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    Tracking Endangered Mountain Caribou - Patagonia Employees Help Witness for Wildlife

    Caribou Last year, six groups of Patagonia employees ventured out to explore, document, and help protect various wildlife corridors in the U.S. Among those groups were Dave Campbell and Andrew Marshall, who travelled north in hopes of spotting caribou along the corridor located in the lush region of southeast British Columbia.

    These citizen-naturalists were participants in Witness for Wildlife, a Freedom to Roam initiative.  As a co-founder of Freedom to Roam, Patagonia has, for three years, supported efforts to protect the critical wildways that animals must have to move and survive in the face of pressure from human development and climate change. Witness for Wildlife needs more volunteers dedicated to chronicling and protecting wildlife corridors - visit www.witnessforwildlife.org to become a citizen naturalist, and read the following story by Patagonia employee Dave Campbell to get inspired.

    Last spring Patagonia’s environmental department announced that they’d pulled together funding to sponsor select employee groups to travel to and document critical, at-risk wildlife corridors within North America, as part of the Witness For Wildlife and Freedom To Roam campaigns. Coworker Andrew Marshall and I took interest in the endangered mountain caribou corridor of the Selkirk Mountains of B.C. and after an extensive amount of research, we found ourselves on the road headed north.

    Andrew and I identified a low elevation old-growth cedar forest deep inside the Goat Range Provincial Park and decided to access it via Wilson Creek. The weather was clear when we parked and while hiking up a two-track paralleling lower Wilson Creek it almost seemed like we were in for a smooth outing. However, within a half hour we encountered a large mass of wood debris where a bridge used to be at the first tributary, and after a messy crossing we were unsuccessful at finding a trail on the other side.

    [Photo courtesy Conservation Northwest ©2010 Patrice Halley]

    Nevertheless, we tightened our boots and began thrashing through the dense forest, always staying within hearing distance of Wilson Creek. Occasionally we’d stumble across a game/foot trail, though never any human footprints. We did see many large double crescent-shaped hoof tracks and piles of partly digested lichen scat, both of which we presumed were from mountain caribou. The Goat Range is also home to the mystical white grizzly; this detail kept us on our toes.
     
    Andrew-brush At the thicker sections we opted for following the creek’s shoreline, which inevitably forced us into tedious crossings. When we got tired of that we went swimming through endless thorn bushes. During certain points of the journey it felt like we were covering less than a quarter-mile per hour. We were fortunate enough to locate a flat spot in the mud for a first camp, though were forced onto the rocks of the Wilson’s banks the second evening. Then the rain came and we realized just how deep in the brush we really were.

    During one of many heavy rain sessions we came to the amazing revelation that the huge ruckus we were making while thrashing through the brush probably wasn’t doing much to attract mountain caribou. Furthermore, we could only see around 10 feet in front of us, which doesn’t lend itself to stellar wildlife witnessing/photography opportunities. So after three days of groveling, we crawled out unscathed. We never saw another person or even a human track, but then again, you’d have to be half-mad to go through there in the first place.

    Our second destination was Stagleap Provincial Park; a prominent mountain caribou roaming ground 4 miles directly north of the Washington/Idaho border. Our original plan was to access it by bushwhacking in from the east. While driving up Sheep Creek Road we grew very excited when we passed multiple signs reading “Important Caribou Habitat – No Snowmobiling Beyond This Point."

    Danger sign The local mountain caribou are an endangered species, their decline has been caused by several factors including human disturbance.” However, our excitement was extinguished when we came up to a sign nailed onto a tree, reading “DANGER” spray painted in huge neon orange letters. Below it was a more official sign reading “Danger: Active Mining – Keep Out.” The next set of colorful, hand-drawn signs featured cartoon animals with condescending messages against hunting and trespassing. When we reached what we had originally planned to be our trailhead, we discovered an abandoned minivan full of suspicious paraphernalia. On second thought, we decided not to leave the car there overnight. So we split and opted to take the conventional entrance into Stagleap.

    After parking on Highway 3 we hiked north via a pleasant trail leading to a rocky ridge, where we set up a base camp on a tight saddle overlooking a few ponds. The following morning I set out alone with my camera and sleeping pad, and eventually found a brush-veiled hiding spot near the edge of a pond. Hours passed as I sat motionless. Normally I would have gone stir crazy, though I really hoped to see a mountain caribou and was still pretty beat from our spree of bush-thrashing. Then I heard the sound of snags being crushed underfoot a very large something, 40 feet behind my right shoulder. Mountain caribou? A moose? Or would I have a rowdy encounter with a grizzly? I could feel my heart beating. Then there was more breaking of timber and crushing of shrubs, this time closer. I looked down to my left: my camera was out of its case and I was able to gingerly turn it on. Down to my right: a 9.4oz bottle of bear spray; I removed the safety.

    Stagleap Well, I didn’t end up seeing a mountain caribou or a grizzly, though I quietly sat there for 3 or 4 more hours until satisfied. Traveling through British Colombia reminded me that there is a magic in the woods, and that the older we get, the more it shrinks. Part of it is our perception as we age, though it's also because many critical natural habitats are rapidly shrinking by the minute. I wish that I could say that mountain caribou are like missing cars keys, in that if we stop looking, we'll find them. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

    For another take on the BC trip and other story postings check out: http://www.witnessforwildlife.org/patagonia/story.php?id=8

    Anxious to spend some time in the great outdoors? Go to the Witness for Wildlife site to scope out volunteer options.

    [Top, right - Andrew Marshall does his best to find a way through the thick brush of Goat Range Provincial Park.  Middle - One of the signs that greeted the two along Sheep Creek Road. Photos: Dave N. Campbell.  Bottom - The weather breaks over Stagleap Provincial Park, B.C. Canada. Photo - Andrew Marshall]

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