An alpine marmot

Lunch with one of the locals. An alpine marmot takes notice along the lakeside, perhaps looking for plunder.

Encounters with wildlife are a common occurrence for travelers in the back country.

As a guide, they’re something to look forward to for your guests to experience. From mooching chipmunks and camp robbers to the beaver or osprey sightings, they add a flavor to an outing that cannot be duplicated.

In my time hiking and fishing around up there, it’s been a full spectrum of these events. I’ve had deer mice hurling themselves onto the tent all night in the Crestones, awakened from a meadow siesta in a herd of elk in Rocky Mountain NP and vaulted up onto a ledge where several mountain goats were bedded down.

The dog has been endlessly scolded by pikas, apparent rocks have started to walk around (ptarmigan and boreal toads) like some weird ‘70s hallucinations and a couple of guests have tried to do their best Planet Earth pics a little too close for their safety.

Thirty yards is a different thing to a 1,200-pound animal with 6-foot legs than it is to a human. Our lunch breaks have been shared alongside bighorn sheep herds and watching a pair of golden eagles hunting marmots near Independence Pass.

It’s that last creature, the alpine marmot (Marmota Marmota) that sparked this writing. They are a super-sized (5-17 pound) ground squirrel, a rodent common to the mountains and peaks and the high country version of the wood chuck. They can live as long as 15-18 years, hibernate through the long winters, and are ideally suited to living an herbivore’s life up high.

When found near heavy tourist areas like Mount Evans, Trail Ridge Road or Pike’s Peak, they can be clowns and shameless beggars. They seem recognize out of state plates, longhorn hats, the soft marks willing to share snacks. But they have a darker side I know all too well.

This week, a friend and I adventured up to one of the lakes at 12,000 feet for a bit of recon fishing. Spring thaw has come about a month early this year, many lakes are losing their winter ice and the trout are responding.

As expected, the road was still blocked with snow in a particular shady spot and we had to park at a lower campsite and hike in.

This is notable, because this spot is the site of what is now known in popular legend as “The Marmot Incident.”

Ice out 2019, my wife, the dog and I left this same site and scrambled, slogged and post-holed our way up and over the saddle to the almost-thawed lake. After a couple of fun, productive hours of fishing, it was back to huffing and puffing in the thin air, then a quick glissade down to the jeep.

Cheep!

About 50 yards from the car, the cry of a marmot caught my ear and Trevor ran ahead to the vehicle. This is not unexpected as marmots are curious, opportunistic little things.

Cheep, cheep, cheep!

As we got closer the alarm cries became more frequent, more frenzied and louder. With the dog already there, it was no surprise to see an adult marmot galumphing off from under the jeep towards the willows.

Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. cheep!

Strangely, the vanished marmot did nothing to stop the now desperate calls coming from under the jeep, the dog circling warily and scenting the air. By now, we were a few yards from the car and the decibel level was astonishing. Every cheep! echoed and volume wise put a car alarm to shame.

Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeep!

Now, often marmots and other rodents will explore under and around vehicles, and other human items. Most likely attracted by the salts, I’ve had them chew the seat and grips off a mountain bike, steal hats and gloves and discovered one making off with my pack, trying to get the last shred of lettuce from my sandwich.

It is said that they can chew the wiring on a car and render them immobile. With this in mind, I was mortified to hear the source of the calls coming from under the hood of the jeep.

Quickly, the latch was pulled and I ran around, lifted the hood, only to discover two more marmots sitting on top of the engine.

They freaked out immediately, vaulted off the air filter and dashed for the foliage. The dog froze, Joy and I were in open-mouthed surprise, and after a moment’s silence, it happened …

Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeep!

Unbelievably loud and clear, even more frantic, the cries restarted. They seemed to come from the engine itself and after a careful examination with hands over our ears, we discovered a young marmot, stuck between the block and the manifold, yelling for help for all its might.

With the dog safely in the jeep, we held out hope that the rodent would rejoin his clan on his own. Carefully, we took turns trying to coax the ‘lil feller out of its predicament, occasionally seeing a little movement, mostly just back and forth. The whole time, accompanied by an endless, apocalyptic

Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeep!

After 20 minutes of cajoling, prodding and my wife’s best marmot whispering efforts, the creature still occupied the same spot, same cries and mounting frustration.

These are the moments that often lead to historic masculine blunders of epic proportions and I take my part in them very seriously. From the back of the jeep, I procured a heavy automotive glove and a towel.

Wrapping my left hand carefully (right is too valuable to risk for a painter), I reached into the engine and grabbed the little blighter by the head and started to pull.

Humans have little concept of wild animal speed. In a fraction of a second, it had pulled free of my grip and chomped down on my index finger, slicing through the towel, glove and most of my digit like butter. With a hearty obscenity, I yanked my hand back just in time to see this first little pulse of arterial blood squirt up. I could now cross “Bitten by a high country animal” off my bucket list, a special moment for me.

Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeep!

It took several minutes to grab the first aid kit, get the bleeding stopped and weigh our options. Suffocation seemed like a viable possibility, but the thought of charbroiling the carcass with the engine and then inflicting the removal on my mechanic was too great a price. He is a friend, after all.

Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeep!

They say moments of enlightenment only come in times of great suffering. Like a clap of thunder, I was seized with a thought so simple, so pure and childlike, it was laughable. Grabbing my wading staff, it was easy to crawl partially under the vehicle and wriggle my hand (left) up through the wiring and metal. “Here goes,” I thought. With a deep breath, I lifted the marmot’s tail and poked him in the rear with the staff, like a rectal thermometer. The effect was immediate.

Cheeeeeeeeep!

The little guy shot out like a watermelon seed onto the air cleaner, leapt off onto my legs and tore off into the brush. Crawling out, I discovered my wife was helpless, doubled over with laughter and I had to join her.

The jeep started, thankfully and we made our way off the mountain so I could do research on whether a marmot bite warranted a rabies shot. We shared more laughter on the descent, marveling at the way this place can always provide a tale to tell.

Andrews is head guide for ArkAnglers fly fishing guide service and an internationally recognized artist. His artwork can be viewed at AVDI Gallery in Buena Vista and at viewgallery.com.

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