Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Golf course offers links to nature

Commentary by Jim Banholzer


Jim Banholzer

Every irrigator had seen the bear except for me. Certainly, the bear got close enough to notice me, though—judging by the freshness and frequency of her footprints sunk into soft putting greens on the edge of the national forest. Mornings and evenings as I pulled along hoses and changed out sprinkler heads, there were always crepuscular activities of the natural world to see.

I think that the bear avoided me because this was when Maddie had first adopted me as one of her humans. An Australian sheepdog pup that was somewhat skittish at first, she soon bloomed into a young adult with a full life having command of nine holes of open space every evening. Occasionally a fox would appear initiating a back and forth game of chase with Maddie—neither one ever quite tagging. Sometimes their exchange would ebb and flow all across the lower fairways, as I scooted over on the work cart to check water-pressure levels spraying on the upper ends.

Maddie-Lou was fast; I clocked her at 28 mph from the cart. However, the fox, with a seemingly sly smile, knew it could always leave her behind. I later read how foxes and coyotes can outrun wolves. They have to.

The bear would still come down, though, especially on Tuesday nights when we were off work to deliver newspapers. Though the Dumpster at the restaurant was now bear-proof, it was still on her route for possible drippings or nearby grease. Who could blame her either? Evenings, as we worked, mesmerizing scents of exotic glazed meats wafted over the drinking grass and up the hill to her caves. How could this creature with a sense of smell so powerful that she could find a mountain goat buried underneath 12 feet of snow, resist coming down?

Before the Dumpster upgrade there was a long tradition of watching bears feed from it. Photos exist of the mama bear tossing her cubs into the trash receptacle, teaching them how to garner table scraps. The Simpsons—owners of the golf course—told me that the night of the great switchover, the Ursa had a major conniption fit. She showed the neighborhood how upset she was by swatting down every trashcan in a three-block perimeter. I later heard (while sipping water) in the Warm Springs bar that she busted up a pie cabinet to boot.

One late spring when there was less of a concern of the morning holding a frost delay, Koss, the greenskeeper, was staring up at a cottonwood tree. By the first tee-box, a scattering of baby ducks was scurrying about. As I approached, their number kept increasing. Fifty feet up, the mother merganser was nosing babies out of the nest every few seconds. It was time to roll on down the river. She tried to organize 17 rookie waddlers as they lickity-split into two groups. The first group was off in the quick creek in a matter of minutes. She returned with an incredible gathering effort to herd the second group into the water, to follow not too far behind the ones floating fast away. We stood close enough to see on her face that she was one stressed out mother.

Another spring, we were raking up from where elk had wintered in abundance. A tree squirrel chattered at us from above the No. 9 tee. It piqued Maddie's interest enough that she started barking at it. I had never heard her bark in the year that we had been acquainted. Now a squirrel was helping her emerge from her shell. The little Heeler heeled thanks to the good nature of the golf course environment. However, some—especially meter readers—were not as enthusiastic about her newfound yips.

As autumn quaked on, the water intake area needed to be checked frequently to keep aspen leaves from clogging the diversion. Often a kingfisher would have been heard and then seen cruising along here. Once, some horses jumped the fence to inspect this greener pasture, but found the grass too short for their taste. Evenings, a great horned owl would hoot towards the restaurant, "Who cooks for you—oh!"

Though I had not actually seen any bears, only encountering them in smaller ways, others from the animal kingdom I had watched using the course after hours included: Gentle Mourning Doves, Wily Weasels, Rascally Rabbits, Benevolent Bunnies, Earthly Eagles, Hellacious Hawks, Bluebirds of Happiness, Terrific Tortoises, Craptacular Crows, Wistful Woodpeckers, Busy Buzzards, Ravenous Ravens, Mellifluous Magpies, Ominous Ouzels, Persnickety Porcupines, Sentient Slithering Snakes, Chiparoo Chipmunks, Elf-like Mice, Cozy Caterpillars, Docile Deer and Pink-tipped Mink. Oh, and possum. Once a sandhill crane even stopped in for a gander.

Some mornings if you crept quietly around the corner of the shop, you could spy a river otter camped out for easy pickings from the majestic trout pond. This was always a treat and if you have never seen these playful creatures enjoying winter sports, it is a place you "oughter" check out. So, after enjoying the powerful scents from an exotic dinner, stand and observe from the Warm Springs deck, before slyly smiling attorneys finish a final round of elk and this tiny island teeming with wildlife turns into mulligan stew.

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