A pair of snowshoe hares scattering from the shoulder remind me why I like to get up early. Hares mostly feed at night, but the first tender shoots of spring grass on the roadside has seduced these two into staying out late. My truck has put an end to their buffet, and I watch their giant hind feet launch them into the safe darkness of the rainforest.
I have seen evidence of hares this spring—tracks in the snow, young willows scarred from browsing, droppings—but these are the first two I have laid eyes on. A winter coat of pure white does well to keep them hidden in the snow as long as they don’t move, and they are good at not moving. Now in mid molt, that white winter camouflage is disappearing with the snow, to be replaced with a more seasonally effective khaki coat.
Aldo Leopold taught us that we can learn what years there were historical booms and busts in rabbit populations by studying the rings in a felled burr oak, but for more current snowshoe hare populations, we need look no further than their chief predator: the Canada lynx. The predator-prey relationship between these two has been studied extensively, and wildlife scientists are able to pretty accurately predict changes in the population of one, by surveying the population of the other.
When I see hare, though, I am reminded less of lynx than of coyote. I cannot watch a snowshoe hare with remembering a particular large one I saw hanging limp from the clenched jaws of Wile E. trotting along the Alaska Highway in Yukon on a clear, cool autumn day a few years ago.
The smile generated by my hare encounter and enhanced by my memory, is still with me as I walk alone down the trail to the beaver pond. Snow, liquefied by back-to-back days in the mid-fifties, cascades down the mountain and floods into the pond. For the first time this season, clear evidence of recent work is abundant. Freshly cut limbs drape the top of the dam, smaller sticks and twigs, tangled into a shallow spillway, do little to stem the water escaping across the trail. Two hundred yards downstream, the pattern is repeated when the flow reaches the next dam in a series of four or five daisy-chained impoundments, each with its own lodge, its own residents.
Alone, I sit down on a root, pour a cup of tea, and watch. Here and there, scattered on the pond, icebergs the size of dinner plates await dawn’s death knell. I wonder if they know this will be their last sunrise. The resident pair of mallards watches me for a few minutes, then settles comfortably into their lazy morning routine. With each passing early morning visit, they seem to find their peace with me a little bit quicker, and I find this trend both pleasing and mildly disturbing.
A familiar golden retriever bounding around the bend to say good morning send the ducks scrambling, and signals my time here is up. However friendly I am with 𝐶𝑎𝑛𝑖𝑠 𝑑𝑜𝑚𝑒𝑠𝑡𝑖𝑐𝑢𝑠, I do not expect weasel or beaver to share my affection. I visit with her, exchange pleasantries with her companion, then ease up the path to the start of the plank trail.
Two ponds down the stair-stepping flow, I turn off the trail and pad through a thick mat of spongy moss. Beaver trails, worn for many seasons, crisscross the forest floor from the safety of water to favorite forages. I follow one of the trails to a high spot where I can quietly watch the water. At the far end of the pond, near the dam, a beaver raises its head, splashes forward in the shallow. The water is barely deep enough to cover its plump body, but it disappears nevertheless. I suspect it watched me coming, and decided I was close enough. I never see it again.
Pouring a second cup of tea reminds me again of Leopold who had the habit of rising before dawn, brewing a pot of coffee, and sitting outside his little shack on the Wisconsin River to note each bird as it begins the day in song.
It is too late this morning to note the first chip, trill, and warble of each species, but there is never a bad time to take stock of who is talking. Pacific wren, belying his tiny stature, musters his long, whimsical tune. Varied thrush whistles foul on some imaginary football pitch. Raven softly 𝑞𝑢𝑜𝑟𝑘𝑠 good morning. Pine siskins, already tending a first brood of fledgelings, keep track of one another: 𝑡𝑧𝑒𝑒𝑒𝑒𝑡, 𝑡𝑧𝑒𝑒𝑒𝑒𝑡, 𝑡𝑧𝑒𝑒𝑒𝑒𝑡. Song sparrow rises above the fray with repeated strings of chips, tweets, trills, and warbles. Bald eagle offers up a single, short series of shrill staccato barks. Red-breasted sapsucker drums a territorial warning on a tree trunk before swooping over the pond, crying a handful of shrill mews.
The water remains still.
Dawn is broken fully into morning, and activity in the pond seems less and less likely, so I walk back toward the trail, pausing to survey the dam. This one does not show the same fresh work as the other, in spite of a significant flow over the top of it. Perhaps the beaver I saw here is from the upper pond, or maybe it simply has other priorities, though it is hard to imagine beavers prioritizing anything over dam maintenance.
In the 1960’s a Swedish biologist named Lars Wilsson conducted an experiment with captive born and raised beavers. Without ever having been taught to build a dam, all it took to set the young beavers working was the sound of running water. As long as sticks were available, wherever Wilsson put a speaker playing a recording of running water, the beavers tried to dam it. I will check back here later in the week to see if an interested beavers have heard this outflow.
At the third pond, trail planks float on the rising water until my weight submerges them, allowing water to rush over the toes of my boots. Next time I will exchange leather for rubber. I have seen this water high enough to spill over the top of mid-calf hiking boots, and there is a lot of snow still waiting to wash down the mountain. This pond will be getting much deeper.
When the trail passes through the muskeg, I spook another snowshoe. This marks the first time I have seen more than two in a single morning. It darts into dense, but leafless wood. Hares tend to have two responses to danger: freeze, or run. When they run, unless they are being actively pursued, they usually don’t run far. As long as they remain in sync with the season, they have pretty good camouflage, so running is usually followed by freezing.
With this in mind, I stop to look and it doesn’t take long to spot the pair of white ears and single big black eye monitoring me.Before driving back to the house for breakfast, I cruise slowly to the end of the road. It is still early enough that I might find a deer or porcupine heading home after a long night of foraging. It isn’t until I am turning around at the dead end that I see anything other than American robins on the roadside.
There, nibbling on fresh grass shoots at the edge of the road, is my fourth snowshoe hare of the morning, and this one does not seem the least bit bothered by the truck. Apparently hares have a third possible response to potential danger, that being ambivalence. In the same way the acclimatization of the beaver pond ducks to my presence gave me concern, I can’t help wondering if a fearless hare will be long for this world. But also as with the ducks, I am happy to have a subject willing to pose for my camera, even if he is a prime candidate for a Darwin Award.I roll down the window, and take portraits until the hare turns and bounds into the forest, ending my morning just as it began: hare there, and everywhere. My last photograph is of the bottoms of a pair of oversized white feet following behind a disappearing rabbit.