Chirping Salt Vultures

Photo by Megan Paulson

Chirping Salt Vultures

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Knight, Phil

There are a lot of annoying critters out there, both wild and domestic—packrats, mice, magpies, roosters, raccoons, possums, porcupines, and poodles to name a few. But as far as sheer destructiveness goes, nothing in my experience beats a marmot. I’m a big fan of wildlife of all kinds, and often prefer wild critters to humans. But sometimes you have to draw the line. Thieving, scheming marmots, bent on satisfying their cravings, have repeatedly gnawed upon and shredded my gear, and once nearly robbed me of my footwear.

Marmota flaviventris, the yellow-bellied marmot, inhabits much of the Rocky Mountains. Junkies of the worst kind, marmots possess an unquenchable hankering for salt in any form, and they will stop at nothing to get it.

My first run-in with one of these pests was in Glacier National Park. As I was hiking the Garden Wall Trail, an unlikely path traversing vertical cliffs along the Continental Divide, I spotted a low-slung, furry beast hustling toward me along the trail. I halted, wondering what manner of critter this was. “Bold” is what I found out. It ran straight up to me, stopped a foot away and sat up on its bottom, its front paws held in the supplicating posture of all beggars. It then darted forward, put its paws up on my gaiter-clad leg, and began licking my gaiter! Since my leg was protected I let it continue, fascinated to see its little tongue rasping at my garment. But it soon opened its jaws and made as if to gnaw on my leg with yellowed buckteeth, and I drew the line at that, kicking at the varmint to drive it away. It continued to follow me for over a hundred yards down the trail.

One summer I backpacked to the Spanish Lakes in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, a stunning location with jewel-like tarns set amidst alpine peaks and crags. Bolting a bit early from my landscaping job on a sunny Friday afternoon, I made the nine-mile hike to the lakes in three hours, arriving in time to set up camp at dusk, tired and pleased with myself.

As I settled in at the lake, I heard the telltale chirp of marmots on the rocky slopes near the lakes. Marmots inhabit dank holes among boulder piles in the higher elevations and spend much of their waking hours lounging in indolence on flat rocks, soaking up the sun, their fat carcasses draped over the rocks like slabs of butter melting on hot pavement. Lazier than sloths, they spend as much as eight months of the year hibernating. But something lacking in their diet causes them to seek salt with uncharacteristic zeal.

In the morning I made a quick ascent of nearby Beehive Peak, a spectacular spire requiring a balancing act on a knife-edged ridge to reach the top. Upon my return to Spanish Lakes, I noticed something amiss with my camp. Someone, or something, had been in my tent! Pawing through the wreckage I realized that my sleeping pad was missing. Who would steal that soiled old thing?

Then I noticed the chew marks on my pack where some nasty beast had gnawed on a leather patch. I deduced that a marmot had done the deed, and it had done considerable damage. After some searching I finally found my pad fifty yards away, where a marmot had dragged it off and chewed on it, craving the salt that had soaked into it from years of night sweats and bad dreams. Gathering my ragged, chewed gear I hustled off to the valley, chastened and more aware of the dangers of salt-loving varmints.

On another summer weekend I made a solo bid to climb Mount Moran, an impressive peak in the Teton Range. Moran rises almost six thousand feet from the lake-studded floor of Jackson Hole. My goal was to ascend the precipitous Skillet Glacier to the summit.

After I dodged a belligerent moose on a harrowing bushwhack from Leigh Lake, I scrambled halfway up Moran to the foot of the Skillet Glacier, where I made a bivouac camp. Beat from the approach, I took off my boots to air my sore, wet feet. I’d seen some low, dark varmints running about, but did not realize they had approached me till I saw one scuttling away, my boot clutched in its jaws! Visions of hobbling out on one boot flashed before my eyes as I jumped up and hollered, making the marmot pick up speed with its prize. Desperate, I grabbed a handful of rocks and hurled them at the beast, and amazingly I connected. Grunting in pain, the varmint rolled over twice as my missile made its mark, dropping the boot and hustling away in a low-slung waddle, its greasy tail describing frantic circles in the air as it ran. I hopped over in my stocking feet, ignoring the pain of sharp rocks, and seized my footwear before another marmot could get at it.

My boots safely back on my feet, I gazed round as the sharp shadows of the Tetons lengthened across Jackson Hole and several marmots circled my camp like sharks. I cooked up some soup on my little camp stove, and hurled away the rinse water after I was done. The marmots were so desperate for some flavor, they ate the gravel where my dishwater landed.

I made the summit of Moran by 8am, then crept carefully back down the glacier, secured by my ice axe, only to find that marmots had again invaded my camp. Wise to their tricks, I had left my tent door open so they could go in without chewing through the side of the tent. This time I had left a sweaty t-shirt hanging in the tent to dry, and discovered that the marmots had eaten the neck out of it to get the salt.

This essay is an excerpt from Funny Trail Tales, published by Globe Pequot Press.


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