Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Thaw Before the Storm

After a week of above-freezing temperatures, the colossal snowbanks along the side streets and highways are starting to subside. In their wake they leave a winter's worth of accumulated sand, trash, car parts, and dead animals that have, until now, been encased in snow and ice. It's an ugly time of year, with the filthy road grime and brown snow, but it's also a wonderful time of year: it's early spring, the ground is thawing, and the ice on Lake Superior is melting away.

In typical Upper Peninsula fashion, of course, a snowstorm is barreling toward us now. Early April always seems to bring one last hurrah for winter in the form of several inches of heavy snow, only to have it melt within a day or two of falling.

On my way to work this morning, I spotted something that was very-white against the very-brown snowbank alongside the highway. It took me a moment to realize that what I saw was a snowshoe hare, in its winter pelage. I'd never seen a white snowshoe hare before, and soon I was doubling back to retrieve it. Though it appeared to be a fresh hit, it wasn't. The body had been entombed in the snowbank for some time: it was slightly squished, a little bit freeze-dried, and stuck to the ice upon which it rested.

The first thing that struck me, of course, was the color of the hare. I don't believe I've ever seen a white mammal in the wild before, and the fur seemed almost foreign or exotic, or like that of a domesticated animal. Its ears were small and rounded; its huge feet were covered in dense hair.

One problem I've had with photographing lagomorphs is that, overall, their bodies are very amorphous. They don't have toe pads or visible claws, their mouths are small (and frankly, kind of creepy), and their thick fur obscures the curves and angles of their musculature. For this snowshoe hare, I focused on the head and ears, as well as its large hind feet.

After I finished photographing the hare, I placed it on the riverbank as an offering for the neighborhood foxes. I feel very lucky to have seen this animal; its fur was so very clean against the dirty snowbanks, but I know that the snow that will fall tonight will be that same, bright white.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Cruel Winter

It's the last evening of February. Despite the subzero daytime temperatures, two feet of frozen slush on the ground, and windchills that continue to dip into the negative thirties (degrees Fahrenheit), the animals continue to survive. The chickadees and nuthatches and goldfinches continue to visit the birdfeeder, even in the most foul of weather; the foxes continue their nightly prowls down the banks of the Chocolay River; the red squirrels continue to defend their territory from gray squirrels, all the while sniffing out potential mates.

It's incredible.

And it's sad and frustrating and endlessly upsetting to think that these animals can somehow make it through a winter so cruel, only to be abruptly ended by the treads of a tire.

Over the last few weeks, we'd noticed a pair of red squirrels expressing interest in one another — they'd chase each other through our backyard, but never in a threatening manner. We became hopeful that they'd produce offspring; red squirrels are great backyard companions, as they keep gray squirrels away and are enjoyable to watch. 

A few days ago, as I was driving home from work, I came upon a red squirrel, hit in the road, just up the street. Whether or not it was one of "our" red squirrels remains to be seen. Still, it was upsetting to see this tiny animal — an animal that survives the winters here with such an inspirational ferocity — utterly destroyed by a car tire.

After photographing the red squirrel, I left it on the riverbank — hopefully it was discovered by one of the prowling neighborhood foxes, and was a good meal.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Feeding the Foxes

2013 was a rough year for the gray foxes living in our neighborhood. After the female gray fox was hit in December 2012, I worried for them; but in the spring, I saw a pair of fox tracks weaving through the freshly-fallen snow, and I had hope again. Over the summer, Steph and I spotted them often on our walks: usually pups, they crossed the path or trotted along it, regarding us with a wary curiosity. At one point, when heading home around midnight, we even caught a glimpse of what we're quite certain were two red foxes, walking calmly along the road.

All seemed well for the foxes of the neighborhood, until September hit — and within the span of a week, two fox pups were dead, both victims of traffic. We didn't see any foxes after that, but we did find evidence of their habits; in addition, we heard more about the elusive red foxes that lived down the street. When I put what remained of the doe out at the end of November, I hoped to provide the foxes — both red and gray — with good meat during what was already shaping up to be a ridiculously cold winter.

About a week or so ago, Steph and I looked outside and realized that everything but the deer's head was gone: the spinal column, the ribs, the pelvis — they had been stolen in the night, no doubt by the larger, stronger red foxes. It was incredible! I wondered where the bones would end up, and hoped their final resting place wouldn't be on someone's front lawn. The next morning, the doe's head was gone: the rope tied around her neck had been chewed through.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and our neighborhood foxes — enduring what's been the coldest, snowiest winter in decades — were hungry. They still are.

A few days ago, I pulled a dead cottontail out of our freezer. It had been shot sometime in the autumn and given to us — and I figured that the foxes would rather like it if I left it out for them. Before I skinned the rabbit, I took a couple photos of it hanging.

Once skinned, I tied the cottontail securely, leaving it hanging above the ever-rising snow line. The foxes didn't visit last night, but as the temperature continues to hover around 0°F during the day and -10°F at night, I'm sure they will be stopping by soon.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Another Year Down

2013 wasn't a kind year — not for me, nor for Steph, nor for family and friends. It was an all-around unfortunate twelve months, a year that I am glad is now behind me. That said, there were some good things that happened, for which I am quite thankful. I tried new ideas with my photography, namely my Equinox to Equinox project, which involved taking (at least) one photograph every day between the Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes. It forced me to try different approaches with my photography, and it made me take pictures even when outdoor conditions were not ideal. Photography aside, 2013 was also a year of much-needed escapism in the form of comic books, cartoons, and movies. We made friends online, strengthened friendships in town, and began an odyssey of figuring out how to live with food allergies and chronic illness.

Several times, this project was placed on the back burner — limited funds for traveling, limited energy for hiking, limited motivation on account of depression. I'm not as happy with my photography from 2013; while I did improve, I had a lack of subjects due to the reasons mentioned above. It was frustrating, and the long winter and cold summer certainly didn't help. However, the year ended with the harvest and processing of a roadkill deer — something that has always been a dream of mine, and something that is in-line with the core values of this project.

Gray Squirrel III
January 9

February 8

  Buck I
March 15
White-Footed MouseApril 24
   CurlMay 11
   Fish BonesJune 15
   GoodbyeJuly 13

   Sparrow Progress III 
August 14
   Trailside Pup VISeptember 8
   Garter Snake, In-Hand IIIOctober 9

   Black Friday III 
November 29

   December 31, 2013 
December 31

So, what can I hope for in 2014? If there's one thing I want more than anything else, it's stability — in all aspects of life. I haven't set any goals yet, at least not for this project. All I can hope for is to get outside when I can, take photographs when I can, and when I'm not doing those things, take care of Steph and myself. 2014 will be a better year. I look forward to seeing what it will bring.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Doe Food

It's been a month since I butchered the roadkill doe! It may have taken an entire day, but thanks to what I learned from some friends a few years ago, it was a relatively easy process. The most time-consuming part, it turns out, was grinding the meat — and since all we have is an old universal hand grinder, that step certainly took a while. By the end of the day, our freezer was packed: one shelf occupied by the blueberries, huckleberries, and raspberries picked over the summer, the second shelf occupied by roadkill venison.

The following day I took the carcass down from where it hung, then tied it at the base of a tree trunk, facing the riverbank. It didn't take long for the neighborhood wildlife to find it.

Shortly after I processed the deer, the temperature plummeted, and that's one reason I haven't updated until now. December, as a whole, has been ridiculously, uncharacteristically cold. For over a week, temperatures didn't climb higher than 0°F, and the Chocolay River froze — something that usually doesn't happen until late January or early February. (Another cold front has since moved in: this morning, it was -8°F when I woke up, and the river had frozen over once again.)

Extreme cold is rarely welcomed by animals, especially those that must eat meat to survive. I was very pleased, then, when I saw many fox tracks leading to and from the deer carcass. Over the last month, I have seen chickadees and nuthatches pecking away at the remaining meat; I've seen a domestic dog tearing at it more than once; I've seen a red squirrel perched upon the carcass. It's being enjoyed by a multitude of animals, especially the foxes, and that makes me very happy.

My parents traveled to Marquette for the holidays, and on Christmas Day my dad and I collaborated to make venison stew. It was the first time I'd eaten the meat from the deer that I had processed myself.

The resulting dish (venison with potatoes, onions, green beans, crimini mushrooms, parsnips, and rutabaga) was very good. The taste was far less "gamey" than the venison I'd been gifted by a co-worker, tasting much more like beef (or at least, how I remember the taste of beef). It was also very lean and tender.

Earlier today I braved the extreme cold and went out to check on the deer carcass. The snow around it was trampled by the feet of many animals, and a rather delightful surprise left behind were the wing-marks of small birds:

In the coming weeks and months, many more beings will be fed by this doe.