The Squirrel Highway

Pine Squirrel - Grand Teton Rafting

Three times a day from May through October, my fellow Barker-Ewing boatmen and I steer our rafts along the Snake River, from Deadman’s Bar to Moose, right through the heart of Grand Teton National Park. While journeying on this liquid highway, we are constantly on the lookout for the charismatic megafauna that use this same aquatic artery. We often get glimpses moose or deer hiding in the willow-shrouded banks or walking through the spruce and cottonwood forests that hem the river in place. On rarer occasions, we see bison, bears, and foxes.

Our rafts move fairly quickly, traveling with the current past banks and islands, so the wildlife we do see is usually on the large size. But the river habitat is teeming with hundreds of smaller species. We might hear a pine squirrel scolding us as we drift by its home, but we’ll rarely spot one unless it happens to be hanging around at the edge of the river. Boatman Hank McCurdy can identify dozens of birds by their calls, but that doesn’t make for much of a photo opp. And if you have shrews and pikas on your bucket list…well, you might as well forget it.

Those fluid days of summer are now over. We’ve put our work toys away until next year and we’re hunkering down inside our homes to face the bright cold days of winter. But that doesn’t mean that our wildlife-spotting days are done. Gazing through the window of my Bozeman home can yield some observations that I might have missed if I were navigating a 12-foot raft down the Snake. I see nuthatches busy stowing seeds in the bark of our front-yard spruce. Field mice taking up residence in the leaf-mulch in the garden. And Noisy, the intrepid red squirrel, shimmying up a pole to reach our bird feeder.

Noisy’s Magpie Nest, upper right, by Peter Barker

Just a few days ago, I found out where Noisy makes his home, and how he gets here. I heard a commotion outside the window, and spotted Noisy helping himself to some birdseed. He saw me, and leapt out of the feeder onto a Forsythia bush, which in turn allowed him access to a young Ash tree. He scampered high up into the tree and traversed a well-traveled limb to towering Spruce just beyond our front porch. About 40 feet above my head, Noisy skittered across a branch that tapered to a mere eighth of an inch, and leapt to a second Ash tree. Up he scampered to a height of about 50 feet where he crossed over to a third Ash, down to a fork and into an abandoned Magpie nest – into which he had burrowed a neat, round entrance hole.

Noisy carried his dinner from our feeder to his home in under two minutes, without touching the ground. He was safe from the house cats that roam around our neighborhood, and protected by foliage from owls and other birds of prey. He has adapted to the special circumstances of his urban home just as efficiently as his Wyoming cousins have to their river habitat with one big difference: in the absence of moose and elk, all eyes are on Noisy. I spend most of my summer searching out the denizens of the liquid highway that is the Snake River. During the rest of the year, I’m mining for the treasures to be found along the Squirrel Highway.

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