Monday, June 11, 2007

The Heroes of Warm Creek

I'm not a reporter. We had parted ways long before I had the thought to blog about it. Too bad. I'd love to include their names, hometown, all that stuff. But like I said, I'm not a reporter.

The Northeast exit from Yellowstone is reached by traveling up Lamar Valley from Tower Junction. Lamar is an old glacier carved valley, with old moraine hills and shallow lake depressions at the low end. Traveling up the valley, it opens up to wide, sage dotted plains frequented by buffalo, elk, and yes, wolves. As you continue up the road, the valley narrows, and the mountainsides grow higher and much steeper, evidence of the glaciers that carved them.

Soon enough, you're in a tidy mountain valley, having left Lamar River behind at the beaver lodge, and following Soda Butte Creek. Although you'll still see elk, and bear, there are also many more deer, and the occasional moose munching through the willows.

We'd pulled into the Warm Creek picnic area, where the little waterway joins the larger Soda Butte, looking for moose. We'd seen one there the other day. But no luck. Turning around we looked back the way we'd come, and saw a couple of cars stopped in the road, a sure sign of an animal sighting. The first thing I do when I see a 'jam' is to look at which direction the people are looking. I whipped up my binoculars, not to look for the animal, but to see what the people were doing.

They were looking down, at the side of the road. Mary Ann asked what I saw. I thought they were looking at a small mammal, like a marmot or a badger. We drove over, slowly, and discovered that it wasn't a mammal at all, but a Great Gray Owl, on the ground, just a few inches from the pavement.

Mary Ann hopped out with her camera. I parked the Jeep and brought the tripod. But we quickly learned that this was an injured Great Gray. The first people to discover it had thought it was dead, but it lifted its head and startled them. That's when they began working to save it.

I don't know who they were. There was a mother and two girls, maybe 8 to 10 years in age. Maybe there was another lady with them, but I don't know if she was part of their group or someone else who stopped. But by the time I walked up with the tripod, they had begun organizing things. They directed traffic, including keeping people a safe distance from the injured and stressed owl. The two little girls were waving cars on, just like they'd seen rangers doing at other animal jams, getting people to move on when they stopped too close to the bird. One of the passing people was sent off to the ranger station to notify them of the problem, both the injured bird, and the traffic jam that was building up.

The smallest girl came up with a red paper cup. "The Owl is looking at the water. I think we should give it some water." I looked, and she had indeed noticed that although the bird couldn't move from its position, it could turn its head and occasionally looked over at the trickling spring that was only a few feet away. However, her mother wisely told her to wait and leave the bird alone and let the ranger handle it. It was a massive bird, with sharp hunting claws, and although her heart was in the right place, now wasn't the time to get it a drink of water.

Getting the rangers notified and waiting for them to arrive took quite a while, but this little family was committed to doing the right thing for the injured bird. Finally, the rangers arrived and took over the task of moving the traffic. One of them examined the bird and radioed in the findings. As Mary Ann and I prepared to drive off, the word came back. Someone in Gardner was on the way to pick up the magnificent owl and put him into rehab -- the best possible outcome. The heroic little family was going to stay put, and wait with the bird until the rescue came.

And that's where we left them. I wish them well on the rest of the journey, and I hope those two little girls remember the incident for the rest of their lives. They really did good work.

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