Why this 'seasonal' rides the public’s range

 

It’s day three into my 14th season at Grand Teton National Park, and now I must pass the infamous pack test. By carrying 45 pounds for 1.5 miles in less than 46 minutes, I'll qualify for "arduous duty" as a wildland firefighter keeping an eye on lightning strikes.

I wear a vest packed with weights and walk with a climbing ranger who teaches physical therapy at a nearby university, and a fire information specialist who has a recuperating ankle. I teach journalism in the winters, and I've added a new worry to the usual drag of winter-weight: Thanks to a skiing accident, it's the four-month anniversary of my abdominal surgery.

The pack test is not a race. It's a job requirement but also a benefit, since we're paid to maximize our health as we return to outdoors work. And this season, with my healing scars, I'm happier than ever when we pass the finish line, the entry test of summer, in 41:11, only four seconds off my pre-surgery time.

Even though the test is tiring, the ritual of the after-dinner walk pulls me from the reading chair. I bring a small meerschaum pipe — a less-healthy ritual — and cross Cottonwood Creek to walk a gravel road through some of the meadows that anchor the Tetons.

I hear a coyote bark, and elk trot for cover as a shape appears above the roadbed. It’s tall and dark. It turns and lopes towards me, followed by a gray coyote half its size.

The head is too small for bear, too big for dog. It's a black wolf, and the coyote yips and then nips the wolf's haunch. The wolf pivots off its back legs and flashes teeth at the coyote without losing its pace.

The wolf seems almost unhurried, though he’s headed straight for me. I stand amid cottonwoods, and neither canine notices me nor the smoke of my tobacco, which I hoped would signal that I'm a pipe-smoking human. I remind myself that wolves don't attack humans. But this wolf, with teeth at its tail, will soon run smack-dab into a human.

When the wolf reaches 60 feet, I sidestep behind a cottonwood. The wolf cocks its eyes into mine, then loads its head left. Its body curves behind the head, and the wolf and coyote slip through the sagebrush, parallel to the creek.

Now I see the whole wolf, not just its black head and thick shoulders. A hint of sandstone-red in its ruff, a fade of peppered gray along the side, a thick black tail tucked between its hind legs. No ear tags or radio collar. The lush tail tips down to its ankles.

Again, the coyote rushes and the wolf snaps back; tormented and tormentor pace each other until they disappear into lodgepole.

I follow and spot wet pawprints where the wolf crossed a feeder creek. Soon, I cross a large warm scat, with the remains of scavenged elk after-birth. This creek marks the coyote's territory; once outside, the coyote might lose the ferocity that comes from protecting its kits. It’s also just where the wolf might pause and drop a distinctive mark.

As I walk to the cabins for rangers, the dusk fills with the group-howl of coyotes. At the cabin of a couple who plan to be married near the rock where the wolf was heading, I tell this new story. When a large bat appears in their living room, their Australian shepherd tries to herd it. Someone grabs a broom, I hold the door open, and within minutes the circling bat is shooed out, but not before it hits me in the chest.

"Seasonals," as we call ourselves, often are asked why we migrate each summer to these mountains. There's a cowboy song called the "Night Rider's Lament" that answers that question better than I can. Like the seasonal, the cowboy works for the luxury of living wild, for the joy of seeing a "hawk on the wing and spring hitting the Great Divide." What we lose is a big paycheck, health insurance and all the other things you can get in town.

These are good mountains, and the people who work public land on these mountains are some of the finest you’ll ever meet. Or at least the luckiest. I can say that sometimes, after work, you might get to see a feisty coyote humbling a wolf. Or you'll walk through the aroma of cottonwood in spring flush.

This is a landscape worth working for, a place that pads our paychecks with a daily dividend of wildness.

Ron Steffens is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He migrates among Oregon, Wyoming and Vermont, where he teaches communications at Green Mountain College.

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