Ridgelines

I’m always amazed how life clings to the bleak landscape of the Bench

By Rob Breeding

We’ve had a mix of weather lately. Hot one day, rainy the next. Typical spring weather. Fortunately, a string of unseasonably warm days last week got me off my butt and out on the Bench, hiking ridgelines in the sun.

My old bird dog Jack is buried near the end of one ridgeline that suspends out over the valley like the white city Minas Tirith over Pelennor Fields in Tolkien’s “Return of the King.” The slopes fall away from the ridgeline sharply, in places it’s more cliff than slope. It’s usually bone dry out there, but still, there are signs of life.

Earlier in the spring a warm spell melted off the scant snowpack and for a few days left the earth soft enough for chukar to leave tracks. The tracks showed the birds had been all around the old dog’s grave, milling about. There’s a group of chukar out there that I bump into regularly during hunting season.

The birds aren’t in coveys right now, but instead groups of two. They have paired off and will be nesting soon, if they haven’t already. I don’t want my current bird dog, Doll, messing with nesting birds, but I lack the necessary linguistic skills to communicate that she should now ignore the same birds I want her to find at all costs in the fall.

I do my best to call her off when she gets birdy and hope our occasional presence in isn’t enough to distract the birds from their important mission. Surely they have learned to cope with an occasional wild predator invasion, especially the canine variety, as there are plenty of coyotes on the Bench.

Not long after I buried Jack under a pile of mudstone rubble, the coyotes figured out he was there. The rubble pile was built to thwart their interest in the grave. It worked, but I still don’t like them nosing around and digging at the edges of the rubble. I feared a particularly persistent coyote might circumvent my design, so one evening I spent some time piling the rubble even higher.

As I finished the task I realized I’d ignored the faint whisper of nature calling. I’d had a few IPA’s earlier and you know what they say about beer: you just borrow it. The call grew louder, and I remembered a scene in the 1983 movie “Never Cry Wolf,” in which a young biologist brews pots of tea to fill his bladder, and then uses the borrowed beverage to mark the territory around is camp, warding off inquisitive wolves.

So I drained my bladder on some sagebrush next to the rubble. I repeated the act each time I visited the dog for about a month. I doubt my territorial markings are what scared off the coyotes, and they may have just grown bored with Jack, but they haven’t messed with the old dog’s resting place since.

I’m always amazed how life clings to the bleak landscape of the Bench. Golden eagles roost on a spot just 10 yards or so from Jack. And the other day not much farther in the opposite direction, I spotted a tiny horny toad, smaller than my thumb with translucent skin, scurrying across the rocks.

Out on the flats there are pronghorn and a couple of sage grouse leks. Near the ridgelines, however, mule deer are king. I watched a young doe scramble along the cliff-like face the other day, stotting off toward the valley. The doe bounced up a lower finger of the ridgeline, and as it neared the crest it’s rhythm suggested two more bounces would be needed to clear the hill. Instead, it gracefully floated over the ridgeline in one impossibly long leap.

I imagined that the doe’s hooves, tucked tightly against its belly, must have grazed the ground just as it cleared the ridgeline and floated out of sight. But I can’t be sure.

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