Wednesday, April 17, 2024

What is it? Elusive critter captures hikers' attention

by DEB HUNSICKER / Contributing Writer
| November 16, 2023 1:00 AM

“There’s some kind of animal down there.” I shift my attention from the bag of trail mix I’m focused on and scan the area my husband is pointing to — an open, grassy area next to a small lake. Then I saw it, too. A small dark shape is slowly working along the lake's edge, nose to the ground.

We are quite a distance away, on a rocky ridge high above the lake, so at first, we aren’t quite sure what we are seeing. We watch for a few minutes and tick through the possibilities. Moose? No, it’s too small and not the right body shape. Bear? No, it’s got a long tail. Wolf? We’ve heard wolves howl for the last few miles, but the legs are too short. Badger? The fur color is wrong, and this isn’t a badger habitat. 

And then we look through the 30-times zoom of a cellphone camera lens and can hardly believe our eyes — it looks like a wolverine! We have had a lot of amazing wildlife sightings in our years of hiking, but we have never been lucky enough to have a wolverine cross our path. Until now, until hiking for days to reach this small lake in the heart of a rugged wilderness area.

As we sit and watch the animal, the wolves begin howling again, two of them howling back and forth across the lake basin. Are they discussing this rare carnivore who is wandering in their territory? Or maybe it is our presence that has them talking? The animal seems mostly unconcerned by the wolves and continues, perhaps looking for dinner or a snack. 

We savor the moment and continue watching until the small dark animal, having completed a full circuit of the lake, retreats into the forest. It’s getting late, and daylight will soon be fading. Time for us to pack up and retreat into the forest, too, to find a place to pitch our tent for the night.

After we return home, we share our fuzzy photos and videos with some wildlife experts we know. Their reply was not what we wanted to hear — the animal we saw most likely wasn’t a wolverine, but rather a rare “dark phase” red fox. Initially, I felt a bit disappointed after believing that we had finally seen the elusive wolverine. A fox? We’d briefly considered it a possibility, but all of the foxes I’ve seen before were red or gray. I had no idea that foxes could have black fur. 

The disappointment fades as I think back to that quiet hour we spent, perched above a beautiful mountain lake, experiencing the joy of seeing a wild animal going about its day, all while listening to wolves howling in conversation. It was a perfect late summer afternoon in the wilderness. And we just saw a rare, dark phase red fox.

How cool is that?

Author Note: This incredible experience happened while hiking in the Great Burn Proposed Wilderness area. The Great Burn, much like the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, spans the Idaho-Montana divide. For more information on this unique area and the effort to save it, visit the Great Burn Conservation Alliance.

Deb Hunsicker, also known by her trail name Walking Carrot, has hiked the triple crown (Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails) and lives in Sagle with her husband (and adventure buddy), where she works as an environmental consultant. When not enjoying the outdoors, she enjoys knitting, curling up with a good book, and snuggling with her two cats.

    Deb Hunsicker is pictured relaxing while taking a break during a recent hike.