Saturday, June 24, 2017

Farewell, my friend

The black nose sticking out of the feeding hole in the bear barrel twitches, inhaling the multitude of new smells: cedars, wildflowers, road dust. Then a familiar smell - me. The light brown eyes find mine. Berbere, the black bear yearling I've been looking after since he arrived terribly small and underweight at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter late last fall, looks at me full of confusion. 

He is locked into the barrel with three other yearlings from his enclosure, and has been transported over a thousand kilometers from the wildlife shelter back into his home region. I breathe in the spicy bear smell that wafts out of the barrel and tell the half grown cubs again that everything will be okay, that soon they will be free. If only they could understand. 

Or maybe they do know, because they have been travelling extremely well. We are transporting a total of ten bears in two barrels and three boxes, and there are no fights, not even stressed moans. Do they remember how they were transported this same route to the shelter last year as small orphaned cubs, so scared and distraught? 

Plumes of dust rise behind our vehicles as we rumble up the rough dirt roads to the remote release location picked by Conservation Officer Services. Finally a side valley opens to the left. We roll to a stop and angle the truck so the barrel points to the open area. The road dust settles and the only sound is the stream rushing down below. The bears are quiet, alert. This is it, the moment we've been working toward all these months. 

I am torn between overwhelming joy that our bears are finally free to go, free to live the life they are meant for, and overwhelming sadness that I will never see them again, will never know how it will work out for them. The first bear peeks out of the now open door of the barrel, sniffing, hesitating. A cautious jump and he's on the ground, starts scratching in the soil. His sister follows, takes a few steps. The third bear jumps out into freedom and immediately sprints for the trees, sends the other two running. And Berbere? I wait. Nothing happens. 

I look into the barrel and see he's clinging to the metal grate in the front, still looking at freedom through bars. Finally he lets go and slowly comes to the open door. He stops, sniffs the ground. I hold my breath. He hops down, looks around and hears one of the other yearlings huff in the trees. As if that is his signal to go, Berbere starts trotting off into the opposite direction. He briefly glances my way and seconds later breaks into a run. A jump into the undergrowth downhill, and then he's gone from my life, disappeared into a future without fences and food buckets. 

I hope his will be a rich and full life, and that he’ll make the most of the chances nature offers him. Berbere and hundreds of other animals wouldn’t be alive if it weren't for people calling in their sighting of an animal in distress, and the CO's decision to send the orphans to Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter founded by Peter and Angelika Langen 27 years ago. Wildlife rehab not only helps us to better understand these animals, and to mitigate some of the negative impact we as humans have on wildlife populations - it also highlights the incredible acts of kindness people are capable of. Berbere is one more symbol of that. Farewell, my friend.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A mousey breakfast

I wonder how many other people are out there who set their alarm to dismember a dead mouse. It’s not the most pleasant task to wake up; mouse guts have a peculiar smell, and the soft yielding of small bones, fur and flesh to the snipping of my scissors has a certain creepiness to it. 

I brace myself with another sip of coffee for this unsavoury part of my role as owl foster mom and cut the mouse head into bite-sized pieces. While the three little saw whet owlets twitter excitedly in the bird cage to my right, four-month old black bear twins Nahanni and Logan are wrestling up a storm in the mammal cage to my left. They are busy practising bear skills like shredding rotten wood and swatting their paws at each other. A glance into their feeding area shows me that they’ve also been using their water bowl as a wading pool again and have liberally sprinkled the floor with their veggies, dandelions. It almost makes for a meadow ambience. 

Mouse dissection completed, I lift the three owlets into a clear plastic box lined with paper towel. These little orphans came to Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter when the tree that housed their nest was cut down. The property owner, who hadn’t realized owls were raising their young ones in the tree, brought the babies in. At that point, they were just a few days old: only one had open eyes.

They are now roughly the size of a tennis ball. A very fluffy tennis ball, because their dark orange and grey feathers are coming in at a very fast rate. Gone is the homely, stubbly look that reminded me of bits of dryer lint stuck to ping pong ball with a glue gun. There is a marked size variation between the three owlets, but all three focus their yellow eyes on me now in anticipation of breakfast, the broad beaks like a good-morning-smile. 

Breakfast is fewer mice than it used to be: the owlets were gaining weight too fast, NLWS’s co-founder Angelika Langen noticed. We volunteers have been too well-meaning when feeding them, unwittingly illustrating why lay people shouldn’t raise orphaned wildlife but drop the animal off at a rehab shelter. Instead of prodding each owlet into grabbing a piece of mouse, we should just be offering it to the little birds briefly. A hungry owlet will open wide and try to grab the piece, while disinterest and a closed beak mean the bird is full. 

I use a pair of tweezers to dangle a leg of mouse in front of the chirping birds. The two biggest owlets go for it, and it disappears down the red throat of the medium-sized bird who keeps staring at me with her yellow eyes. I make more rounds between the three beaks with bits of guts, more legs, and pieces of head, and as the mouse parts dwindle, so does the interest of the owlets in having more. The yellow stare leaves my face, they begin closing their eyes and huddle up to each other. 

Putting them back into their cage is becoming more tricky than it used to be: their talons have developed pretty good grip already, and the biggest owlet clings to my finger while flapping her wings furiously and snaps her beak as I transfer her out of the feeding box. Her siblings follow suit, and then it’s time to clean up my mouse butchering gear to mix some milk for the little bear cubs. It may be a weird way to start the day, but it’s hard to beat. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

On a more personal note

Over seven months now. This is by far the longest time I’ve lived on grid, hooked up to roads, running water, power, cell phone service, and the rest of civilization in well over a decade. From my perspective, I’m currently living “down south”, while people here consider themselves as living in the north.

But alas, it’s not the north. Of course, people living in the High Arctic wouldn’t consider my home as being up north either. It’s all a matter of perspective, and this year of volunteering down south is allowing me to see my own life and those of other people from a different perspective – that of somebody who’s hooked up and plugged in.

It’s made me realize very strongly how happy I am to live my life out in the bush the way I do. It’s like an endless vacation compared to “normal” life. I guess I realize more strongly now the incredible amount of freedom I have at home; the freedom that comes with living simply (or like a bum, some might say). Having the incredible luxury of time. 

I find I don’t necessarily miss home so much, but the north – my north – in general. The long, slow sunrises and sunsets, unlogged forests that stretch to the horizon, mountains beyond mountains with healthy wildlife, eccentric people, First Nations people, open and friendly people … because there aren’t many humans in the north and we enjoy meeting somebody new.

Our lake at home is still frozen, but my thoughts turn to kayaking almost every day now. Being out on the water, looking for caribou along the shore; that clear sky high above, the translucent water dripping of my paddle and the scenery unfolding hour by hour. The sense of being small, expendable, and the land so vast and of such stark beauty. I wonder how our porcupine is doing, if the bears are out and where the moose cows will choose to have their calves.

It will still be there for me when I unhook and unplug, when I come back. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift of all.