilderness heart. I have also listened to you at night there while I shivered in my mummy bag as winter kept its grip on March, and if there is any sound in the American wilderness that can be more haunting and inspiring at once, it can only be the howl of the wolf, the bugling of the bull elk, the scream of the cougar, or maybe the sound of ice crashing from a glacier. I have watched you stalk, slink, and prance in Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, the Wasatch Mountains, and in other places I have probably forgotten. Your songs have kept me awake-- and kept me from wanting to sleep lest I miss a moment of the magic-- in the badlands of South Dakota and deep in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, there in the shadow of the Continental Divide, America’s great backbone in both a geographic and a wilderness sense.

Sunflower, Sage Creek Wilderness

 


Many of the Native Americans saw you and the raven as gods or god-like characters for your intelligence and your trickery, and you fill their lore (fitting, perhaps, that when I saw you that day a raven was just a few feet away from you). You play a vital role in the creation myths of the Navajo. Whoever dreamt up Pecos Bill had you raising him from childhood. Even Looney Tunes paid you a tribute of sorts by making your name a play on the word wily; in those cartoons, you never caught Road Runner, but you never quit, and it wasn’t long before I found myself in your corner.

Although you are not solely or even principally of the mountains, you in many ways demonstrate the spirit of the mountains, who, as Aldo Leopold once said, are the only ones who have lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf (and maybe the call of the coyote-- my addition), and the mountains would not be the same without you.

Mesquite Flat

 


You are more than a symbol. You are a survivor. You are an icon. You are an indelible part of the heart of the wilderness. You were here before us and will probably be here after. There are many who hate you, and some of those many have fair reasons for it, but I still feel a thrill every time I see you. And I miss you. After all these years, I still look at your picture and think about you, wondering what ever became of you.

I hope it was noble. Good night, sweet prince.*

The rest is silence.**

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* Horatio to Hamlet just after the latter's death.

** Hamlet's final words.

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Please note: The subject of predators is always a touchy one. I included some lines meant to show I am not blind or indifferent to the costs, financial and emotional, coyotes have imposed upon some people. I also do not wish to ignite yet another polarizing debate about these animals and others like them; my article is, as I hope is clear, just a tribute to the beauty and the tenacity of these creatures.






Comments

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Anya Jingle

Anya Jingle - Mar 18, 2008 4:13 pm - Voted 10/10

Very special article!

I'm really happy to find an article of this kind on SP. It was a big surprise. Thank you for treating this beautiful (in many ways) wild animal with respect. Well written as usual Bob and the ending made me cry.
Have a wonderful time in Death Valley and Zion and I hope you make many new "friends" there!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Mar 18, 2008 7:04 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Very special article!

Thank you very much, Anya. I realized posting this could be risky, as some might find it silly, stupid, or both, but I had the words in me. For some reason, that afternoon has always stuck with me. I am very glad you enjoyed the "letter," and I hope others will, too.

Death Valley tomorrow! Yes!

lcarreau

lcarreau - Mar 18, 2008 7:20 pm - Voted 10/10

This is great ...

Knew you were a talented writer to begin with. Have a safe trip!
I can't wait to see what you have in store for viewers of Summitpost when you get back from the western US. Via con dias!

Michael Hoyt

Michael Hoyt - Mar 18, 2008 8:18 pm - Voted 10/10

Quite Nice,

Bob. Well written, as usual. The contents of this article is no surprise to me (since I know you) and understand how similar we are in so many respects.
Thanks, Mike.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Mar 18, 2008 9:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Quite Nice,

Thank you, Mike. It will sound silly to some (not you), but writing this was very personal to me. I'm glad to see positive reactions from people I respect.

MoapaPk

MoapaPk - Mar 24, 2008 8:38 am - Voted 10/10

fewer here

Makes me recall a thoughtful passage (about a coyote encounter in Death Valley) in Steinbeck's "Travels with Charlie".

I used to see lots of live coyotes when I was running in NM... but perhaps that is because I usually ran on a military base, where the coyotes were somewhat protected.

Here in NV, I mainly see them at night on the highway. I hear them often in RRNCA in the early morning.

The eastern coyotes in NY are large, and rather aggressive.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Mar 27, 2008 11:29 am - Hasn't voted

Re: fewer here

I'll have to read that passage again; it's been a long time since I've read the book.

There was no shortage in Death Valley last week. Every night either just after moonrise or just before moonset, they struck up with their songs and filled the area. They're getting rather brave, too; one trotted across the road by the picnic area near the visitor center right around noon. We saw another on the West Side Road wisely using the road instead of all the salt pinnacles around.

Saintgrizzly

Saintgrizzly - Mar 24, 2008 11:50 am - Voted 10/10

Very well written...

...and not "silly" in the least! You barely touch on it, but the interaction between wolves and coyotes in Yellowstone, and the effect on coyotes (not to mention a myriad everything elses!) as the wolf-led ecosystem reverts to a more natural historical state, is, to say the least, quite interesting.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Mar 27, 2008 11:34 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Very well written...

Thank you, Vernon. It is both interesting and sad. I once watched a video that showed some wolves that finally got fed up with a certain lurking coyote and killed it after chasing it off many times. That's the way of the wild, though, and we have to take all of it, painful as it sometimes can be to see. I sometimes "interfere" when I am trying to prevent or repair human-caused harm, as I think we have broken the natural order of things very badly, but I otherwise watch things take their course. Hence my watching a snake swallow a toad in my yard last year; I wanted to help that poor toad, but the snake has to eat, too, and I certainly wasn't helping the bugs the toads were eating!

Mountain Jim

Mountain Jim - Mar 24, 2008 12:22 pm - Voted 10/10

Appropriate Timing ...

Well said !!! ... and, good timing for me. We saw two coyotes on our hike in the Coyote Ridge-Rimrock Open Space, yesterday.
I've seen, or heard, them on many of my wanderings in the Western U.S. and they ayways bring a smile to my heart.
I've always liked Ed Abbey's observation about coyotes in "Desert Solitaire" ... "I know coyotes eat sheep, but what worries me is if they eat enough."
If you aren't already familiar with a book by Craig Childs called "The Animal Dialogues" you might want to check it out. It takes a similar perspective to wildlife to yours.
When our silly species has long since vanished from this planet, the coyotes will still be laughing at the moon.
Peace, Jim

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Mar 27, 2008 11:36 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Appropriate Timing ...

Thank you for the book recommendation; I am always looking for something new and interesting, and with all that's out there, it's sometimes easier to stick to what you know without a good recommendation.

Yes, I hope they still are laughing (good word choice) at (or maybe with) the moon long after we are gone.

Mountain Jim

Mountain Jim - Mar 27, 2008 2:01 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Appropriate Timing ...

I thought "The Animal Dialogues" was beautifully written and insightful ... some interesting information about coyotes, too.
I'd be interested to know what you think, if you read it.
Peace, Jim

Mountain Jim

Mountain Jim - Apr 10, 2008 9:17 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Appropriate Timing ...

Thanks, I hope you'll like it ... I loaned my copy to my son, but when he's done with it I'm looking forward to rereading several of the essays.
Peace, Jim

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Mar 24, 2008 4:16 pm - Voted 10/10

mixed feelings . . .

. . . about the coyote, not the article (which is great).

When I was born, not so long ago, there were no coyotes east of the Mississippi. Now they are in every state. Living now east of the Mississippi, whenever I see one, I am reminded of what is missing -- wolves, mostly obviously, but actually everything else. Coyotes are one of those species that thrives in and around humans, like raccoons, house finches, squirrels, white-tailed deer, rats, cockroaches, and many others.

So, when I see those species where they weren't, and where they don't really belong, I am sad for us and for everything else that should have been here.

But thanks for the article!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Mar 27, 2008 11:40 am - Hasn't voted

Re: mixed feelings . . .

Thank you. You make good points about those animals, many of which thrive because of our own bad habits. But I think coyotes are making a comeback also because attitudes about them are slowly changing. With a less agricultural society, we see them less as pests and are more tolerant. The lurking trouble is that they could come to be seen as nuisances like deer if they kill too many pets, frighten or even bite children, etc. We have such a love-hate relationship with so many animals, especially predators.

BobSmith

BobSmith - Mar 24, 2008 4:51 pm - Voted 10/10

I love coyotes.

Despite crazed propaganda from hunters and real estate developers, coyotes are a boon to the eastern ecosystems that have been devoid of an efficient top predator for the past 150-200 years. The naturalists in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been especially happy to see them in the park, filling in the niche formerly inhabited by the red wolf.

Bring 'em on! Welcome to the coyote!

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Mar 24, 2008 9:09 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: I love coyotes.

And there's my mixed feelings. I wish the red wolf reintroduction in the Smokies had worked. It didn't, so you're right, coyotes are a good thing. But still . . .

BobSmith

BobSmith - Mar 25, 2008 5:07 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: I love coyotes.

Yeah. The park naturalists told me that the main reason it didn't work out was because by the time they tried the red wolf reintroduction the coyote had already established itself as the top predator. The red wolf just couldn't compete.

Anyway, it's hard for me to tell the difference between a coyote and a red wolf. They look so much alike.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Mar 27, 2008 12:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I love coyotes.

I agree with you. I won't make light of real losses coyotes and other predators have caused, but when you look at the grand tally of us vs. the animals, it's easy to see who on balance is the bigger pest. t's not too much too ask to make some room for these and other animals and have sensible policies about their management, policies that do protect people and their property but which also emphasize living space, and the right to live at all, for the animals.

Coyotes are in Shenandoah now, too. I have not seen or heard any myself, but they have been caught by infrared cameras.

hightinerary

hightinerary - Sep 12, 2016 8:25 am - Voted 10/10

World Wide Wiliness

I've seen copious evidence of coyotes in Shenandoah National Park, especially in the southern part. I've followed their tracks in the snow in the Massanutten range, too. But they haven't allowed me to see them yet in either place. It's a treat just to know they're there, though.

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