It Started With Old Faithful

I've now been in Whitefish for two weeks, and a lot has happened since my arrival.  Foremost, it is definitely colder than Houston.  I anticipated feeling that painful, burning cold akin to rare winter nights growing up in North Carolina, but I've discovered that southerners don't usually wear the levels of long underwear everyone seems to sport around here, which makes the cold bearable.  I arrived in the middle of the work week for the bobcat crew, which is typical of field work: ten days on, four days off.  Unfortunately, I arrived at the beginning of an insane cold snap, so the work week was shortened due to temperatures falling to -30 F in the evenings.  Even the hardiest of wildlife has limits, and virtually nothing comes out to play in that kind of weather.  On Friday, we decided to have a little fun after closing traps for the days off, and Bobbie took us to some roads to break trail and spin powder on the snowmobiles. At this point, I had yet to turn over the snowmobile.  With the completion of the ten day hitch, I had one very important thing to look forward to: my birthday.

Last weekend was the Whitefish Winter Carnival, and there couldn't have been a better weekend for it.  We watched the Black Star Beer Barter (what would you give for a year's supply of Black Star Beer?), and everything was up for grabs: whitewater rafting trips, free advertising, green eggs and ham, and even a custom made jock strap.  During the town parade, I saw my first yaak, Paul Bunyan wearing boots on stilts made of nails, sled dogs, and lots of children dressed as marvel comic characters.  Add good food, good beer, and better friends, and it was a great day.  To top it off, my birthday was the next day (the Superbowl double-booked with me). Bobbie (PhD candidate who chases bobcats) made pancakes, which didn't require syrup because she also made huckleberry sauce to go on them. After breakfast, Bobbie, her husband, and Mark and I traveled down to one of the natural hot springs in the valley for a good soak.  I'd never been to a natural hot spring, and we had a great time before heading back into town.  The cattle in the area are giving birth (we definitely saw a cow in labor while driving), and several bald eagles were waiting around in the field to eat whatever was left from the birthing process.  I don't often talk about the birds in Montana, but the avian wildlife here is fantastic.  Finishing up the evening with one of the best homemade chocolate cakes I've ever eaten almost all of made for a wonderful Montana birthday. Plus, it snowed!

We started work again on Wednesday, which began with opening traps and loading them with deer meat.  Bobbie's traps do not harm anything that goes into them, and they are mostly bobcat specific, save for the weasels who steal the meat and the occasional snowshoe hare who triggers the trap door.  We snowmobile to each trap, and I've definitely gotten my fill of snowmobiling: on the first day back (and my fifth day on the snowmobile), I accelerated too quickly coming out of a U-Turn and flipped the snowmobile completely upside down in a ditch with me underneath.  At the immediate moment I realized I had gone off the snowmobile trail by not turning sharp enough, I apparently hit the gas and dramatically sped up the flipping process.  Luckily, nothing was hurt: I wasn't stuck, and although the snowmobile was, Thing 1 (the snowmobile) started about ten minutes later.  I did manage to flood the engine sufficiently with gas, including filling up the gas gauge.  While most people just turn over a snowmobile, I opted for a flip, and I clearly live by the line Go big or Go Home.

 The infamous M1. Epic photo by Bobbie Newbury.

 But now on to the good stuff. Someone else who goes big: M1. M1 is the coolest, toughest, most awesome bobcat there ever was.  He is big, covers a lot of ground, and has been trapped 20 times as of this week.  He was the first cat Bobbie radio-collared (M1: M for male, 1 for the first cat), and everyone definitely has a soft spot for him.  He is the cat we saw last summer sitting on the side of the road in the rain (doing what? We have no idea), and he is the cat who followed Bobbie and her husband while they were following him one day trying to triangulate his location.  It is only fitting that my first experience with a truly wild bobcat is the baddest of them all.  Out of the cats we chased last summer, I only saw one, and it was M1, only by chance.  We chased M6 for three days, and we had M3 within fifty feet one day, but no sightings.  I felt like a kid stumbling around Christmas presents as I tripped through the snow to the trap where a somewhat sleepy M1 blinked lazily at us.  M1 is crafty- he goes from trap to trap throughout a winter season (two seasons with him being collared) and gorges himself on deer meat.  It's smart, seeing as how he expels less energy in not having to hunt.  This cat can clear a plate of twenty pounds of meat easily, and he weighs thirty five.  I could go on, but I think I've illustrated how cool this cat is.

February 9. M1 disliking our presence as well as the camera. Photo by Mark Cancellare.

M1 wasn't relaxed.  He's a wild animal.  He does know the drill, however: I eat, the humans let me go because I am so scary.  He is acclimated to Bobbie, but he would still rip her to shreds and we all understand this.  M1 doesn't like new people, however, and was immediately stressed with the presence of four people looking at him, the new one being me.  M1 mostly watched Bobbie, I think because he can tell she's the alpha of the group, but he did make eye contact with me, and he emitted low, unearthly growls from his trembling frame the entire time.  As I watched M1, trying to avoid eye contact to mitigate stressing him further, I couldn't help but be amazed with what this one cat represents.  It is no wonder that Bobbie, or anyone else who has studied these animals, is in love.  Yes, I've worked with lots of dangerous exotic cats, but these animals are captive.  I would still never trust my life to one of them, but the danger and the wisdom of a captive animal is not unbridled like the gaze of a wild one, such as a bobcat who quakes with a combination of fear and anger so absolute that you, the one he growls at, know that you would never survive if this cat was given the chance.  This animal knows that he only has one chance, one shot at freedom and survival, and that is something no human will ever truly understand.  In nature, it's one wrong move and you're dead.  With fur trappers, it's one unlucky move for an animal and he is dead.  With Bobbie, it's one lucky cat who gets a meal, and one happy woman who collects data to make a difference for the future of bobcats.  For M1, it's as much meat as he can gorge and as many threats as he can emit in the few seconds before he shoots out of the trap like a cannonball, free for another moment, hopefully to survive another day.  M1 is, appropriately coined by Mark, like Old Faithful: he explodes into your life when you least expect it, but then again, did you ever expect anything different? What he does when we aren't around is anyone's guess, but I can't wait to see him again: beautiful, full, and ready to kick your ass if you get any closer.

A cold and overjoyed volunteer, and one bobcat who has seen it all: M1.