Let’s Not Forget the Scat

Let’s Not Forget the Scat

Originally published at Substack, 11/11/2020

https://cdn.substack.com/image/fetch/f_auto,q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/https%3A%2F%2Fbucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fpublic%2Fimages%2Ffbffa984-dd3e-4c1f-abe0-3dad5a690a12_256x213.jpeg
Bison skull with moss embedded in forest duff.

The wild is not only full of bones, but it’s full of shit. Or to be polite, scat

While we were waiting for the election results, Himself suggested taking advantage of the last of the nice weather and going to Yellowstone for the day. Knowing your scat is a crucial skill when you’re walking around in places where you are not the apex predator, and where there are large animals like bison and elk who could, if startled, really do a number on you.

Hiking with Himself entails finding a trail that heads in the general direction he’s interested in, taking it for as little time as possible in order to get away from other people, then veering off to follow a stream, or hike a ridge, or see what’s over there that looks interesting. Last week was no different. We parked at the Slough Creek trailhead which was blissfully empty (except for a ranger, who had assigned himself the onerous task of carrying 2 Coleman lanterns into a cabin a couple of miles up the trail. You can hardly blame him. It was a beautiful fall day, and they had 4 million people come through the Park this season). It looked like the official trail was on the far side of a ford, which would have been okay in summer at low water, but it wasn’t so warm that we could wade, and no one wants to hike around all day in wet boots. So we found a trail at the back of the campground that was probably a game trail, and headed off through fairly thick cover to see what Slough Creek looked like.

That’s when we found the buffalo skull above. It was a truly lovely one, and since we’re all pretending that Yellowstone’s natural state is sans humans (despite evidence that human beings have been using the area for at least 15,000 years), we had to leave it. You’re not allowed to collect bones, or the one that really bums Himself out, antlers, in the Park. So I took a photo, and we kept going.

Now, we were alongside a fairly noisy creek, in thick-ish tree cover, and because we like to see wildlife, we hike fairly quietly. This is, however, the textbook condition in which people run into trouble with grizzly bears, so I was a tiny bit nervous.

And this is when you start paying attention to shit in the woods. What scat are you seeing? How old is it? Scat is the most crucial sign by which you can tell who has been in that patch, and how recently. We started seeing very large elk shit almost at once. Himself said it was some of the largest he’d ever seen, meaning there were big bulls in there. At one point I heard a bugle. There were bison tracks, and pies as well. Years ago we were up in that drainage, poking around, when we came around a rock outcropping and discovered we were in quite a small clearing with two very large bison bulls. We apologized, didn’t look them in the eye, and quietly slipped back out then climbed a small ridge.

We worked our way up the creek, which was more like a small river after a few autumn rains and snowstorms, until we ran out of ground. We’d been skirting a rocky ridge since we left the campground, and the game trail we’d been following was cut off by a cliff that ran right down into the river. So we backtracked, and decided that sure, we could go up there, it was kind of steep but there were lots of boulders with good hand and footholds, and so we scrambled up about 500 feet or so and topped out in some lovely open groves. They looked like perfect elk habitat, and again, we started seeing scat, and places where they’d bedded down for the night.

We also started seeing some bear scat, including one patch where the bear must have been eating rosehips, because that’s what color it was.

Bones and scat. Outside the park it’s hunting season, and just this morning I had to stomp across the bottomland where I walk the dog to go call him off a carcass. I knew one was there because the ravens and magpies and bald eagles were all talking amongst themselves, flying off to visit various gut piles and pick the meat off stripped carcasses.

We don’t like to think about bones and scat. Most of us live so far from our animal natures that the quick reaction is usually disgust. Years ago, I posted a photo of the dog with an articulated deer leg in his mouth, happily showing off his find. The majority of the comments were expressions of horror. I’d been here long enough at that point, and had been walking that particular road where hunters tend to illegally dump hides and carcasses for so long, that I hadn’t thought anything of it.

Bones and shit and blood. We thought we’d solved these problems. We thought we didn’t need to think about them anymore. But if we’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that we are all still animals. We need to read the signs, to pay attention to the tracks, to keep our wits about us as we move forward through the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.