Bill

Bill Sherwonit and Denali





Now and then we urbanized humans are blessed with opportunities to glimpse rarely seen neighbors who inhabit the larger, wilder world that exists beyond our day-to-day routines and ordinary lives. It’s as if the shades of a window are suddenly pulled open. And, if we’re attentive or lucky (it helps to be both), we get to peek beyond our own world, into other ones. The opening may remain for hours; but more likely it will last only minutes, or merely moments. Then the shades are closed once more and the encounter ends, usually all too quickly. And yet the memory and the mystery remains, enlarging our lives and our sense of the world in unforgettable ways.

This happened to me while hiking along Anchorage’s Coastal Trail with my mixed collie, Denali. A half-hour or so into our walk, I noticed movement beside the asphalt path. A closer look revealed a little gray animal scurrying among the grasses.

Not much more than two inches long from the front of its pinkish nose to the tip of its tail, the creature was a common or masked shrew. Even smaller than mice, shrews are the tiniest of the world’s mammals, weighing no more than a few ounces. As the name suggests, common shrews are among the most widespread of their kind, but even they are rarely seen, staying under cover to hide from predators while rushing about the world in their own search for food, primarily insects. The shrew remained visible for only a few moments before retreating into its green sanctuary.

For all the hiking and nature observation that I do here in Alaska, most years I’m lucky to see shrews maybe once or twice, if at all, so this was a rare delight. Even more amazing than my sighting of the shrew, perhaps, was that it somehow escaped my dog’s notice when she ambled by several seconds before me.

My fleeting encounter with the shrew stirred memories of another day (before Denali entered my life) when not once, but three times my world intersected with those of other local inhabitants in peculiar or startling ways. All within an hour’s time.

The first occurred as I was driving to a favorite local trailhead, Prospect Heights. I’d just turned onto a street leading to the parking area when I noticed a tiny, dark form skittering across the road. In other circumstances, I might have been in a hurry, or distracted with thoughts or worries, and missed the rodent’s passing. Or worse, run over the critter. But on that particular afternoon, I had plenty of time to touch my car’s brakes and slow to a stop.

Perhaps sensing the vehicle’s approach, the brownish, twitching vole also stopped, near the street’s center. Then it began to circle, as if considering its options. For a moment, the small mousy creature reversed direction. Then it stopped again, and resumed its journey across the road.

Happily, there was no other nearby traffic to further confuse—or threaten—the vole, though an SUV was fast approaching from my rear. The driver must have wondered what the heck I was doing, stopped in the road and staring at the pavement. I, meanwhile, wondered what the heck the vole was doing, exposing itself like this on open ground, not only to traffic but to predators. What urge, what necessity or whimsy, might have prompted such a dangerous crossing?

Filled with questions, I resumed my own journey, glancing back in the rear view mirror to confirm the vole had safely completed its own passage.

Arriving at Chugach State Park, I followed a familiar route along the South Fork Rim Trail. Mostly I’d come for the exercise and to clear my head, so I was not paying especially close attention to my surroundings when a gray blur burst from the alders a few feet ahead of me and off to my right.

The gray form was followed by an even smaller and more slender blur of brown. Dashing along the trail in a skipping sort of way, a short-tailed weasel was charging after a young snowshoe hare, the two racing each other in life-and-death pursuit.

Before I could fully comprehend what I was seeing, hare and weasel rounded a bend and disappeared. If I’d arrived either a few moments earlier or later, I would have missed the whole thing. Moving more slowly now, I listened for any sounds of movement or struggle in the surrounding woods. Then it came: a soft crying in the alder thicket uphill of the trail and to my right. The whimpering was eerily human-like, an infant in distress.

I paused, then followed the cries, more out of curiosity than any hope or desire to rescue the hare. Bent over, pushing through thick alder, I could tell I was getting close. Then the crying stopped. Taking another step, I heard rustling along the forest floor. I pushed aside several alder branches and there, just a couple feet away, was the small grayish body of the dying hare.

The animal lay on its side, eyes closed and chest heaving softly. The hare’s front legs were bent as if it had been hunched up during the final attack and small, dark red blotches marked the ground. Both amazed and saddened, I touched the body lightly and saw the dark maroon stain on the neck, where the weasel had gripped the hare and delivered the killing bites.

The slow, silent breathing weakened even as I watched. The only thing to do now was leave, so the weasel could come out of hiding, retrieve its prey and eat. Who knows, maybe the hunter had its own young to feed.

Retreating, I pushed again through alders and fireweed, a swarm of aphids flying about my head. Back on the trail I paused briefly to listen; then, replaying the encounter in my head, I headed up the path, knowing I’d seen a remarkable thing, yet one not so unusual for these woods. What was extraordinary was my witnessing of the chase and kill.

To complete my loop to the trailhead, I walked down the Powerline Pass Trail. Along this section of my route, I heard a chipping sound from another group of alders. Songbirds were alerting each other of my passing. Stopping, I listened and softly “psshed” back at the birds. A dark form darted among the branches and something rustled along the thicket’s bottom. Suspecting a family of parents and recently fledged birds, and hoping for a closer look, I again pushed into alders, and the birds grew silent. I stopped and listened but nothing moved or spoke. Not wishing to disturb the birds further, I edged out of the bushes.

Back up the trail, movement caught my eyes. Perhaps alerted by my loud bashing among the alders, a northern goshawk had landed upon the crossbeam of a powerline pole, maybe 100 yards away, and now looked toward me. I peered back through binoculars, then decided to get a closer look at the goshawk, the first I’d ever seen in this area and one of the few I had observed in my many years of walking local trails.

As predators near the pinnacle of the food web, goshawks are wily hunters who’ve carved out a forest niche that demands patience, stealth, and remarkable maneuverability. They’re ghostly in a way, often appearing suddenly as if out of nowhere—much like this one.

Though they’re large raptors, with wingspans of 3½ to 4 feet, goshawks fly swiftly and quietly through the forest, with great dexterity. Once I watched one chase a raven through the woods at great speed, both birds twisting and turning and somehow managing to avoid hitting the trees through which they raced. It seemed as marvelous a flying exhibition as anything I’d witnessed.

Besides being secretive and talented forest flyers, goshawks are exceptionally fierce, in both hunting and parenting. They are known to plunge through branches and thickets, if necessary, to capture prey. Their choice of foods range from songbirds and shrews to much larger snowshoe hares, spruce grouse, and ducks. It’s possible this one had been hunting the same songbirds that caught my attention.

As I walked closer, the goshawk left its post and flew to the east, toward the South Fork Rim Trail I’d earlier been following. Within moments the raptor disappeared, its passage through my life lasting less than a minute.

I finished my one-hour hike and returned home to my own ordinary yet remarkable world with new stories to tell, already knowing that the day’s series of uncommon encounters would stay with me as sharp and brilliant memories, reminders (like the more recent shrew) of the wondrous wild that is always present, wherever we live, and sometimes reveals itself in the most unexpected ways.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

Load comments