Hiking, backpacking and the wildlife
Backpacking with Jim Joque
Do not confuse “the wild life” (life of someone who is wild, impulsive and parties a lot) with “the wildlife” (the real animals). Backpacker and hikers are afforded many opportunities to view all that nature has to offer in seeing a variety of wild creatures in the backcountry. Bear, fox, deer, porcupine, wolves, eagles, snakes, frogs and much more can be spotted, observed and photographed. Coming upon a moose grazing on pin cherries, or a pair of otters at play in a small lake can be an opportunity of a lifetime.
A most impressive wildlife viewing opportunity for me was on Isle Royale in western Lake Superior. While backpacking with friends on this island with a unique history of wolf and moose predator-prey activity, we spotted seven moose over the course of a week. One spotting was at the Minong mine where we came upon a bull moose unexpectedly. We backed away slowly and watched the giant-hoofed animal walk into a large pond to drink and bathe. On another trip to Isle Royale, our party encountered an otter barking at us, seemingly because we startled it. And while relaxing in camp one afternoon, a red fox surprised us by coming within a few feet of where we were sitting. We later learned it was called “the camp fox” because it had become quite accustomed to humans.
While backpacking on Grand Island in Lake Superior just off Munising, Mich., a friend and I came upon a black bear that was standing on its hind legs and sniffing the air. The bear was obviously not threatened by us or threatening to us. We were at a safe distance and enjoyed the couple-minute encounter. Other memorable sightings while on hikes in central Wisconsin included watching a turtle laying eggs; a surprised tail-slap and nasty looks from an annoyed beaver near a beaver lodge on a small lake; and a pod of pelicans gathering in spring along the backwaters of a flowage.
A most unusual year for spotting wildlife in Wisconsin for me was in 2008. I refer to it as the year of white animals. On three different occasions in the same area, I spotted a deer as white as snow. At a nearby location a month later, I spotted a white turkey among three or four other turkeys. At first I thought it was a chicken, but then positively identified it as a turkey. On yet another occasion backpacking near Tomahawk, our group came across a white porcupine sitting high on a tree branch. I have seen albino or white deer on other occasions, but never a white turkey and a porcupine!
Observe but do not disturb
Among Americans ages 25 and older in 2014, there were estimated 409.7 million total outings among birdwatchers, and 450.1 million total outings of those viewing wildlife, according to the Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2015. The report also specified that 25.9 million adults participated in hiking that year. That is a lot of hikers and observers meandering in our outdoors.
Given the magnitude of people involved in the sport of observing wildlife, it is important to consider some basic courtesies. One such courtesy is that wildlife observers should watch from a distance and not make a disturbance. This supports one of the Leave-No-Trace principles – to “respect wildlife.”
For example, in the Sylvania Wilderness Area of Upper Mich., visitors are not permitted on small islands from when ice is off the water through July 15. Loons are nesting up until that time. Since it is illegal to disturb nesting loon sites, the policy is to stay clear of the nests and off the islands.
Bring along binoculars to spot wildlife. I have 7×35 and 10×25 pairs of binoculars that bring me close to any critter in the forest. To lighten my load when backpacking, I use a monocular. A telephoto lens on a camera with a screen viewer works well too, allowing you to zoom in on the animal.
In referencing the Wisconsin Wildlife Viewing Guide, author Mary K. Judd identifies the following viewing ethics and responsibilities: don’t disturb the animals; never chase or harass animals; don’t feed the wildlife; don’t pick up orphaned or sick animals; leave the site undisturbed; and honor the rights of private landowners. Feeding wildlife for example, disrupts their natural eating habits and could harm their digestive system. Also, the animal learns bad habits from being fed and consequently could disturb or attack other humans when expecting food.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Nature Viewing Tips add to the above courtesy list: do not approach certain animals, leave pets at home, don’t trespass on private property (ask before entering), and be courteous to other wildlife viewers.
Finding the critters
Judd points out that we should “visit when animals are active.” Early morning or early evening is when many animals are in motion for feeding and watering. Seasons for viewing wildlife are important too, such as the time of year for bird migration. Judd also notes that we should learn about the animal’s “calling cards,” or signs that animals have been in the area, such as animal tracks, scat and tree markings or scratches.
If you are not tracking an animal, then be patient, sit still and wait for wildlife to come to you. Motion and noise from stepping on leaves or breaking branches while walking about can startle wildlife. So, taking a break in the woods for an extended period of time may produce the best results.
Note however, that it is important to be cautious of wildlife that may pose a danger, such as coming upon a bear with cubs or a moose with a calf, as well as venomous snakes or an aggressive raccoon. Another reason for not allowing animals to get too close is that they may carry harmful diseases and an animal bite could be a matter of life and death. Again, keep your distance.
Do your homework
Most of the animals I observed while backpacking or hiking have been in the Midwest. Those who hike in other parts of the world will obviously see other kinds of animal, birds and reptiles. Do your homework before going on an adventure and learn about wildlife in the area you plan to travel.
Pick up wildlife field guide books. They will come in handy for learning about habitats of various creatures, so that you know where they live and under what conditions. Reference such field guides as the National Audubon Society Field Guides, National Wildlife Federation Field Guides and Peterson Field Guides. Purchase a compact reference such as the Pocket Naturalist Guide Series, as they are lightweight and easy to carry in your pocket. Also, you can get a field guide for making positive identification for some of the animal signs or “calling cards.”
For the record
Birders are notorious record keepers. They use cameras and record books or journals for keeping track of their sightings – especially when competitive bird watchers go for “A Big Year.” Do likewise and take your camera along on your hikes or backpacking trips. Invest in a quality point-and-shoot camera with a zoom lens.
I also suggest keeping a record book or a journal of your sightings with the date, time, location and the creatures you see. Other notes to include could be weather conditions, circumstances and stories about the viewings, making for good campfires stories.
Be prepared that while searching to observe wildlife, you may stay out all day and come up empty handed. Not all is lost however, since you are still enjoying the adventure.
I found this thought expressed well in an old copy of the National Geographic’s Guide to Wildlife Watching by author Glen Martin, when he wrote, “Despite the best-laid plans, despite the expenditure of time and money, despite the employment of the finest binoculars and cameras, despite painstaking stalking, paddling, or crawling on your belly through briars and mud, sometimes it all comes to naught. Sometimes you end up with nothing for your troubles but sunburn, chigger bites, and burrs in your socks. But cheer up – remember the old query that fishing guides dredge up whenever their clients are ‘skunked’: Ain’t it great just to be out here?”