May 012015
 

Prairie dogs are to the prairie what krill is to the ocean. Without them, that sea of grass is a dead zone. Mark Seth Lender visited a prairie dog colony in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. What impressed him the most was not their value, but their bravery:
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Hero

Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Dog on Guard does a jump-up bark, jump-up bark again. And all over Prairie Dog Town all the other dog guards jump-up back: below that ridge; up on the knoll; across, in the open, below the shadow of the mesa that rises like a wall. Must’ve seen some thing, some one. Got them started like the tattoo on a child’s tin drum. Could have been a hawk rolling on silent wing in the bright morning air. Could have been coyote, hungry enough, prowling the prairie on a daytime walk. Coulda been prairie rattlesnake sliding across the sunlit road with her rattle in the air. But our eyes are pretty much as good as any Dog of the Prairie, and I haven’t seen a thing round here. Perhaps they only jump-up bark to say: “I’m at my post, I am on guard, I’ve got your back.”

And the prairie dogs not on guard go about their business:

Dog, lying low.

Three dogs standing up.

Dog chewing on a blade of grass like some old farmer.

Young dog all stretched out on the black earth to cool herself…

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But now Dog on Guard crouches like a spring held in place by the thickness of a hair. And it’s jump-up bark nose in the air mouth in a howling shape. This time quite clear what he sees:

MAN!

COMES!

TOWARDS!

ME!

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Three nights ago badger came here on a raid. Tore the hell out of that mound over there like a steam shovel on a bad-drunk-day. Claw marks in the soft dry dirt, square and long and straight (and sharp as a cut nail rake). And, on the parched clay where water puddled in the rains (the cracked landscape laid out like tiles on some abandoned floor) there are skulls. A jawbone, incisors pointing up like tusks. A skeleton where a ferruginous hawk made a kill, bones laid out in perfect parallels

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Prairie dog nightmares. And us, our kind, the very worst of them:

10 yards –

5 yards –

10 feet –

The closer I get the faster that guard dog barks, clipped and tight, the tone ascending:

White-tailed doe crosses the road at a run.

- Dog on Guard does not move.

Burrowing owl tucks out of sight.

- Dog on Guard just stares.

Big Bison Bull resting on his side, raises his great head, down in the arroyo way down there…

- Dog on Guard stands firm, until the last dog is safely underground all over Prairie Dog Town.

Red moon rising on the red prairie, full as a rising prairie sun. When day comes it all begins again: Dog on Guard. Just like the day before (and the day before that) if he survives the night.

Mark Seth Lender’s guide in Grasslands was Wes Olson. Support for Mark’s fieldwork was provided by Tourism Saskatchewan.

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Aug 042013
 

Bear on Ice

(C) 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

There is a polar bear swimming through the slush at the edge of the floe. This year’s ice and last year’s ice and the porous remnant of a berg. All that melt, dispersed, makes the sea air cold. The bear, only head and face and sometimes the highpoint of his backbone above water looks cold although he is working too hard for that, trying to get away, from us. Seeing this, Gunnar Ross, the ship’s Master cuts his engines to dead slow so there is more drift than way. To give him room. The bear… speeds up. He looks back, and his lips part in a low growl we cannot hear for the idling of the screws and the steering gear and the floebergs scrapping the steel of the hull. He turns into a channel in the ice, and disappears. There he is again much closer. We’ve veered off, changing course; but the bear has changed course also and come out the wrong way – toward us. Now in his mind he is sure. We are after him. He is going to die. He sneers, and paddles on, faster and harder.

He is making 5 knots maybe 6 which seems an impossible speed and the wake breaks out behind him 40 meters in a widening V. It is too much. Even for a polar bear (who can swim without drowning 300 nautical miles). It is all being spent, right here.

The polar bear cannot give up will not part from his will to survive it is not in him. Nor is it in him to continue like this. In a last gambit he breaks stride and kneeing up like a child at a chair that is too high, clambers onto a flat of ice, the sea pouring out of his hair.

Water cascades from his face, the underbelly and swaying paws as he half walks, – half runs.

Then slows…. And looks…

And comes to a stop. He stands broadside to our retreating ship, the dark skin showing through beneath the saturated white of him. And his head comes up, and follows as we head away and knows that he has won.

His rest is brief and all he needs, and clambers slowly back into the sea as polar bears have always done and swims, away, from our small sample of Humanity and into the brash ice, and beyond, until he vanishes among the icebergs that are white and blue as clouds on a fragile… glass… blue… sky.

Field Note:
In the high Canadian Arctic, crossing Hudson Strait with Adventure Canada, we had an encounter with a polar bear at the floe edge. The bear saw us and fled. A bear swimming away from you is not much of a story, and in any case, not the story you want to tell. The protocol (and I take it very seriously) is never stress the wildlife, much less chase after it. The ship’s captain was Gunnar Roos, a man on his retirement voyage with fifty years of mastery under his belt, and he did exactly the right thing: Back off, turn away. I was aware of that at the time but as a passenger on a ship the length of a football field it was not, in any case, anything I could control. I stood on the mezzanine deck, my tripod braced against the gutter below the rail, and kept my eye glued to the camera.

The polar bear was at a considerable distance and despite the longest lens I own only a small moving mark in my field of vision, indistinguishable from the floe ice except for the long wake peeling off behind him. Plus it looked like what I was getting was the back of his head. I had little hope of anything worthwhile from any of this. But the other rule right up there with “Thou Shalt Not Chase” is “KEEP SHOOTING!” So I did. And a good thing too.

It was not until that night when I scanned through the shots I’d taken of the encounter (several hundred frames) that I fully realized what had happened. I knew the ship had slowed, but not that the bear had sped up. Yet, there he was gaining more distance than we were giving way. Nor could I know (before the images were enlarged) that every time he looked back at us he grimaced, curling his mouth into a sneer. This is the great value of using the camera as a notebook, I am able to see what I could not otherwise have seen.

There is a low vocalization of displeasure bears make when they are afraid. I’ve heard polar bears do that before, mostly at each other, accompanied by that very same facial expression, that little sneer which just reveals the tips of the teeth. That was what I was seeing in the frames, the polar bear looking over his shoulder, paddling on, the expression on his face so clear I could not help but hear it clear as a ship’s bell: I am afraid. Yet there was nothing to be afraid of – not from us – and we’d been doing everything we could to indicate this to the bear. It was not perhaps 10 minutes later, when he climbed out onto the ice and the revelation was virtually forced upon him that he got the point.

I am used to animals, predators in particular, being far more aware and in control of circumstance than me. The way I usually put it is like this: Polar bear will outsmart you. In polar bear country, especially when you are on foot, It’s not a bad thing to keep that in mind. Yet, here was a polar bear, full-grown, scars on his face to prove his prowess and experience, and he was completely mistaken. Much as we might be followed by a polar bear, who simply happened to be going the same way.

LINKS:

Adventure Canada (Arctic Tours)

Jillian Dickens, Travel Specialist

Canadian Tourism Commission

Mark Seth Lender reading Bear on Ice on Public Radio International’s syndicated program, Living on Earth

 

 August 4, 2013  General, Mammals, Polar Bear No Responses »
Mar 102012
 

Swimming with Beluga Whales, Hudson Bay

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLo-f1pXmwA 580 380]

 

How “Swimming with Beluga Whales” was made

I was staying at The Seal River Lodge and had the opportunity to go out in one of their pontoon boats to swim with Belugas. Beluga Whales, tolerant as they are of arctic water, will congregate at the mouths of rivers where it’s warmer. Warmer means in the low 40’s F, an immersion temperature that will kill you in less than an hour and a dry suit is a necessity even on the surface. After I suited up, I was towed behind the boat at a couple of knots, using a snorkel to breathe. The towing makes it easier for the whales to keep pace. And they do, deliberately making eye contact as they swim alongside.
What calls the whales is to sing. I began with the Flower Song from Lakmé (a duet for soprano and mezzo – obviously I am neither) and I can say with authority, Beluga Whales are aficionados of the opera – and – the most tolerant critiques you can imagine.
Actually, any relatively high-pitched sound will attract them, even the squeak of teeth against mouthpiece which you can also hear in the sound track. Perhaps what fascinated me the most, despite that I my underwater vocal repertoire was crude and inept, they sang back to me with great variation and complexity, as if the effort to communicate itself was both appreciated, and understood.
– Mark Seth Lender

 

 

Audio MP3

Recording of Mark Lender’s Reading

 

Ishmael
© 2012 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

From the crows nest Hudson Bay is verdant, all aglow, green as the land. Ploughed by flukes and pectoral fins the surface churns in lazy furrowed rows. The hours grow short. The day drifts. The season of sun is coming to an end.
There she blows! White Whale! We tack toward the spray…
Less than a fathom down, herded close in the wavy light that bathes their spouts and warms their bones; steady and slow. On the black ground of the sea, calved from snow and floating ice, these are the full-grown. Between them, all in gray, are the young and the very young who cling at the breast that is full as a world. From the low boat, I watch whales rove. Their backs rise like half-moons, and their spray rainbows.
There she sounds!
Hudson Bay opaque blue, rough as a cooper’s file.
Weather crowds her now. A hard peace abounds…
In hood and dry suit I tumble in. I am patient, face buried in the coal-cellar dark of water. Only the perilous emptiness now. Not one whale… It is said if you sing to the whale, whales will come, and sing in reply. I give them opera in drowned tones. And as the notes drift down shadows play below, and at the second stanza I am surrounded. And if I stop they leave and if I sing they stay and now sing back to me. Then, with no warning, as if to mark and take my measure, a whale takes the fingers of my right hand gentle into her mouth, and lets me go.
Now the Arctic winter sets and the pack ice grows thick as rock pressure ridged into giant loaves. And I think of that parting kiss and wonder if she dives to great depth and with that same mouth rips squid pod from limb and tears the codfish from his fins or swallows him whole? Or is she now among the eyeless carcasses I’ve seen, Belugas stripped of their fat and the meat left to rot on the bone?

 

Churchill Wild contributed major support to the fieldwork for this segment.
 
Special thanks are also do to the many backers of North Knife, A Radio Expedition to Hudson Bay

E. Harris
Susan Louise Moyer
Dianne Mumola
Penelope Pettis
Stephen Kramer
Jim Le Moine
Hannele K.L. Dzubas
Denton Froese
Christine Flaherty
Dick Kagan
Ruth S.
Harold Taylor
Scott Askew
Arthur Johnson
Peter Riva
Mary Glickman
John Wackman
Honey Sharp
Carolyn Sophia
Mary Shane
Sitwell Fund for the Visual Arts
Hellie Neumann
Dr. Arnold Saslow
Josh Temes
Dallas Art Salon
Patricia A. Kiefer
Katrinka Greger
Jack Bleck
Stephen Potter
Robert “Snorkle Bob” Wintner
Barbara Carr
Nicole
Peter Riva
Tom Fulham

 March 10, 2012  General, Mammals No Responses »