Ride the tramway to the top of Mt Howard in the Wallowa Mountains. Step out into the alpine zone. The first wildlife you see? Ground squirrels rush up to you and sit back on their haunches, anticipating the next handout.
I’m here with some of my family to introduce them to the northeast Oregon wilds of Eagle Cap Wilderness and Hells Canyon, where I wrote my thesis and developed a deep love for this ecosystem. But I’d never taken the tram to the high country above Wallowa Lake.
Here, people step into a world of extremes. At every turn is a story of cooperative survival of plant and animal. Yet, the golden-mantled ground squirrels (that look like big chipmunks) and the Columbian ground squirrels have people figured into the picture.
Generations of squirrels have grown up feasting on human foods in summer. Feeding wildlife is not good for them. Naturally, both kinds of ground squirrels find native seeds and stuff them in their cheek pouches, and then stash them in burrows where they will hibernate for the winter. They’re not supposed to be grouping around people begging and eating junk food. The risk of disease is higher from the animals converging when naturally they’d be much more solitary. The quality of food is inferior to what nature provides.
That said, when our family sat down on a bench and five ground squirrels converged on the picnic, they seemed to show that indeed they are fat, happy and flourishing. Clearly, it’s not a good thing for them, but if they could speak, they’d disagree. One fact is clear. People are part of the summer race for harvest before the winter blizzards on Mount Howard.
I used to work closely with wildlife viewing programs and helped develop standards and educational materials designed to inspire the wonders of watching wildlife being WILD. I also grew up in a National Park Service family and learned that feeding wildlife is just not okay. However, when confronted with the barrage of fat, fed squirrels on Mt Howard, I had to just go with this flow to a certain degree. People do crave relationships with animals –close ones. So how do we fit into the wilder world?
There’s nothing like the taste of a freshly spread peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the high country, especially in the company of my family–my son Ian and my brother Rob and his wife Cynthia and their kids Anna, Becca and Lucas. What if we’d had to forage for those berries and gather the peanuts and bake the bread first? We’d likely appreciate every bite a bit more. Instead, we’re like the opportunistic squirrels taking the easy route.
While hiking the well-trodden trails to vista points, we saw evidence of a far from easy life in the subalpine and alpine zone. Here, dead meets the living often. Here, interdependence is essential to survive high winds, storm and heavy snows. When push comes to shove, we’d need to get extremely hardy to survive without all our amenities.
People have not evolved to live above treeline. Yet, we’re inhabiting all kinds of places in the planet with our wits to replace our lack of adaption. Stripped of technology, however, I believe we do have one attribute that is at work in the alpine and in us too: cooperation. In my family’s presence, I feel that with every shared piece of peanut butter-slathered bread, every playful moment, and every fond glance, I’m reminded of how much we care for one another. Interdependence. Devotion. That goes a long way to our fitting into the world.