Sunday, February 20, 2011

Buffaloed By Bison

A while back, a friend of mine was walking her dogs on her farm, minding her own biz, when all of a sudden she came upon some bison in the woods.

Eh? She lives in the Carolinas. You know: East coastal USA. Farms, roads, well-settled rural countryside. What's the likelihood of running into random bison in the woods there? But there they were, big as life. She posted the pictures to prove it.

Myself, I'm fond of bison. They're beautiful in my eyes, creatures of contrast and power. I love the way they combine opposites. The coat over their back half is smooth and can look sleek as a horse's flank in the sun, but over their humps they are woolly and coarse. They are huge and powerfully built, but surprisingly agile - and despite their ponderous appearance, they can run - and keep at it. Their shoulders are so huge that they seem to be all shoulder, with nothing much behind it - but as any horseman knows, impulsion comes from the rear, and no animal can run at sustained speed without drive from the hindquarters. Granted that because of their enormous power, Bison rarely have to jump fences - generally they can just take them down and go on through - but jump, they undeniably can. Because of their woolly faces, it's hard at times even to see their eyes, let alone assess any sense of expression or intelligence - but if you're lucky enough to get close to a bison (without actually dying in the attempt), there is an undeniable intelligence in their dark, bright eyes.

Mostly - because bison do not suffer fools gladly - you see them from a distance. They are much faster than we are, and if you annoy them, they are easily capable of killing you. But every so often you get lucky, and can see one up close and personal.

You know I'm going to tell you I got lucky that way, right?

One day, during one or another of my rotations at vet school, I got sent down to the barns. I forget why, now; I was on an errand of some kind for one of my instructors. I inquired in the barns and was told the professor with whom I needed to speak was out by the bull stocks, anesthetizing something.

Okay, then. I wandered out to where the bull stocks were set up. There was a huge stock trailer out there, pulled up and parked by a maze of chutes that had been set up to funnel bulls toward the bull stocks. I made my way along the chutes - movable panels, heavily constructed, which can be arranged and rearranged into suitable configurations. Here and there are metal-collared holes in the asphalt into which the legs of some panels can be slotted for stability. I stroll alongside the panels, following my nose until I could see a knot of people gathered around the bull stocks.

The bull stocks, I should tell you, are designed to hold massive Charolais and Simmental bulls, animals that might be almost three thousand pounds of lean, muscular, pissy male animal, and one who may not be all that interested in being poked and prodded by the likes of us. The stocks do a fine job of restraint without injury. Made of heavy tubular steel - in our case, painted a jaunty red - they feature an adjustable head-catch. The bull is funnelled into the stocks, and the sides of the head-catch are moved inwards behind the head and secured so that they fit comfortably alongside the width of the neck, but are too narrow to allow the animal to back his head past them and escape back the way he came in. The sides and top of the stocks are constructed to allow plenty of clearance so that the bull is unlikely to injure himself should he kick, lunge or rear up in the stocks (in an attempt to leap forward and escape). They're also constructed sturdily enough to withstand such attempts, which are not uncommon. The floor is plate steel, easily hosed off and robust enough to endure any amount of stomping by one-plus-ton animals in a bad mood.

The stocks happen to be set up in a sort of bay alongside the chutes; there is a large door which can be opened or closed, depending on weather, and the stocks themselves are under the cover of the roof. So there I am, walking toward the knot of students and clinicians, squinting against the sunny day. At first all I see in the dimness of the stock bay is the gleam of light on the shiny red paint of the stocks and the cluster of blue jackets: Clinicians and students milling around. Behind them I see a dark coffee-colored animal in the stocks, but with the sun in my eyes that's all I can tell.

As I get closer, I hear one of the clinicians say, "Well, he's not going down; give him another dose." A student opens a syringe and draws up drugs, hands them to the clinician. As the students shift about to accommodate the doctor, I step into the shade of the building, close enough now to see what they're up to.

That dull gleam of espresso hide is no Simmental. It's a bison bull.

Hmm. This just got a lot more interesting.

I come to a stop just our of range of the milling students; this is, after all, their rotation, not mine, and I don't want to interfere with what they're learning. Moreover, if I don't draw attention to myself, no one will ask me what I'm doing there, so I won't be able to complete my errand and be sent off to return to my own rotation - which right now isn't half as riveting as this one.

One of the doctors injects the medication into the bison. The bison ignores this move; he seems uninterested in the puny sting of the needle, and stands stoically, his eye relaxed, his posture almost casual. My eyes travel over his massive shape. His hump touches to top of the stocks. I can see the woolly coat rubbing against the painted steel. His tail swishes lazily over the gate at the rear of the stocks; they are barely long enough to contain him.

"Wow," I say quietly to one of the students. "He's big."

"Yeah," the student says, grinning at me. "We almost couldn't get his head through the catch. It's on the widest setting, and it barely fits."

"What's going on?" I ask.

"He has a tooth root abscess. We're going to culture it."

I nod. This is a painful condition, and when infection gets into the bone, it can be extremely difficult to eliminate. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to control it, not cure it - but good antibiotic selection is key, if you're to have a hope of cure. Getting an accurate culture is your first step - but it requires that you don't have any contaminants. You have to get a sample that is from the abscess alone, which in turn means you have to clip and clean the surrounding area, and insert a swab into the abscess - which, I will remind you, is likely to be painful. Ultimately a tooth root abscess can be a fatal condition, because it interferes with the willingness to eat, not to mention the ability to chew - and in a ruminant, the ability to ruminate. Ruminants have to chew their cuds; it's an essential part of their digestive process. Not being able to do so long term would be a serious problem. And of course there is always the risk of the infection escaping its primary site and taking over the body, and the drain on the animal caused by the constant, unrelenting battle to keep the infection from doing just that.

We stand, we wait. The bison blinks sleepily. A fly lights on his ear and he flicks it off. The clinician crouches, squinting at the abscess site, and parts the coarse bearding under the bison's jaw. The fly lights near the bull's eye. The bison shakes his head - lazily, and just once. The fly is undisturbed, but the stocks rattle and groan, shifting a few inches across the concrete with a scraping shriek.

Everyone takes a step back. One of the clinicians darts a glance over the students, making sure no one is in immediate danger. Another eyes the top of the stocks, where the bison's hump is rubbing, then travels to the head-catch. He eyes it hard, as if glaring at it will increase its strength; so far, it's holding.

After a long moment - during which the bison does nothing alarming - one clinician says, "How much has he had?"

"Three times as much as it would take to drop a bull this weight," says another. They exchange a glance, then look at the patient again. The patient, slightly roused by the noise of the stocks, looks right back. His gaze is calm, but its intelligence is undiminished by the drugs, and he has a contemplative air, as if considering just how much crap he's willing to tolerate from us.

"Better give him a little more," says one, and the other nods, picking up the drug vial.

"Anything happens, bail over the chutes right away," advises the client, standing slightly off to the side and observing the proceedings with interest. "He's only a youngster, but if he gets mad, he won't be kidding around."

Everyone nods. The clinician gives another injection. As before, the bison ignores it. He makes a couple of chewing motions, licking his lips with his long black tongue.

I sidle off to the side near the owner, keeping out of the way. I can't take my eyes off the patient; there is something compelling about him. Even still and quiet, dampened by the calm of the drugs, he radiates power and vitality. He has a mild, pleasant animal smell to him - not bovine, not equine - something else. Despite the fact that he is under the cover of the building, caged in the gleaming red of the stocks, there is a wildness to him; he has been reared in captivity, but the hand of civilization has not domesticated him in the slightest degree. Habituated, he may be. Tame, he is not. He may be so used to us that he is unimpressed by our proximity - but I can't imagine it would be possible to ever be unimpressed by him.

The owner glances at me, sees my gaze riveted to his bison, smiles a little.

"Handsome, ain't he?" he says.

"Yeah," I say quietly, trying not to disturb the tableau. "What are they like to live with?"

"Pretty disrespectful of fences, but otherwise they're easier to rear than cattle. They gain weight faster on less feed, for one thing. The cows are real sturdy, never have trouble calving, and once they start breeding, they'll breed their entire lives without trouble - way longer reproductive lifespan than domestics have. They hardly ever get sick. You have to cull the bulls, of course, or you have fighting, but they generally won't challenge a dominant male 'til they're three or more."

"How old is he?" I ask.

"Two," he says. "But he's a good-sized youngster, so if we can get this thing cleared up, I'll breed him."

I glance up at the bison's hump. He's got to be six feet at the shoulder, maybe more. Good-sized. Yeah.

A few more minutes pass. The bull's eyelid begins to droop.

"Finally," mutters one of the clinicians, and motions to the students. I hear the buzz of clippers. Everyone waits for a long, assessing moment, eyeing the bison, but he seems uninterested in the noise. The students swarm stealthily into action, sidling quietly up to clip and scrub the abscess. A sterile swab is inserted into the abscess site; the bison lifts his head an inch or two, and the stocks creak alarmingly. But the student is quick, and the stocks hold. The bison goes back to his lazy, ruminative chewing motion for a moment, then relaxes.

The students begin sweeping up the long curls of bison beard. I bend down and snag one.

One of the clinicians spots me at last. "What's up?" he asks, noticing that I don't belong on this rotation. I tuck the bison hair into my pocket.

"Oh, I had a question from Dr. Gray," I say, and complete my errand. I dawdle a little, but I can't justify hanging around any longer; after all, I do have my own rotation to attend to, and I imagine that Large Animal is backed up a bit, given that it took way longer to sedate the bison than they probably expected. I trail along with the student taking the culture sample to Clin Path, asking him the question that has lurked in my brain since I saw the stocks start shifting across the floor.

"So how'd you get him through the chutes and into the stocks in the first place?"

"Luck," says the student darkly. I snort a little "Don't laugh," he says. "He took down one row of chutes just by leaning his shoulder on them a little. Luckily the client knows his biz - he warned us, so we had backups in place. We pretty much only got him in the stocks because he felt like going. And that's after we tagged some drugs on board with a pole syringe."

Yikes. I think back to that one casual little head shake - and I mean little head shake, not even enough to displace a fly from his eyelid. The rattle and groan of the stocks replays itself in my head. I can't even come close to imagining how much power that bison would have if he meant business.

"What if he was full-grown?" I wonder. I try to picture it. I can't.

"Well, he wouldn't fit in the stocks, I'll tell you that much," says the student.

"How do you think that guy got him into the stock trailer in the first place?" I ask.

"Beats me, but I'm glad I'm not his farm hand," says my cohort, peeling off to take his samples to the clin path lab.

I return to my own rotation, smiling a little, my mind back on the deep liquid shine of a bison eye. It's rejuvenated me a bit, this little encounter with something so full of thoughtless vitality, power, wildness. There's something deeply reassuring about the awareness that no matter what we've changed and domesticated and tamed in this world, we haven't taken the wildness out of everything.

Not even ourselves.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Shutting It Down

Maggie's physical therapy was progressing. She could flap her hand through about a third of her normal range of motion, and it didn't point so far to the side any more. She got a new splint - less angulated laterally - and more exercises from the physiotherapists.

I, in contrast, was getting stronger leg muscles, but my knees were starting to be a problem. In the main they don't trouble me much, but the constant up-and-down of hiking the Mesa - and the hard, shaley surface - was beginning to tell. The downhills were the worst, with the constant pounding, and I went down any number of steep grades on my rump, sacrificing the seat of my Levi's to spare my joints. This worked well enough, although it was a dusty option; however, even the mighty Maggie resorted to it sometimes. It made for some interesting pictures; there was one, taken with the camera timer, of Maggie and I leaning against a fence rail, both our seats completely crusted in dirt. Oh, well; it was expedient, if undignified.

One day when Maggie was busy with the doctors, I farmed out to another researcher, one out of Rifle district that was doing stream-flow analysis. This seemed like an interesting enough diversion; something I hadn't done before, at any rate. We drove out to a high mountain meadow that was hammocked between two saddle-back ridges. It was a lovely spot. The ridges were crested with the rough red rock of the area, the ridge-flanks were clothed in deep green pinyon and the silver-green shimmer of aspen. We swished through thigh-high grasses scattered with wildflowers. Hummingbirds and butterflies darted across our path, and the sky was a deep, rich turquoise overhead.

Our stream wound down a rocky bed, heavily thicketed with aspen and cottonwood and the dense, springy canes of willow and Russian olive - invasives to that part of the world. We bushwhacked through the tough, resilient undergrowth to the stream-bed - which was completely dry.

"Well, this ought to be easy," I muttered. No water equals zero flow rate. Never the less, my fearless leader handed me the tape measure and took the end of it, tromping upstream the required 50 feet, and marked her spot. Normally she would drop a marker and I'd count off the time it took to reach me, thus determining the flow rate of the stream. In this case, there was nothing to measure - except the distance between the two researchers. We bouldered up the stream bed a little way, marked off our 50 feet again, observed the zero flow rate, and recorded it. I gathered that normally there would be three observations made and those three averaged to get the overall rate of the stream, but strangely, we called it good after two. Go figure.

Oh, well. It was a pretty walk on a lovely sunny day in the Rockies. What could be better than that?

Well, one thing: I could have had hiking boots that did not feel like they were made expressly for me by Torquemada as a torture device. The footwear, I will admit, was my fault. I'd noticed, in all my hiking on the Mesa, my lightweight hikers were not really equal to the terrain. They lacked any sort of shank in the foot-bed, which is great for light trail hiking: Such hikers are lightweight, comfortable, and cool. However, in the steep, loose-shale terrain of the Mesa, they offered too little in the way of ankle and sole support, could not be kicked toe-in to the shale for better footing, and did not provide any sort of platform to step up on, should you get an adequate toe-hold.

Consequently, I'd phoned my mother and asked her to ship me my heavy duty, steel-shanked hiking boots. Dutifully, she'd sent them, and I'd donned them that very morning for our foray into stream-flow analysis. It turns out, however, that somewhere between the ages of 18 and 28 my feet had made a few changes of which they had not bothered to inform me. As a result, my perfectly-broken-in, uber-comfy heavy hikers were now keeping company with items like the iron maiden and thumb-screws, in terms of their physical comfort.

Ah, well. It was easy hiking, and ultimately not that big a deal. I'd just have to get another pair of heavy hiking boots and break them in, that's all.

We bushwhacked back out of the stream bed thickets and into the hot sunny day, swishing through the tall grasses on our way to the rig, thence to drive to another stream. I was watching brilliant blue darning needles darting over the grasses when a sudden breath of wind lifted the hair away from my neck. I glanced up; the breeze was cool and soft-edged, sweet with the scent of rain. As often happens in the mountains, there was an abrupt darkening of the sky as a sudden storm materialized over the saddlebacks.

No worries. I like rain just fine, and I dearly love the smell of it on the wind.

A flash of lightning flickered inside the slatey belly of the clouds. Automatically, I counted: eight seconds, then the sullen roll of thunder. I made that as being a bit over a mile away. I glanced at my fearless leader, currently crouched at half-height, waiting tensely for the rumbling to die.

Hmm. We are in the lowest part of the saddle, with high, treed ridges on either side, and occasional large ponderosas and cottonwoods scattered here and there about our meadow, even the smallest of which is easily twice our height. I'll grant you it's not impossible that we might be hit by lightning, but given that the storm is a good mile distant and we are only about 300 yards from the rig - and also far the shortest things in the meadow, except for the wildflowers - I kind of think we're reasonably safe. None the less, I dutifully pause behind my companion twice more as she crouches with each dull flash from within the clouds. These aren't ground strikes, and I can see the clouds being borne left to right before us; the storm is no closer to us, and we're a lot closer to the truck. I'd be more concerned if there were ground strikes - the electricity of a grounds strike can travel through the earth and up into your body - but my feet are insulated by my rubber soles, and as yet not a drop of rain has fallen on us. About round three my companion looks at me like I must be crazy. I smile at her. This does not seem to reassure her.

Unsurprisingly we make it to the truck without incident. I glance over; my companion does seem sincerely relived, blowing out a tense breath when she slams the door of the rig. She glances at me; she looks slightly rattled. I keep a poker face; I'm not sure if she's excessively nervous, or if I'm excessively foolhardy. Either way, I figure neither of us is going to convince the other to her point of view.

"We're going to bail on the other stream today," she says. "I'm not going to hike around in a lightning storm."

"Okay," I agree with equanimity, settling into the bench seat and gazing out at the day, now sharp with contrast in the changed light. Everything seems razor-edged, vivid, somehow more three-dimensional than it was an hour ago. I love that; I wish I knew how it is that a simple change of light can make it so.

We trundle along the dirt road, throwing up plumes of dust in our wake, despite the dampening humidity that is beginning to settle the air. After a few minutes scattered drops of rain begin to strike our windshield. The scent of rain on the dusty road is rich and intoxicating. I crank my window open a few inches, inhale deeply, and relax with a sigh.

"Sorry to waste your day," apologizes my companion.

"Not a waste," I smile, letting the beauty of the day fill my senses, buoy my spirits, saturate me to my soul.

I had one last adventure waiting for me out in Western Colorado. There was a mountain goat census scheduled while I was on Maggie's project. This involved driving to the site, some way distant, and then up the mountain to ten thousand feet. From there we hiked up a little higher, then struck out into the craggy granite fields along the steep sides of the mountain. We went in pairs, with binoculars and field notebooks, our only goal to spot and count goats. I paired up with a slightly grizzled DOW veteran, a sturdy, calm-tempered fellow who looked like he could reasonably scale a fourteener before lunch every day. His easy temper was restful, and I hiked out in his wake in a cheerful frame of mind.

It was cold up on the mountain; a faint drizzle fell intermittently, and a low chill haze hung over us, only twenty or thirty feet over our heads: The belly of a cloud settled on the flank of the mountain. Every so often a thin veil of fog would shred off the bottom of the foggy grey ceiling hanging above us, drifting by above our heads, hinting at invisible air currents. The terrain was composed partly of narrow game trails winding between sharp granite outcrops and mats of small, tenacious alpine plants; these were luxurious compared to what I was used to on the Mesa, in part because stepping on them did not cause them to shift downhill. Less luxurious were the long stretches where the trails disappeared entirely, and we found ourselves traversing large rocky seas of broken granite, lichened and sharp-edged tumbles of stone stacked haphazardly wherever gravity dictated. The footing wasn't really all that bad - the stone was rough, so traction was good - but sometimes a rock would shift unexpectedly underfoot. Furthermore, my leader was longer-legged than I, and the size of the boulders was challenging for my shorter stride and sore knees. Still, I would catch up when he paused to glass, and would spend a few minutes glassing as well, covering slopes he wasn't.

That strategy worked pretty well until I stepped on a bit of rock that tilted abruptly under my boot, twisting my right knee. I caught myself with one hand, and the granite rocked back into place with a sharp, echoing clack that made my leader pause and look back.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes," I said automatically, taking a step. Shit. "No," I amended, leaning down to rub at my knee. I tried another step. My knee sent a sharp, lancing pain up my leg and I winced, grimacing.

"There's a great glassing spot just around the side of the mountain. What do you think?" asked my companion.

I looked ahead at the terrain ahead, trying to judge it with my eyes. I might make it around the bend... but then I'd have to make it back again. I looked back the way we'd come.

"Doubtful," I said at last, meeting his eyes. He nodded philosophically.

"Think you can make it back on your own from here?" he asked.

"Sure," I nodded. "I'll just go slow. You okay on your own?"

"No problem," he said.

"Sorry," I told him. He shrugged, smiled.

"Happens," he said, and watched as I turned gingerly around, sorting out my balance on the tumbled stone and taking baby steps. "You'll do," he said, and I heard the muffled clicks of the rocks as he began making his surefooted way over them.

It was impossible to get lost; far below me I could see the gravelly stripe of the road, the matchbox shapes of the vehicles parked along the side of it. I had only to traverse back across the rocks, pick up the serpentine of the game trail again, and follow it to the main trail. From there I could walk back down to where the vehicles were parked a half mile or so below.

By the time I made it to the main trail, it was raining in earnest. I had my DOW ball cap fending the rain off my face, the hood of my Gore-tex jacket pulled up over the top of it to keep the rain off my neck. Under my jacket I had a polar fleece pullover, and I'd zipped my Gore-tex up when it started to rain, so I wasn't really cold; still, I could feel the chill pressing down against my shoulders, nibbling experimentally at my skin, seeing if it could get a deeper bite. My hair spilled out from under my hood, hanging in spiralled rat-tails over the zipper of my coat. My nose was cold and my knee ached, sending me small sharp stabs of irritation at every step, but my main problem was that I felt bad about bailing off the mountain. I hate letting people down. On the other hand, I was pretty sure that not bailing would have meant that the other researcher would have had to babysit me, and maybe help rescue me off the mountain. Of the two, that was the worse option, so I'd just have to live with the guilt.

By the time I made it back to the vehicles, most of the other goat scouts were arriving as well, driven off the mountain by worsening visibility. Several - including my companion - had spotted goats. This he informed me of when he caught up to me.

"There were four of them, two nannies and two kids, right around the bend," he said.

"Dang it!" I exclaimed. He smiled.

"There'll be other goats," he said. "No sense pushing it and breaking your neck trying to be a hero."

Well, no. But still: It would've been really really cool to see them in the wild.

On the other hand: I could've been shades of Maggie falling off a cliff, big concussion, broken bones, luxations, lacerations, death, destruction, war, devastation and horror. Or something like that.

It wasn't long after that that I needed to go back to the U and pick up the reins of my own project. Maggie still needed some help in the field for another three weeks or so, but she tag-teamed out a few more volunteers to bridge the transition. My own transition back to civilization took nearly that long; I had the worst time adjusting to sleeping indoors after that. It seemed dreadfully confined and claustrophobic. On my way back to the Front Range I stopped for two nights at a friend's place in Denver.

Me: D'you think it'd be okay for me to roll out my sleeping bag and sleep in your back yard?

Him: It's central Denver. The fence is only four feet high. There was a major drug bust two blocks over last night. What do you think?

Me: Ummm... maybe?

Him: You're an idiot.

Okay, I guess that'd be a "no".

Oh, well. I did eventually regain my ability to sleep indoors - a lucky thing, considering the weather in Alaska. I'll never lose the pleasure in sleeping out, though - that's something that either lodges deep in your being, or else exists there already - and once awakened, never really goes completely back to sleep. An unexpected discovery, but not an unwelcome one. There were a lot of little discoveries like that: Little atavistic reminders that for all our civilization we are at the heart of it not completely tame. It may take a few days, but our brains are all too willing to shift from navigation by street sigh to navigation by terrain, from schedules on clocks to ones on daylight, from searching for what we expect to seeing what is really there, right in front of our eyes, undetected because we have not yet learned the search image for it. Because we have not yet learned to relax our gaze and let our brains make sense of it for us without us forcing it, controlling it, leading it into being.

I wonder, now, thinking about this, if that is not where I learned some of the skills that stand me in such good stead as a vet: The willingness to see what the animal is telling me, rather than forcing it to conform to what I expect the diagnosis to be; the willingness to subordinate my expectations to the truth, to follow where the case leads me instead of letting my intellect try to lead it where I think it's going to go. Maybe I had those skills before, in some form, and I just noticed them on the Mesa.

Either way, I owe Maggie some thanks for letting me join her in her adventures at sheep camp.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Learning Lessons

When last we saw our heroines, they were spotting Bighorns on an arid, sunny ridge atop the Mesa.

We only stayed up on the Mesa for a few days on that particular trip. After buttoning down our base camp, we hiked back down to the rig, drove back to town and retrieved our dogs. At that time I had a little dog named Merrik, a little poodle-terrier mix. She resembled Toto on stilts: she had a loosely-curled silver-grey outer coat, a dense, velvety and inky black undercoat, shiny dark eyes, big pointy bat ears and enormous charm. She was deep-chested and wasp-waisted, and had a surprisingly graceful, gazelle-like neck (only visible when she'd been clipped, since in her long-haired state she had an enormous ruff of grizzled coat around her neck). Maggie had an English setter, silky-eared and sweet, a restful dog.

Back at the bunkhouse we showered and changed into clothes that weren't grimy with Mesa dirt and sweat and insect repellent. We were in town for a couple of days, and then we collected the first of our volunteers: A a married couple, locals. I forget now how they ended up on Maggie's radar to volunteer, but they were capable, pleasant, useful sorts, practical and down to earth. They stayed with us for two days, plus the hiking-up day. The husband, an experienced hunter and camper, put his back into our latrine site, excavating a large rock that had been foiling me, and the wife cobbled together something a little tastier than we'd managed for dinner: I don't know what it was called, but there was broccoli, and cheese, and some kind of sausage. It cooked up in one pan, and it was perhaps the only time we cooked up on the Mesa (at least so far as I recall.) They took turns leading our spotting forays, reading the topo map and scoping out good glassing sites. We spent one afternoon perched in a row in the shade of a big pine only yards from a 300-foot drop-off, passing the scope between us: taking turns peering between the needled branches at a small group of sheep, basking on the sun-struck shoulder of the ridge opposite. The air was hot and still, and small trails of sweat rolled slowly down my neck. Every so often a faint, hesitant breath of a breeze stirred the oppressive air, prompting Maggie and I to shed out hats and push our hair up off our sticky napes. Small butterflies drifted by from time to time, and the ever-present gnats managed to find us, biting and stinging - but even so, it was a pleasant way to spend a day, breathing in the heat, the resinous scent of evergreens, the smell of sage and dust.

The sheep weren't the only thing to see on the Mesa. There were elk and deer, cougars and bears (of which we only ever saw scat), and birds of all descriptions, including a surprising number of hummingbirds. And of course there were plants - aspen and evergreens, shrubs and flowers. When bored, Maggie would regale me with species names of the local plants, or pick some bit of vegetation and make me identify it. As an undergrad, I'd majored in biology, with a concentration in immunology. She'd majored in forestry. Consequently, I knew more about T-cells (a fairly useless subject, up on the Mesa) and she knew more about the local flora (much more germane). I was pretty good on the genus and species names of the fauna, but I could not tell a grass from a sedge when we started, and while I knew which were pines and which were spruces, I couldn't say why this one was spruce and that one pine.

It was an enjoyable adjunct to the hiking, but one thing about Maggie: You knew there was going to be a quiz later, so you'd better be paying attention. At any time she might pluck a strand of some grass-like thing at your feet and demand that you tell her if it's a grass or a sedge, or insist that you shake hands with the evergreen to your left and tell her if it's a fir or a spruce. (In case you should ever need to know this, just remember: Sedges have edges, and while firs are friendly, spruce are spiny. Oh, and if you should have to identify a Doug fir, the scientific name is Pseudotsuga menziesii. I know this is likely to come up at your very next cocktail party, so take note.)

After the married couple left us, we had a volunteer from Germany who we called Pooh-Bear. We also called him TimberBeast, because things that Maggie and I would go around, he would just hike right over: Rocky outcrops, downed trees that were level with the button-flies of our Levi's, what have you. Maggie and I: trudge around the obstacle. TimberBeast: Plant one foot on top and step up on it like it's no more than 6 inches off the ground.

Pooh-Bear had other skills. His first evening on the Mesa he took our spotting scope and tripod, fiddled around for approximately 90 seconds, and then invited us to look. We did. He had Saturn perfectly lined up in our sights. Through the spotting scope, the colors were washed to ivory, but despite that, it was in some way like looking at the Bighorns through the scope: Somehow much more immediate and real than seeing it on TV or in even the most detailed photographs. It's as if seeing it in person, even through the remove of the scope, somehow imparts the emotional reality of the thing, not just the intellectual reality. We already knew there was such a thing as Saturn; we'd seen close-up pictures, learned its name in grade school. But now we have the emotional knowledge of it; seen it hanging in the sky, seen its rings tilted to catch the light... and somehow, it's different. More.

Pooh-Bear, apart from being amazingly strong, was endlessly cheerful and even-tempered. We discovered quickly that humor is sufficiently cultural that a great deal of what was funny to us made no sense to him, and vice versa, but he was easy-going about it, and tolerated our attempts to explain why something was funny with good grace, even if it still made no sense to him. His English was good, both intelligible and pretty comprehensive, and our German non-existent - but he and I both spoke French, so sometimes we conversed in French to level the field a little. That way neither of us was using our native language, so the disadvantage was equal. Or at least somewhat equal, because if one of us didn't know the right word in French, we still had to revert to English to go around it.

With Pooh-Bear on the Mesa, we were able to split up a little. He and Maggie - both stronger hikers than I - would go out on long point-hikes, and I'd go on shorter hikes, seeking the small bunches of sheep nearer to hand. About this time I noticed an interesting thing. When I'd first come onto the Mesa, I knew which way was north, but I was otherwise entirely dependant on the topo maps to navigate. But after even a few days out in the middle of nowhere, the terrain starts to fit itself into the mapping function in your head. What used to tell you "Go down to the Starbuck's and then take the stairs to the second floor and the office is third on the right", now tells you "Aim to to left of that shrub and then when you see that one rock, take a 90% left turn and that'll take you to the trail." Somehow I wasn't expecting that. Don't ask me why.

I also noticed that I really preferred sleeping outside to sleeping in the tent. I don't know why this is, but it's the same as it was when we were rafting the San Juan: I just couldn't see the point of the tent. It wasn't raining, it wasn't cold. Why sleep inside? Accordingly I unfurled my sleeping bag at the foot of a scrubby little bush, taking advantage of the slight rise at the root of it to use as a pillow. One morning when Maggie woke before me she was sitting in the doorway of the tent and looked up to see a young bull elk peering over the bush at me, inspecting my sleep. He watched me for several minutes, blinking his large, dark eyes at me, turning his ears to catch my breathing, his nostril sifting my dreams from the air. At last he sighed, relaxed, wandered off.

Like a dope, I slept through the whole thing.

We stayed on the Mesa for eight days with Pooh-Bear, and our last day was a nine-hour hike out. By the time we got to town it was early dusk, and we were hungry, tired and filthy. Neither Maggie nor I paused to collect our dogs; we'd shower and eat first, and round them up after dinner. Ravenous, we decided we'd go to the bar for pizza. Trading hiking boots for tennis shoes and grubby field-wear for clean clothes, we walked to the bar. It was early; only three or four of the Northern Geo guys had yet showed up, but they had the jukebox blasting, and they'd engaged several boisterous locals in a game of 8-ball. They gave us waves and grins as we came in. We took a table at the back of the bar - furthest from the door, but closest to the bar (and hence our food). Someone else had a pizza in the oven ahead of us, so we ordered a pitcher to occupy us while we waited.

I happened to be sitting with my back to the bar, facing the door. I saw it open, and suddenly there's my little dog loping into the bar, her head turning side to side to search. She sees me and her ears flatten with delight and she races over, leaping into my lap.

"Merrik! What are you doing here?" I asked her, quite dumbfounded. Maggie and Pooh-Bear stared at us with identical expressions of open-mouthed surprise - doubtless the same expression I wore. Merrik squirmed happily , tail wagging madly, and offered me a bright-eyed grin, panting with cheerful excitement.

The couple who'd opened the door sauntered up. "I take it that's your dog," the man observed, amused.

"Yes - but where'd you find her?" I asked, completely bemused. She'd been at the babysitter's, confined in their yard or inside their house, to the best of my knowledge.

"She was sitting outside the door, staring at it. When we opened it, she darted in between our feet. We almost stepped on her," the woman said.

"Whoa," said Maggie, raising her eyebrows. She had to be thinking the same thing I was: How did Merrik know which day to escape, and why would she come looking for me at the bar? We'd never brought her there. Why wasn't she waiting for me at the babysitter's, or failing that, at the bunkhouse? Those, she'd been to. We'd never even walked her past the bar, all of our main-street business being at the other end of the street.

"You're going to have to take her out of here," the bartender said, wandering up to the table. "Health codes."

"Yeah," I agreed vaguely, still wondering.

"That's almost too bad; she went to all the trouble of finding you," Maggie observed.

"Yeah," I agreed again. I set Merrik on the floor and stood up. She looked up at me, wagging her tail madly, and danced out at my side. Leashless, she could be relied upon to stick close to my side, and I walked her back to the bunkhouse and let her in to sleep on my bed. She hopped up and circled a few times, treading herself a spot on my bed, and then curled up with a contented sigh. I cuddled her for a few minutes, praising her and laughing softly to myself in lingering bemusement.

By the time I got back to the bar, the pizza was arriving at our table. We fell upon it like ravening beasts, dispatching it in record time.

"So do you think she went to the bunkhouse first, and then tracked you here?" Maggie asked me.

"Maybe," I said doubtfully. "She's kind of nose-blind," I added, and it was true: Merrik wasn't good at finding food on the floor by scent, and often had to be showed where a dropped item was.

"Plus we showered and changed before we came; you even changed your shoes," she agreed. "Plus we've never brought her here, and it's pretty noisy with the jukebox. You don't think she could have heard us talking, do you?"

"Not over the jukebox and the pool game," I said. "And how did she know when we'd be back in town?" I asked. We shook our heads.

Well. One of life's mysteries, perhaps.

The next day we drove Pooh-Bear back to Rifle. The dogs went back to the babysitters because we'd be there overnight. I felt a bit odd about taking Merrik back to the babysitter's - after all, she'd made her preferences clear - but there wasn't any option; the bunkhouse at Rifle was closely overseen, and dogs were not allowed. The babysitters - a very nice local woman and her 10-year-old son - told me they had no idea Merrik would dig her way out of the fence, and they'd repaired the fence line and laid cinder blocks over the dig spot. They promised to keep a close eye on her. Merrik liked the little boy well enough - and he was mad for her - but to be safe they took her inside.

At Rifle district we took care of various business and hobnobbed with the other students working DOW projects. Several of us went out dancing that night, Maggie and I among them, but we made an early night of it; we planned an early departure in the morning. It was about 10:30 by the time we made it to Plateau Creek, a lovely sunny Saturday morning. We cut through an alleyway that spilled out onto Main Street, heading for the post office. I was looking at Maggie, saying something, when suddenly her expression melted.

"Oh," she said, the way you do when you see something sweet and sad, and a microsecond later Merrik's feet slammed into the back of my leg. I turned and she leaped for my arms.

"Merrik! What are you doing here?" I asked her stupidly, for the second time in two days. She was squirming and whining in my arms, licking my neck and wagging her tail frantically. Some people walking down the street paused beside us.

"She was sitting out in front of the bar all night. She kept trying to go in," they said.

Well. She'd found me there once, so I guess it was worth a second try - and as it happens, it worked again, although not quite the same way.

"God, I'm so glad no one took her!" I said fervently. I'd licenced her in Plateau Creek, stitching the tag onto her harness with dental floss, but still - I would not have known where to start looking for her if someone had taken her home.

"I think some people thought about it - she's a nice little dog - but it was clear she was looking for someone, and she wasn't getting in any trouble, so we waited. She'd let people come up to her and she'd sniff them and wag her tail, but she wouldn't let anyone touch her. But as long as she wasn't in trouble, we thought we'd just watch and see. The people at the grocery across the street have been keeping an eye out," they added. "We all have."

Small towns. You gotta love that.

We had shopping to do that day and I made a point of thanking the grocers for thier kindness in watching out for my dog. The proprietors - a sixtyish couple - smiled benignly at me.

"We're getting used to her now," the husband said with a wink. "We know who she belongs with. Don't you worry none."

I was approaching the end of the time I had available to help out on Maggie's project, but I wasn't done yet, so I admit that it eased my worry some to know that little Merrik would be looked out for in case she escaped again. Naturally I'd prefer she stayed put inside the safety of the fence, but it was nice to know she had friends should she need any. But as it turned out, she never escaped again. Maybe it was better fenec repair, maybe it she felt she'd made her point... but to this day I still wonder: How did she know what day to make her first escape, and how did she find me at the bar?

I guess I'll never know.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Sheep Spotting

Last time, our Mesa Babes were snuggled up in their newly-erected wall tent, getting some well-earned sleep and anticipating the first day out in the field.

The next morning we woke up in the delicious cool of morning on the Mesa. The air is sweet and still. Overnight the scents of pine and sage have pooled and gathered, and they hang delectably in the crystalline air.

Ahhh. Wilderness. Gotta love that.

After we eat and stretch and wash and dress, we fill our canteens and pop a few snacks into the day packs, along with the spotting scope and its tripod. Maggie consults the topo map and we strike out for the part of the mesa where the chopper pilot located the sheep the other day.

It's not long before the heat starts to rise. There are gnats a-plenty on the Mesa, and when we pause to drink, I take my bandanna out of my back pocket, shake it out and tuck it under my hat so that it drapes foreign-legion-style down my neck. It does help keep the gnats off my neck, although they still fly invisibly under the bill and inflict small, stinging bites on my forehead. Maggie swears by Avon Skin-So-Soft as a repellent, but I don't think it works that well for me - different body chemistry, perhaps. I also find the smell of it overwhelming, so after the first day or two I leave off and make do either without, or with the old stand-by Cutter's.

There are long fingers of rock that project out from the sides of the Mesa. The advantage to walking along the top of these is that there isn't a lot of vegetation in your way - a few shrubs, the occasional pinon pine. The disadvantage is that they undulate up and down, so if you ridge-run you have a lot more hill to hike. The alternative is to walk along the deer and sheep trails that traverse the sloped sides of these formations. The advantage there is that there's less up and down. The disadvantage is that you're on loose, sandy soil and scree, and there's a tendency for it to collapse and slide away under your feet. It doesn't collapse enough to spill you down the steep slope to the 300-foot cliff-drop - or so I hope - but it's a bit disconcerting. The act of walking on these narrow trails cases them to shift just an inch or two down the side of the mesa. It kind of weirds me out - perhaps more so in view of the fact that, not so long ago, Maggie came to grief on the uncertainties of the terrain on the Mesa.

Here I should perhaps pause to tell the rest of that tale. If anyone should ever doubt that Maggie is one tough, determined babe, this will in my estimation remove all doubt.

One day, Maggie was hiking on the mesa in pursuit of her research. She was climbing up a sandstone cliff - not a particularly technical one, she told me, but a cliff none the less. She'd made it up several such cliffs before - one time, by following a set of cougar tracks. She'd been stymied about how to get to the top, but the cat tracks took her right up.

On this particular occasion, however, she made the mistake of reaching to grab a knob of sandstone to help her on her way up. Sandstone is fragile; it fractures easily, and when she put too much of her weight on her handhold, the sandstone broke away and let her fall.

She doesn't remember anything after the sandstone breaking, until she woke up. It was the brush of a raven feather across her forehead that woke her. She came to lying on the shaley pan below the cliff, with ravens standing around her, examining her with their bright, dark eyes. Luckily, as she was still alive, they hadn't started on Maggie's own bright, dark eyes; they were merely inspecting her. It's a good thing, though; the bird woke her before it got dark and the temperature started to drop.

I have no doubt she was in incredible pain; she'd crushed the radius of her left arm and dislocated her right elbow, was shocky and had lacerations on her head and her knee, and doubtless numerous other scrapes and bruises, dings an boo-boos - not to mention a hell of a concussion. Still, if you're still alive you get up and get going, and that's what she did. After she sat for a little bit, gathering herself, she made it to her feet and walked back to where she'd parked the rig. Somehow she managed to get the keys out of her front pocket - with both hands incapacitated, don't even ask me how - and managed to insert the key into the lock. (No, I have no idea why she locked the truck miles and miles from an human, but there you are.) She turned the key with her teeth, unlocking the truck, and managed both to get the door open and to get up into the cab. About the time she got the key into the ignition, she realized: I can't drive. Both hands are incapacitated. How am I going to steer, let alone shift a one-ton 4x4 stick?

Hmm. On to plan B.

Maggie gets back out of the truck and shrugs off her pack (an operation whose discomfort I hesitate to even contemplate). Inside it is a two-way radio, a precaution taken for just such occasions. She manages to unzip her pack and extract the two-way. Miraculously, it has survived the fall and is in working order. But of course, we're back to problem one: Both hands are incapacitated.

No problem, thinks our intrepid lass. I'll just kneel on the talk button to call for help. This she somehow does, manoevering the radio into position on the rocky ground and getting to her lacerated knees so she can operate the call button.

Unfortunately, this places her mouth too far from the speaker to be of any use. Hmm. What to do now? How else to push the button?

Ah. A stick held in the mouth will do for that. She finds one and uses it to push the button. This works fine except for one thing: Now she has a stick in her mouth and can't talk.


Well, nothing for it but to walk out, then.

Accordingly, Maggie gets to her feet and begins the hike back to civilization. She sings songs to herself to keep focused. She promises herself over and over that when she gets put of this she's going to have mint chocolate chip ice cream and lemonade. She shambles along, heavily concussed, broken and dislocated and bleeding... and singing.

One foot goes in front of the other, and after some long and dreadfully painful (but hopefully hazy) time she is walking along Sunnyside Plateau. By now it is late afternoon - she fell off the cliff before noon - and the light has gone deep and red, casting sharp black shadows eastward. Maggie scuffs along in the burnt-orange dust of the road. Ahead of her a jeep is coming, flinging up giant plumes of dirt from the arid surface of Sunnyside Road. They wave at her. She waves back.

About the time they pass her, she thinks: Oh, wait a minute. Maybe I should have flagged them down and asked for help.

This is no doubt a measure of how thoroughly concussed she is. For the same reason she couldn't reason ahead to spare herself the efforts at getting into the then-undriveable truck and messing about with the then-unusable radio, she can't currently process the logic trail fast enough to anticipate consequences. Maggie is a smart girl, but her brain isn't at its best right now.

However, by and large the people of Colorado are some of the good ones, and the ones in the jeep have noticed that something is wrong with Maggie. One side of her face is washed in blood, but in the stark red-and-black light, that might not have been immediately apparent. However, her clothes are torn and dirty, and her gait is significantly abnormal. Rather than thinking "some stinking drunk", the jeepers turn around to see if she's okay. They pull up beside her.

"Um... do you need help?" they ask her.

"Yes, please," she says, and they help her into the vehicle and drive her to Plateau Creek. Because of the head injury, the medical staff there won't give her any painkillers. They clean her up some and stabilize her, then insert her into an ambulance and drive her to Grand Junction, which has a trauma center. Grand Junction takes care of her pain, reduces her elbow dislocation, rehydrates her and stitches her up. They devise the seal-flipper cast to address her shattered wrist, and keep her for a couple of days. Her boyfriend - another grad student - comes to visit her in the hospital. He brings her mint-chocolate chip ice cream and lemonade.

Well. I think she's earned it, don't you?

At any rate, this story should illustrate a few things, such as:
1. Why I think Maggie is one tough and determined babe.

2. Why I found it slightly alarming when the PT people told Maggie that in order to regain her wrist mobility she needed to brace her hand on a table and lean on the wrist to bend it until it made her cry. How hard do you have to push to make this girl cry? I don't even want to think about it.

3. Why I was wary about walking on six-inch-wide paths that shift downslope at every step.

Maggie did assure me that these were perfectly safe, but still: Keeping a weather eye out. Just sayin'.

At any rate, by late morning, we were parked on one finger of ridge, looking across at the cliffs on the one opposite. Maggie made sounds of satisfaction - quietly, as sound carries in the clear desert air - and hunkered down to set up the spotting scope. She got her tripod where she wanted it, clipped in the scope, and glassed the cliff. Securing the scope so it wouldn't wiggle, she gave me a grin.

"Want to see?" she asked. Well, duh, who wouldn't want to? I set my eye to the scope and scanned.

"I don't see a thing," I admitted to her after a few moments.

"Keep looking," she said, supremely confident.

Shrugging, I return my eye to the scope and stare aimlessly through it. I sit patiently for a minute. Suddenly, though nothing moves, they spring out of the rock at me: Seven ewes and five lambs. I am astonished. How could I have not seen them before? They're right there, sharp and clear as day.

"Whoa," I say, low, my eye glued to the scope. Maggie laughs softly.

"Told you," she says, content.

This was my first consciously-remembered experience with search images. I did nothing to resolve the images of the sheep, and they did nothing to draw my gaze. My brain, allowed to stare without distraction, simply resolved the shapes for me and made sense of them. Once that happened, it was hard to fathom how anyone could miss them.

Years later, my mother gave me a photo of a shaley cliff. She'd taken it from inside an observation deck at some park or other.

"I know there's a bighorn sheep in there somewhere, because it was walking across in front of my when I took the picture, but I can't find it," she admitted.

"It's right there," I said, pointing.


"Here; see, there are the legs, the eye, the ear?" I said, pointing at them. In the way of search images, the shape of the sheep had practically leapt off the photo paper at me, so obvious that it was the first thing I saw when I looked at the picture. But not long ago I came across the photo and saw nothing but shale. I've lost the search image now; but I know I can get it back anytime I want it, and it'll take no more than a minute or two of patient staring.

The brain is an amazing thing, isn't it?

At any rate, we sat and scoped the sheep for a while; Maggie recited data and I marked it in her field notebook. We listened to the deep, throaty voices of the ewes and the higher, softer bleating of the lambs. We watched the babies pronk and bounce on the steep slope, leaping agilely back and forth, shaking their silly ears at one another. We watched the ewes bed down against the cliff, ruminating, flicking an occasional ear to chase the gnats, or else get up and browse on the scrubby growth on the steep rocky slopes of the Mesa. We watched the lambs play king of the mountain, jumping up on their mothers' recumbent backs, skittering off their sides to lay down next to them, delicate heads propped on the warm dun flanks of their dams.

We weren't right next to them; in fact, you might see them much closer up on a National Geographic special. But in spite of that, there is an immediacy to seeing them in person, even through the long remove of a spotting scope, that a television closeup can never even approximate. It is somehow a hundred times more intimate, a thousand times more exciting, to see them in the wild, first-hand, than it can ever be to see them on film or in captivity. I can't begin to explain why, but it's true. Maybe it can't be understood, ever, unless you do it yourself.

I highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Battlement Base Camp

When last we saw our intrepid heroines, they had just conned the Northern Geophysical crew chief into dispersing their cubies all over Battlement Mesa - or at least, one of them had. The other one pretty much just distracted the remaining crew so that the first one could get down to business.

The next day we hiked up the mesa to establish our base camp.

This entailed getting up early and settling our dogs in with their respective babysitters, stashing our day pack gear in the truck and then and driving our rig as close as we could go to the mesa. There were some cow pastures to walk through on the skirts of the mesa, where a pretty little stream trickled through, irrigating the meadow and providing a mud hazard where we had to negotiate. After that we entered the trees and began winding our way up the flank of the mesa. It was a pretty summer's morning, and small blue and white butterflies flitted over the wildflowers, disappearing when we entered the relative cool of the trees.

Most of the climb - and climb it was - was mercifully shaded by spruce and aspen. Sometimes we found ourselves out in the sun on hot, shaley scree. Every so often we'd pause for a minute or two, mainly so I could catch my breath; Maggie, having worked this project for some months before her accident, was unfazed by the hike, and continues on up the slope like a pretty little machine.

A few hours later we were on the plateau atop the mesa. And there, lo and behold, is our equipment, all neatly mounded together by the NG guys who had dropped it off for us - minus five of our eight cubies, of course, since they'd already been scooped up and swooped off to their designated drop points.

First order of business was to have lunch, of course, and a little sit-down while we surveyed the terrain, scoping out the best place to put up our wall tent. The mesa top is generally flat, but not completely level; it undulates gently in the area of our base camp, and rises to a ridge to the southwest of it. Still, there is a broad, flat short-grass meadow stretching around us, dotted here and there with vigorous, wiry shrubs. Maggie and I mow down some cheese and tortillas with picante sauce, deciding on the direction we intend to orient our tent. That done, we begin scouting for tent poles: four saplings sturdy enough and long enough to form crosspoles at either end of the tent, and a fifth to act as the ridgepole down the center line of our soon-to-be home away from home. Luckily for us, there are suitable deadfalls for all positions, and only a moderate amount of hunting and poking about is required before we have dragged our lodge poles to the camp.

Now, I've never put up a wall tent before, but Maggie is an old pro. I have two good hands and Maggie doesn't, but she's not the type to stand there shouting directions while someone else does all the work - and realistically, putting up the tent poles is really a two-person job. From time to time Maggie stops to take pictures of our progress - or has me do so - because at some point she will have to present progress reports at meetings, and photos are always a welcome adjunct.

Once we have the tent hung from the ridgepole, we need to put in tent stakes. We have a supply of those, and don't need to scavenge them from the woods. The first hints of evening are coming on; the shadows are lengthening now, and the the heavy weight of the afternoon heat is lifting, softening its touch to a caress. I take the sledge and pound the first stakes in.

"Here, let me do some,"Maggie says.

"Are you sure about that?" I ask doubtfully, eyeing her splint. While the day has proven unequivocally that Maggie can hike circles around me any day of the week, she knows my upper body is stronger than hers; I'd wowed her on my second night in town by pulling the cork out of a bottle of wine (which, in my view, didn't require much effort, but was evidently something of a feat from her point of view.) "I don't mind doing them all," I say, trying to look sturdy and muscular.

"No, I want to," she says, so I hand her the sledge. Frowning with concentration, she positions her stake just so; this is something of a challenge with the splint, but she manages it after two tries. Using her unsplinted right arm, she taps the stake to seat it and then gives it a bigger swing to drive it. So far, so good. The second swing glances off the tent stake and bounces off her shin with a thump that sets my teeth on edge.

"Give me that," I tell her, snatching it out of her hand while she giggles. It's only a five-pound hammer, but still: that had to hurt. We are, admittedly, punchy after our long hike and the heat of the day (and maybe not as much sleep and a bit more alcohol the night before than would have been wise), but the whole reason I'm here is to help Maggie get out into the field again, which help she only needs in the first place because of her injury. Somehow I have an idea that letting her fracture her shin with a sledgehammer might be more or less the opposite of what I'm there to do. Call me crazy.

I pound the rest of the tent stakes in while Maggie scouts a latrine site for us. I go dig it deeper with the folding shovel while she starts organizing our gear. We have a stove for the tent - which, in this weather, is needed more as a food-safe than it is as a source of heat, but it's handy for that. When I come back over the rise to base camp, it looks secure and homey: Maggie has the tent flaps tied back and most of the gear neatly stowed inside.

The shadows are deepening now, indigo and violet, and the evening is cooling off. A brilliant scatter of stars is appearing overhead. We inflate our therma-rest pads and shake out our sleeping bags, laying them out on the roomy canvas floor of our wall tent. I don't know about Maggie, but I'm beat. Tomorrow will be our first day of scoping sheep; it's that that is on my mind as I fall asleep in the cozy gloom of our home away from home.