Friday, February 21, 2014

The Canary in the Canyon

Allow me to introduce you to Grandma, one of the oldest living deer in Bullion Canyon. Grandma is the matriarch of Marysvale.  She lives among the sage brush, scrub oaks, and junipers in a small, rural town nestled in the foothills of the Tushars, and in the mouth of a canyon that was once a booming gold mine.  There are references to the historical roots of Marysvale posted on signs and old mining cars along Bullion Canyon Road: Canyon of Gold. Miner's Park. Bullion City. There are remnants of the old mill, a miner's cabin, and a few ramshackle buildings left from the old days.

Grandma is a mangey looking creature, with the ears of a lop-eared rabbit, but there are many of us who adore her, and are interested in her welfare.  Grandma's ears set her apart from the rest of the herd, although a few of her offspring have slightly droopy ears, too.

My friends Pam and Clem live higher in the canyon than I do, and they have known Grandma for over 17 years. Grandma was an old deer when they moved into their home by the creek nearly two decades ago. Whenever I visit their home, I can count on seeing Grandma.  I've seen her napping on the deck, standing at the sliding glass doors, nibbling on the leaves of the surrounding trees, and foraging around the sage brush around the house.  They tell me they worry her tongue will freeze to their windows when she licks the glass on the coldest of days. Grandma is about as close to being a pet as she can be.

Just a few weeks ago, the three of us were having lunch at our favorite local hot spot, the Marysvale Diner at Weber's, enjoying our soup, sandwiches, and burgers when I asked them if they thought I should be worried about running into bears or cougars when I hike above their home.  We talked about the few sightings that have been reported, and the fact that none of us had ever heard of an actual attack.  Pam reminded me that bears don't always hibernate like we are led to believe. (Hmmm...I thought they slept through the whole winter like I saw on the cartoons I watched as a kid.) Pam and Clem felt like as long as I stayed aware, I was probably pretty safe in our little canyon.

Several of my friends worry about my hiking at the higher elevations, and my friend Lisa had sent me a "Bear Country" story.  If the story is to be believed, park rangers had posted signs for hikers at a national park to be aware of the Black bear and Grizzly bear population, suggesting that hikers wear small bells to announce their presence, and to carry pepper spray to scare off bears who attack. The poster included information to help guests distinguish the scat (feces) of the two bears, claiming that the waste of the Black bear would contain digested berries and leaves, and that of the Grizzly bear had remnants of small bells, and smelled of pepper.  Ha ha ha. Gotta love the humor of my high school friends. 

My next couple of hikes after our lunch date,  I made note of where my friends' houses were, and considered getting to know some of the people farther up the canyon.  Seriously?  What are the chances I'd ever run into any carnivorous animal up there?  And if I did, did I think I could outrun any predator in hot pursuit to a friend's house, and that anyone would be home to save me if I pounded furiously on their front door? I tell you, my imagination is on fire some days.

As I was scanning Facebook earlier this week, my speed-reading made my heart race a little faster when I stumbled upon a post of Pam's. All I saw were the phrases "Oh, no...oh, no..." and "Grandma."  I assumed the worst.  Then I discovered that Clem had disposed of some tainted meat for the feral cats up the canyon, but Grandma had eaten nearly every scrap.  They had created a monster, in Pam's words, a carnivorous deer.  "Run for the hills," she teased.  Whew.  I felt relieved to know that Grandma was alive and well.

You may think it odd that I'd even care about an old deer that has already had a very long life, but I have an ulterior motive in my concern for Grandma.  Let me explain.

Most of you may be aware that long ago, coal miners took canaries into the depths of the mines with them as indicators of oxygen levels.  As long as the canaries were alive, the miners were sure of the presence of adequate air to breathe.  A dead canary was a sign that the oxygen supply was depleting, and it was time to vacate that area.  

Grandma is my "canary in the canyon."  She is so old, and moves so slowly, that I hope I can safely assume that as long as she is living, the bears and cougars are getting plenty to eat without preying on the aged and infirm.  I don't think I need to fear for my own safety since the carnivorous animals would most likely go after an elderly deer before they'd take on a vigorous retired school teacher hiking up the canyon.  Am I right? 

It did occur to me the other day after I'd hiked about six miles that my pace was slowing, and my fatigue was probably showing in my gait. With two more miles to go before I would be home, I stepped up my pace, not wanting to create any doubt to any unseen predators about my physical status.  Just in case, I wanted to give every indication that I am one healthy, spunky creature a wild animal would rather not attack.  

Grandma is a sweetie, if not almost obnoxious in her demands for attention. I wish her well, and I hope she has an even longer life in our canyon. It may be selfish of me, but I, for one, am very grateful for her presence.

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