Monday, June 11, 2018

Oleaginous (Part 5)

A single oil droplet dispersing in the rain soaked concrete of the gas station. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Alpha

I’ve been working out here for the last four years. After my wife left I went back to school for biology. I barely passed. Sometimes I think the only reason I got this job was because I was the only one who applied. But I like it alright. I get to be outside and I don’t have to deal with people much.

Bob, the ranger who was showing me the ropes after I got hired said the lone female had come to the park about five months before me. She was a little smaller than the other Grey Wolves so they thought she was a juvenile at first. Now they think she might be a little older but they can’t be sure. They have never been able to tag her.  

They don’t think she was born in the park. She just showed up one day out of the blue. It didn’t take her long to become the alpha female of her own pack, but about two and a half years ago things went south. The winters have been harsher. Their prey started leaving the area earlier. Some members of the pack died, others migrated out, most broke off into smaller, scattered packs. She was normally alone after that. 

I thought she’d do what the others did, but she never left the area or joined another group. Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for a while but I knew she was out there. I’d still find her tracks every now and then. The right rear paw print was always the faintest. It must have been from an old injury. When you saw her you could barley tell she limped but her tracks gave away that she never put her full weight on it. 

I started calling her Alpha. Even though she didn’t have a pack you could tell she was an alpha female. Her ears were always erect, and she had this direct, almost confrontational, wide-eyed stare with her golden eyes. It was rare for a female to be without a pack, but after her original group disbanded she seemed to keep to herself. It was an odd trait for animal that evolved to survive working together. 

Even stranger was that she appeared to visit other packs. Occasionally, she’d be spotted with the prairie pack. She would play with the pups and sometimes participate in hunts with the other females. She was never threatened, or treated aggressively by the wolves in the pack. She was allowed to come and go peacefully. We had thought she was fully accepted by the pack but she would only stay with them one or two days at a time. Then she’d go off on her own again. 

Me and Bob had hoped she’d find a mate and start a pack. 

One day I spotted her in the park with Old Grey. I was hoping their paths would cross. He was an older lone male. They were both without a pack and neither one of them had ever been caught for a tracking collar. They had a lot of similarities so I had high hopes they would be able to start a pack together. But ever since Old Grey had been pushed out of his pack he developed a bad habit of getting too close to people. We’d gotten reports of a lone wolf rummaging through garbage cans on the edge of town. He’d even been caught on a few security cameras. Then he started picking off the livestock of a farmer on the edge of the park. 

It didn’t take long before I got the call. Two hunters phoned in to the station and said they found a dead wolf. When I got out there I could tell right away it was Old Grey. Not a mark on him, but his head was arched back and his limbs were stretched straight forward in the typical “sawhorse” pose. Strychnine poisoning. It’s a long and painful death that contorts the body. He used to be so proud, now just still. I hate knowing that he suffered like that. I grab my walkie talkie and tell the station to call the University. We try not to leave them out here if we know they’ve been poisoned. We can’t risk other animals eating him. Maybe the college kids can study him; get something out of this mess. 

I had to wait a while for them show up. Nothing else to do but sit on the hood of my car and enjoy the view. After about an hour the sun started to get low in the sky and decide to go sit inside the car. Right as I slid of the hood I saw her, coming up over the hill to my left. Alpha.

Neither one of us was expecting the other to be there and we just froze. As far as I knew, she’d never gotten this close to a person. But she didn’t run away. Just still. I was right in front of the car door but I knew I’d never make it if she charged me. Just then I heard the rumble of the old university bio lab truck behind me coming up the path. She bolted around and left in the direction she came. My heart was pounding but I never really felt threatened. She was just trying to say goodbye to Old Grey. 

A few months after that we spotted her with a younger male MG-422, who had been fitted with a tracking collar. He had recently hit maturity and left his pack to be with her. The university kids got all excited. Even though Alpha wasn’t tagged she was with a wolf who was. They had been able to track them around the base of the mountain for a few weeks. Alpha and MG-422 had been working together catching rabbits, but they’d need to start taking down bigger prey if they wanted to build a pack. We didn’t have to wait long, but the info we got didn’t come from the collar. 

Jim, my buddy and one of the bar owners in town, got his grandson Tyson to visit for a few weeks. Tyson just turned fourteen and his mom finally thought he was old enough to come up by himself. Jim had been dying to show off his wilderness skills so right away they go out hiking. They were near the mountain on a ridge at the edge of the tree line, looking down towards a clearing, when they spotted a female elk with her calf. Tyson grabbed his cell phone to take a video and as soon as he did two wolves ran out from the woods towards the calf. They got the whole thing on video. They couldn’t wait to show me when they got back. 

Apparently, Tyson was filming the female elk when the wolves burst out from the woods. The calf had already wandered several feet away and was easy to separate. There were a few seconds of rushing trees and sky before Tyson’s shaking hands were able to focus on the fleeing calf. In the panic the calf ran away from its mother and towards the stream. And right behind the calf was Alpha and MG-422. I had never seen them hunt before. Alpha was racing towards the calf, head down, focused, and rapidly closing the distance. MG-422 was a little farther behind. The calf was instinctively heading to the steam. If the water is deep enough it can keep the wolves at bay. Unfortunately, the stream was shallow, even for the calf. His pause brought them even closer. He sprung across to the other side, barely ahead of them. But when they hit the water going as fast as they were, they went down hard. Alpha got back up almost as fast as she fell. MG-422, a much less experienced hunter, lost momentum and lingered by the stream. Alpha, like a bolt of lightning, knocked the calf to the ground. Her teeth were around it’s neck before it could get back up. Alpha was barring down so hard she didn’t see it coming. The female elk rammed her from behind. The elk positioned herself between her calf and Alpha, stamping and bleating furiously. The calf was bleeding badly from the neck, but still managed to stand up. Alpha, who had almost single-handedly won the battle, had to watch her prize slip away. As ferocious as she had been she was not strong enough to go after the female, not alone. MG-422 was several feet away and had cost them their biggest meal yet. It was sad to see them fail, but it was amazing to see Alpha in action. Even with Tyson’s shaky cell phone video.

Tyson said after that the elk and her calf stayed in the clearing for a little while but Alpha and MG-422 went back into the woods. He went over the story with so much enthusiasm I thought his head was going to explode. Jim couldn’t believe their luck. He’d lived here his whole life and had never seen anything like that. You could see he was beaming with pride that he got to share this moment with his grandson. He took his arm and gave Tyson a hardy pat on the back. 

“Don’t tell your mother about the wolves.” He chuckled. “She might not let you come back up.”

I didn’t see Alpha for a while after that. I found a few of her tracks in the snow here and there. The right rear paw print was even fainter than normal. When the elk rammed her it must have aggravated her old injury. She was still out there but she was alone again. MG-422 was tracking in another area. They hadn’t been seen together since the failed hunt. The university kids had hoped she migrated with him. But she was still here and her tracks were always isolated. 

I honestly don’t know how she made it through another winter alone. On one of his rounds Bob found the remains of a moose. It looked like it had been there a while, the crows were pecking at whatever scraps they could get. He thought he found some of Alpha’s tracks nearby but there were bear tracks too. It looks like she might have scavenged the carcass. I just hope she got a good meal out of it.

All this time we never figured out why she was always alone. She’d had a successful pack before. She been with other males and tried to start families. As far as we can tell she never had her own pups. Maybe she liked being alone. Maybe the other wolves thought she was strange. Maybe it’s just the bad hand she’s learning to deal with. But she’s still out there; fighting every day. 

Hell, if I’m being honest maybe I like her so much cause she reminds me of me. I tried to start a family but my ex walked out on me. I never had kids either. I moved around more than I wanted, worked like hell just to survive. I got tired of trying to figure out where things went wrong and trying to explain myself to people who didn’t understand. I spend too much time alone. Maybe it’s just the bad hand I’m learning to deal with. 

My whole life I felt like I was supposed to be this alpha male. Strong, dominant, in control. I felt like I never measured up. I pushed people way. I went further inside myself. But being out here gives me time to think. Watching Alpha struggle forced me to realize that I see her the way I wanted people to see me. Like no matter what happened I was going to make it. 

She could have done what was expected, but then she never would have been this tough.
She didn’t need to be have subordinates to be dominant. It was just the way she was. If she could make it out here alone then so could I. 

She doesn’t howl often, but I can always tell it’s her. Her calls are the only ones that go unanswered. But she’s still out there. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Brick and Moth

A Dot-Lined White Moth on the brick facade of my office.