Nov. 19, 1996 (when I lived in Pinawa)
Last night when I was returning from work quite late, after midnight, I saw a red fox wandering around in the parking lot. (That is nothing unusual, the labs I work in are situated practically in the wilderness about 18 km from the town of Pinawa, which itself is completely surrounded by forests. So there is a lot of wild animals wandering around all the time - deer, foxes, coyotes, bears, skunks...) However, I was surprised that he didn't run away as wild animals normally do, on the contrary, he approached me apparently begging for food! He nevertheless always maintained a safe distance of about 2 meters from me. But when I left a door of my car open and stepped away to clear some snow from the other side of the car, that fox leaped onto the driver's seat and started to chew on my bag, apparently it must have smelt of food! I have never encountered something like that before (I met blue jays or chipmunks begging for food in places frequented by tourists before, but never such a big animal).
This happened just one day after a 21 hour long blizzard that dumped about 30 cm of snow on the Whiteshell area. That poor fox must have been shocked by the sudden arrival of so much snow, and didn't know where to go to look for food, I thought. It seemed as if he tried to look straight into my eyes to arouse my sympathy, and his face and eyes were very cute, as if intelligent, human-like. It was a strange feeling. It evoked the memories of fairy tales in which a beautiful princess is turned into a fox by an evil sorcerer. Might it be the encounters with animals with such cute faces gave origins to a many fairy tale in the past?
Today I was told that he has been hanging close to the Labs site for some time, maybe for all his short life, so he must be used to people and may have been fed by somebody in the past. That would explain his semi-tame behaviour. Animals seem to be very adaptable in their quest to survive. Today he was even seen just outside of the glass wall of our cafeteria watching people eating inside. In spite of this explanation, I will always remember my first encounter with him last night as something close to a magical moment.
Meeting that fox last night reminded me of another surprise encounter I had with a pack of wolves about 2 months ago, and other animal encounters and so decided to share some of these stories with you, too:
I was once returning to Pinawa around 3 a.m. I was already quite close to the outskirts of the town, when I saw in the light of my headlights something moving on the highway in the distance. And it didn't run away into the woods when I was approaching! So I slowed down and then stopped and I saw about 5 or 6 wolves watching me curiously, who then slowly encircled my car as if to assume the attack position. But maybe they just wanted to play, most of them seemed to be young animals. They were very beautiful. I opened the window and talked to them, but they were not frightened at all by the human voice. I haven't had enough courage to try to get out of the car and see what they would be up to. I wasn't sure I would be able to get back fast enough if I felt threatened. Only when I started to bark at them like a dog, they slowly started to retreat into the darkness by the road.
I have never seen wolves in the wilderness before, though I often encountered their tracks in the winter when cross-country skiing around Pinawa. I have read some articles claiming that wolves are afraid of people much more than we are afraid of them, that they always run away well ahead of an actual encounter when they register the presence of people. But now after this encounter I do not know. Should I stop wandering carelessly alone in the Manitoba woods? What would have happened that night were I riding a bicycle (as I often did, but not that late at night) instead of driving a car?
(Since then I've heard about another wolf sighting in about the same place. And in the early spring of 1999 I saw a wolf crossing the frozen Winnipeg River a few hundred meters in front of me when I was skating between the Pinawa bridge and the Seven Sisters Dam.)
More than a year ago I had a completely different experience with a beaver. I was riding my bicycle in the Whiteshell Provincial Park on the other side of the Winnipeg River from Pinawa when I saw a beaver chewing on the bark of some twigs in the ditch by the road. On the bicycle one can sometimes approach an animal quite silently, and this beaver didn't notice me even after I stopped. I was watching him for quite some time and he was still unware of my presence. Then I tried to make various whistling sounds that might sound like animal sounds just about two meters above him. He was still happy. It went like that for many minutes. Then I started to talk to him in the normal human voice, and you should have seen how frightened he suddenly got! He let his twig go immediately, jumped into the water in the ditch, dived to the bottom with a mighty blow of his tail as beavers usually do, moved like a lightning along the bottom of the ditch so that I was not able to follow his motion at all, then in a few seconds resurfaced some 15 meters away from me and run for the cover of the woods behind the ditch.
There is a lot of skunks all over the place around Pinawa. Originally I often took them for badgers, but the skunks have different orientation of the white stripes on their coats than badgers do have. And there doesn't seem to be any badgers around here. One can see skunks often in the ditches along the road late in the afternoon looking for food. When they perceive danger, they raise their tails to an emergency position ready to spray any attacker with their stinking liquid. I once surprised a mother skunk with four youngs crossing the highway, and it was very funny to watch them as all five raised their tails in unison. Although I haven't met any wolves while riding on a bicycle yet, I twice failed to avoid close encounters with skunks after darkness fell, and was hit at least partially by their spray. That meant to wash thoroughly the bike, the panniers, my cloths and myself after coming home. A mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and liquid soap (that's a recipe I found posted in a campground in the Whiteshell park) seems to work well for this purpose. Nevertheless, after such an event, one can sometimes register at least faintly that characteristic skunk smell even after several days when returning home. One can often find skunks killed by cars at the roadside, and one can usually smell their carcasses from several kilometers away.
After coming to Manitoba, I have been surprised to find many turtles living in the lakes of the Whiteshell regions. Before that, I met turtles in the wild only on my bike trips around Tokyo, but winters are incomparably milder in central Japan than in southern Manitoba (a similar surprise was to find two species of cactuses growing abundantly on the southern slopes of the coulees in the semidesert of southern Alberta around Lethbridge, one of them having rather tasty berries somewhat reminiscent of goose berries).
In the summer, one can often see a turtle enjoying the sun rays at the end of a fallen tree trunk that sticks out of water of a lake. In the spring, they can be seen crossing for example the Pinawa road, knowing nothing about the danger from the passing car. I've hopefully saved the life of several such turtles but moving then from the center of the road into the ditch towards which they were heading.
But what I still do not understand is how these turtles are able to survive the winters around here in the mud at the bottom of the frozen lakes. Remember that the temperature can drop down to -40oC here, and the lakes are completely frozen over, some of shallower ones probably down to the bottom. Do the turtles have to breathe in the winter? What happens with their lungs? I know that some frogs spend winters frozen inside blocks of ice and when the spring thaw comes, they are able to come back to life when the ice around them melts. The key to their survival is that the freezing and melting processes are slow enough, I think. Are turtles capable of something like that, too? Does somebody know how they do survive in those frozen lakes? Will you tell me, please?
Speaking about animals, there has been several reported sightings of a cougar just on the outskirts of Pinawa this fall. Now a cougar (also called mountain lion or panther) can be a pretty big cat, larger than the European lynx. It can weigh up to 80 kg and is able to kill an adult person in a surprise jump from a tree to the back of one's neck. On the other hand, I've read several newspaper reports of a mother being able to chase away a cougar who attacked her child in the suburbs of Victoria on Vancouver Island, and save the child's life. Before these recent sightings in Pinawa I thought that cougars have survived only along the Pacific coast. Of course, Pinawa residents were eager to track down their cougar and have it tranquilized and removed somewhere else. However, cougar seemed to have disappeared without a trace before the winter came.
There were also rumours about an especially big brown bear feeding from garbage bins in Pinawa this fall. Bear sightings are normally quite frequent in the Whiteshell region, bears can be seen walking through communities without interfering with people except that they occasionally ransack an empty cottage in search for food when there is bad berry crop in the woods. Such was the last year when I for example witnessed whole groups of bears in Seven Sisters Falls searching the bush just across the highway from people watching them from their front yards. This year, the berry crop deep in the woods was said to be excellent, and I have seen only one bear in the whole year. Right now the bears have been hibernating for some time in their dens, where the mother bears will be giving birth to their youngs during their winter sleep.