Weasels in the Promised Land

Todd Burritt

One January my wife and I set out to traverse the Absaroka-Beartooth on skis. It wouldn’t be our first trip to do so, and it wouldn’t be the last, but I hope that it remains the coldest. We’d take a new route and be out for five days.

I like seeing the mountains this way. In winter, the wild no longer feels besieged within its protective boundaries—rather, it comes to you: drifting across the highway, streaming through the trees. Almost every quality of wilderness dials up a notch. The rugged good looks are sculpted anew with ephemeral robes and encrustations. Solitude can verge on the absolute: only in winter have Jen and I gone twelve days without seeing another person. Remoteness, meanwhile, is exacerbated by road closures, be they legal or de facto. On that particular day, driving up the Boulder River, our car barely made it past Chippy Creek, a dozen miles shy of where we park in summer. The winter, you might say, is when wilderness comes into its own.

The first day passed along icy snowmobile tracks to the Box Canyon trailhead. The second we spent in dark timber, smashing through crust, mired in facets. Less than six miles of progress and we’d had enough. When we woke up the next morning we were happy to find a third set of conditions in as many days. The snow was deeper and more consolidated. By the time we reached the base of Slough Creek pass we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. We dropped our packs, ate chunks of fatty food, and set out for a couple-mile spin just for the joy of it. I gave the meadow a nickname: “The Promised Land.”

We found the entire canvas to be written in weasel tracks. They’re recognizable at a glance because, when a weasel is hunting, it creates a graphic representation of the word hyperactive. Drawings a kid would make if she held a crayon in her fist, drew from the shoulder, and had a tornado in mind. I can’t say how weasels really feel about winter, but humans classify them as textbook chionophiles: chion- (snow) -phile (lover of). We do that because they have winter-specific adaptations that keep them as active then as they are in the summer. Most obviously, they change from the color of duff to the color of snow.

That said, weasels are just as interesting for the seemingly obvious things they don’t do to prepare for winter. They don’t lay on extra fat like the deer; they don’t build deep, insulated nests like marmots. And their bodies—long and skinny, with a lot of surface area for such a tiny volume—remain the least adequate of all mammals for holding warmth against the freeze.

But staying slim keeps them light and fast, and that’s a survival strategy in itself. The least weasel may be the smallest carnivore in the world, but that gives it an unusual amount of float in feather-weight snow, and an edge over animals several times its own size. All weasels make up for their lack of thermal mass and insulation by running at full RPM; even their resting metabolism is about twice that of other animals their size.

To make it all work, of course, they have to keep stoking the fire, and will eat half their body weight or more in meat every day. Weasels, therefore, hunt constantly—sometimes in play, sometimes in desperation. If a weasel is on top of the snow, that’s what it’s doing; if it isn’t, it’s probably lounging in the den of one of its victims. That’s where it finds the insulation that it otherwise lacks, while taking meals up to ten times a day. Then it’s off again, expanding its signature.

Winter often feels like this: a matter of accounting. Survival is one big equation of energy ins and outs, how much you need versus how much you can carry, what it takes to make it where you are versus get somewhere else. It all occurs to the ticking of a clock that is always counting down, running out, chiming the silent hours of entropy. Most animals respond to winter’s energy deficit by migrating, hibernating, or otherwise gearing down; weasels are unique in trying to outrace it. Their freneticism illustrates a relatable reaction to the urgency of winter’s demands. For inspiring both laughs and rumination, while running circles around our belabored movements, they are tricksters in the grandest tradition.

*

From one hole we saw a different type of track emerge, drawing a beeline through the scribbles. It was heavier than the others, and more than that, asymmetrical, with a wedge-shaped indentation on one side and two hashes on the other. Jen and I were going the same direction so we followed it. We pointed our faces into the bloodless alpine sun, our kicks and glides crisp and clean, while thoughts orbited all over the subject of weasels. On a summer prior, when the two of us climbed the mountain at the head of the Promised Land (Peak 10,770’, one Montana’s greatest, least-known mountains), we saw a weasel hunting ground squirrels two hundred feet from the top.

The aberrant track led us to a definite conclusion and we halted to look it over. In the span of a couple inches the strange marks ended, a dead vole lay abandoned, and a typical weasel track sprung away, back to the hunt. My first thought was: I was right. A weasel carrying prey back to its burrow. But I’m not proud of my next reaction. I narrowed my brow and wondered, accusingly, Is this weasel killing more than it needs?

I would’ve benefited from having some Aldo Leopold on hand. As he pointed out in one essay, we would never accuse a carburetor of being “greedy.” Rather, “we see it as part of a functioning motor.” When it comes to the functioning parts of ecosystems, we are seldom so generous. We submit other species to our own standards, and in so doing, “we are failing to see (them) as part of the land.” At that time, as far as the vole went, I kept my thoughts to myself. I realized there are a lot of reasons why that weasel might’ve dropped it—not least is that, when the getting is good, a carnivore would be foolish not to take advantage. Weasels will put up a surplus against a contingency just like we will, and doing so may save them during a cold snap.

As I skied away, a familiar thought visited me: it’s surprisingly hard to be a student of wilderness. You have to be on guard against yourself. It’s comparatively easy to go about appraising, meddling, conquering. At the end of the day, I think we do these things because we are invested in what we see. We want so badly to engage with it all—but we lack appropriate ways of doing so.

*

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Full Content found in: Voices From Yellowstone’s Capstone: An Annotated Atlas of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Publication Pending.

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For most people, wilderness ethics are associated with Leave No Trace. This set of seven principles, when followed, goes a long way toward delaying the “death by a thousand cuts” suffered by highly popular wildernesses. “Respect wildlife.” “Be considerate of other people.” You’d think these concepts would be pretty well covered by self-awareness and common sense. The fine print, however, provides crucial reminders of the difficulty—impossibility, really—of accounting for your total sphere of disturbance. Leaving no trace is a goal with endless room for improvement.

*

The common-sense factor of everything I have described so far reveals that wilderness ethics are not a departure from the ethics of social cohesion, just a specific application of them. In the end, such universality is the common theme. Wilderness ethics cannot be understood in isolation from the broader questions of human existence, just as wilderness designation is only meaningful in the context of civilization.

As Aldo Leopold saw it, the original aim of ethics was to mediate the competitive impulses between individuals. As progress was made, social organization came into its own, which required a new layer of ethics capable of reconciling the interests of the individual with the interests of society. That’s where we’re at today: we’re having a hard time moving on. Given the costs and uncertainties regarding our ongoing environmental crisis, it should be obvious to all that we’re not covering all the bases, either. Ethics are needed to clarify what constitutes a moral and sustainable relationship between individual action and landscape. Leopold saw this extension of ethics as an “evolutionary” development. By using this word, I believe, he implied that our survival depends on it. He called it the Land Ethic, and it was perhaps his greatest intellectual achievement.

I say that in spite of the fact that Aldo Leopold may have as large of a role in laying the groundwork for wilderness as anyone else. His writings reveal, however, that the wilderness concept emerges as just one component of the Land Ethic. Other components, such as resource development and stewardship, receive equal weight: they all inform one another. No matter how deep our appreciation for pristine land, it must fit into the reality of our existence, if it is to exist at all.

Leopold drew no lines between science and poetry, philosophy and economics. His ability to synthesize different disciplines makes him an ecologist in the fullest sense of the word, and lends his writing a simplicity that, like great poetry, is as honest as it is illusory. To him, ethics were not just a philosophical matter but an ecological one, and he considered them in the language of each. “An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.” Alternatively, in ecology, it is “a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.”

*

With the right snow conditions, winter wilderness can be freedom incarnate: you can skate over creek beds, boulder fields, and jackstraw alike, six feet to the glide. In my experience, though, excellent conditions are the exception, and most winter travel is characterized by a very different, even contradictory type of freedom.

We live in an era with few of the social conventions that characterized generations past. “Freedom” is the rallying cry; it usually sounds like a good thing. But freedom from connection, duty, or responsibility can become its own burden. Taken to the extreme, it is oppressive. Our highest sensibilities have trouble finding an outlet, and often the first thing we lose is a sense of meaning.

Wilderness is founded on the concept of self-restraint. Fate would have it that, for many of us, this form of self-restraint occasions the greatest feelings of liberation that we can know within our lifetimes. It’s paradoxical, of course—but consider an example from a completely different discipline. Some of the greatest works of poetry have emerged from the most rigid forms. These frameworks, which offer structure and precedence in addition to room for expression, have been called “straitjackets with wings.” Haiku, which boils the written word down to almost nothing, has elicited some of the most profound insights in human history.

I return to the weasel, whose every breath of air and bite of food is sweetened by the imminence of starvation. The work associated with a ski trip, meanwhile, which may be starkly delimited by bottomless powder, numb fingers, and a cumbersome backpack, can facilitate an easy mind and casual insights. Winter is the ultimate constraint: in boreal climates, it is the limiting factor on almost every population. By accepting its terms, we apprehend new standards of value; by escaping its grip, we get a second lease on life.

*

Jen and I reshouldered our packs and headed over Slough Creek Pass. Three otter tracks preceded us. If there is such thing as a chionophile, I nominate the otter. They turn the entire world into a playground, scampering and sliding huge distances between open holes in the creeks. A half-mile further, we inspected the signs of an entirely different version of winter. The tracks of a lone moose loitered among a few small stands of subalpine fir. On either side of this terrible hermitage, we’d cover almost ten miles without seeing another ungulate track. Does the austerity of this existence make him qualify as a chionophobe? No—with so much thermal mass, limber joints that allow him to trot through deep snow, and the ability to digest conifer needles, he has some of the best adaptations around.

The sun sank while we pushed deeper into the timber. It started getting cold on us. The best weather forecast I could find for our trip predicted high temperatures as low as 14, with lows far below zero. We dug that night’s camp beneath the skirts of big spruce trees. They offered us shelter of a psychological sort, but that wasn’t enough to help Jen escape frost nip on her toes the next morning.

Despite the hateful bite in the air, signs of life steadily increased as we followed the canyon down. Slough Creek, in fact, has as much vitality as any backcountry I know of. It is entirely possible to ski across the entire Absaroka-Beartooth without seeing anything more than a raven or squirrel—but not by this route. Only in Slough Creek have I seen a pack of thirteen wolves, or counted ten moose in a single day.

All places are not created equal. Most of the Absaroka-Beartooth consists of what may be called “rock and ice wilderness,” a term sometimes used derisively. The term brings attention to the fact that, while rugged scenery is well and good (and in some fields, such as hydrology, it is exceptionally important), it supports a markedly dilute ecological paradigm when compared to many other ecosystems. Rock and ice is over-represented in federal wilderness areas for several reasons. It is relatively easy to protect because, absent appreciable timber or even soil, it is uncontested by major industries. Humans also find it scenic, their attention diverted from more prosaic landforms such as river valleys and prairies, which also happen to be far more biodiverse and threatened. As biologic preserves, wildernesses achieve their highest potential. Nash points us back to the etymology of the word: Wild-dor-ness is a place of wild animals (deor).

Slough Creek is a perfect example of a place that deserves the highest level of protection available. But there was a time when wilderness advocates drew it outside of their plans for the Absaroka-Beartooth, ready to concede it as a sacrifice zone to industry. Today’s boundaries extend far beyond the Absaroka and Beartooth Primitive Areas that preceded the wilderness. The change can largely be credited to a young engineer who grew up in nearby Livingston, Montana, named Bob Anderson. Tellingly, he grounded his ambitious vision in time spent walking the terrain.

Initially, people saw Anderson’s plan as dangerous. Not just people employed in local sawmills—who may not have taken it seriously—but other conservationists, who believed that over-reaching in such a way could torpedo their effort entirely. In response to such concerns, Anderson coolly stated his convictions. “(E)cological principles (should) form the basis for making management and use decisions.” He believed there was scientific justification for preserving a place as special as the Slough Creek corridor. Few today would disagree.

*

By the time that Jen and I reached Frenchy’s meadow, which we had visited many times in previous years, we could hold the entirety of our route in mind. It’s awfully simple, actually. The Boulder forms a low pass with Slough Creek. End-to-end, north to south, these watersheds measure over forty miles as the raven flies, and make an incredibly obvious halving point for the A-B. A single glance at an Absaroka-Beartooth map helps tell the story: you’ll notice a pinch point in the northern boundary about one third of the way across. It’s a “cherry stem,” a developed incursion that pushes over twenty miles from the deep mouth of Boulder River canyon all the way to the outlandish mining settlement of Independence. Not reflected in the wilderness outline is another thirteen miles of wagon road driving toward Independence from the south.

These developments never succeeded in completely splitting the mountainous block in two. That they didn’t is one of those greatly consequential accidents of conservation, almost as miraculous as the Wilderness Act itself. After all, upper Slough Creek could’ve been the dozer’s first stop: in a 1901 survey of what would later be the Yellowstone Ranger District, John Leiberg described upper Slough as “well stocked with forest, carrying the greatest quantity of timber of any of the townships” in the Forest Reserve.  The last unroaded segment to fall, then, would’ve saddled Slough Creek Pass, which also happens to be the lowest and one of the most gradual breaks along the entire Beartooth crest. In 1977, when Lee Metcalf was pushing for the designation of the Absaroka-Beartooth, county officials challenged him there, acting under the assumption that the roads had already been connected. This would’ve given them control over how the land was to be managed, and the timber lobby at that time was strong.

Today, the Slough Creek corridor symbolizes the hyphen in Absaroka-Beartooth: it is the keystone that turns two related parts into a unified whole. It would be easy to assume that the difference between two smaller wildernesses and one bigger one is negligible. But island biogeography tells us that, by doubling the size of a protected area, biodiversity increases a little, while resilience increases a lot. In preserving this link, today’s wilderness became far more than the sum of its parts.

*

Slough Creek meadows promises the cross-country ski of a lifetime. Nearly flat and beautifully open for miles, it’s a sight that makes my heart jump. My eyes rove the borders before accepting what I already know: here is a great, protected place. For Jen and I it was also a return to trap crust and sugar snow, and our momentum slowed to a crawl. As we quietly labored away, breaking no speed records, I was able to look around. A fox stepped into a clearing among lodgepole pine. Four moose raised their heads from a patch of willows. When we reached the freshly skeletonized carcass of a bull elk, we paused. Life lost, life sustained; another symbol of winter. What does the ski of a lifetime consist of, if not this? C.L. Rawlins wrote, “It’s a mistake to think of the world in terms of a few fair-weather rambles. What’s missing is hunger… I lack hunger’s art.”

The January sun was setting by the time we reached the Tower-Cooke City road. So ended our fifth big day of skiing in a row. Five days of skiing, and we hadn’t once ridden a chair lift, or launched off a ski jump. For that matter, we never saw a single other person. We were left with only the humility that comes from a prolonged encounter with something much bigger than we are, and nothing could be more satisfying.

About
Todd Burritt

Todd Burritt

Todd Burritt is the author of Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone. From his home in Livingston, Montana, he enjoys the Absaroka-Beartooth in every season.