Vancouver Island Marmots in the Mist

Day One with the Vancouver Island Marmots

It took me a while to fully comprehend that the small bundle of fur sitting alone, gazing up at me, represented around 3% of the total wild population of her species. Within a few hundred yards I would see several more of what constitutes 25% of all wild Vancouver Island Marmots.

I’ve just hiked with a researcher into the mountains near Nanaimo BC into an ecological reserve inaccessible to the public. When I consider that I’m the first photographer allowed access, I feel privileged and excited.

There’s something very, very special about being in a wild place and seeing an animal in its natural habitat. Even better when there is no one else around, where every moment is private. Special can’t begin to describe how this feels when you know how few of these animals are left. I wonder if the marmots know. What would they do if they knew?

It’s strange to be humbled by a creature not much larger than the average men’s hiking boot.

This year brought 4 new pups to the colony. They were the first ever wild-born Vancouver Island Marmots from a captive-bred mother. Add another spine tingle to the list.

The Marmots are watched all day, every day, by a group of insanely dedicated people working to ensure the population rises back to a sustainable level.

Silence is broken by the loud piercing whistle of Haida, the mother of the new pups. She is alerting her offspring to the presence of a golden eagle soaring high above. Along with wolves and cougars, golden eagles are the main threat to the marmots’ survival, and need to be shooed away by the guardians with a couple of carefully aimed bear bangers. Which, incidentally, have to be tried.

 

Looking at a mountain slope from a distance always makes it look like child’s play. After an afternoon hiking down into the meadow from our observation point, I had a completely different perspective. A perspective that comes from clinging to small straggly plants as if my life depended on it. And to be perfectly honest, at times I think it did. Getting stuck for the first of several times over the weekend left me with no option but to climb.

Climbing and Oli? Not so much…

Realizing that stopping sent my legs into a spasmodic quiver, I figured I had no option but to deal with the fact that I was scared shitless, and do what my fear of heights has, up until this point, always prevented me from being able to do.

Safely at the top of the mountain, shaking, sweating, hyperventilating like a crazy man and quietly proud of myself, I hobble back to my tent in a “shit, that was close”, daze.

Besides this drama, I manage to get a few shots of the marmots in the dull sunless light, first having an encounter with the ever present Haida then catching a few glimpses of the pups romping through the wildflower laden meadowlands.

As the fog rolls in, I pack up for the day and roll into my sleeping bag.

Day Two

Wildlife photography is like mountain weather.

After spending what seemed like an eternity lying in my tent, listening to the wind rage and the rain patter against the yellow sides of my somewhat appropriately branded “Marmot” tent, I found myself wondering what someone as easily bored as me should do in such a situation:

1 – Sleep (some more)
2 – Eat (bagels and beef jerky)
3 – Think (my current pastime)
4 – Take off my bloody skirt and go do what I came all the way here to do

Having continued with #3 for a while, I thus naturally move onto a few moments of #2 before succumbing once again to #1 (sleeping in my proverbial skirt).

2pm

Ok, really bored now though secretly rather proud of myself for being able to spend this much time unoccupied without going crazy.

Crystal, whose full-time job it is to watch over the marmots during the summer and fall, has graciously offered to bring up some rain gear from the trailer. Yes I know the cub scouts number 1 rule: always be prepared.

Prepared for me is; looking at my thermals (would have been nice last night), looking at my rain gear (no worries, it’ll be scorching hot, hence the shorts I take instead), looking at my lovely warm cozy fluffy puffy vest. Then looking at my 5ft tall backpack that although full, doesn’t yet contain food, and thinking that I know better.

Back to marmotville. I manage to get my arse out of bed and hike across the boulder strewn (boulders are always strewn, why is that?) slopes at a 45 degree angle, accompanied by the beautiful harp-like sound of twanging ankle tendons as my feet bend and roll to keep me upright.

The wind blows the changeable conditions into what can only be described as modern jazz weather patterns, where no one, not even the conductor himself (god to some, Tamara Taggart or John Kettley to me) know what the hell will happen next.

I spot Onslo. Onslo is the large chubby father of the pups, lying spread eagle on a large rock up ahead.

What follows could loosely be described as SITTING IN THE COLD AND RAIN ON A MOUNTAINSIDE WITH NOTHING TO DO. Or in wildlife photographer parlance, patiently awaiting a magical moment that will turn my stomach to fist-pumps, as I witness a rare moment of wild animal behaviour. After 4 hours, just as I’m about to pack up and leave, it happens. I love it when it happens. One of the pups comes darting over the rocks and stops for an instant directly in front of me as I rattle off a few quick shots. It’s over as soon as it begins, but I love it. I will never get enough of that feeling.

The sudden, unexpected appearance of an animal you are starting to believe doesn’t exist, is like the short burst of brilliant sunlight through the clouds on an otherwise shitty day.

I guess that’s why you wait.

Day Three

“If you hear dogs barking it’s because Madeleine’s back.”

Confused, “Who’s Madeleine?”

“Oh, that’s the cougar that’s been hanging around…”

Crystal heads off with a telemetry device to ensure that Maddy isn’t around. The cougar was trapped and fitted with a transmitter to allow the researchers to monitor the predators in the area. If there is a cat in the hood, a tape of barking dogs is used to ward them off.

Meanwhile, I sit atop the by now familiar observation perch high above the marmot meadow, keeping an eye out for the pups and any marauding eagles. With only three hours left I’m hoping the beautiful sunrise that occurred 500ft lower in elevation below the cloud canopy, will permeate up here and allow me one last click-fest.

As if part of a script, the sun burns away the fog clearing my path through the meadow. Once again I find Haida hanging around the same rock pile as yesterday. I set up with the sun to my back to prevent glare and wait for one last look at the pups. An hour passes with no sign, then like the previous day, up pops a little ball of fur begging me to stay. I get a few shots in before he/she is once again underground. Again I ready to leave when three heads appear on different rocks. This time it’s Onslo, Haida and a pup.

It’s like the photography puppet master knows exactly what I’ve been hoping to capture when the pup jumps up beside its mother. Interactions between mothers and offspring are so exciting. I work like crazy to try and capture some of the intimacy in their meeting.

Perfect. I pack up and leave after whispering a thank you to my gracious marmot friends.

Hopefully all 4 pups will make it through their first year as the guardians patiently watch over them.