Sunday, December 1, 2013

Coyote Lessons

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A "coyote lesson" usually begins with the student feeling like a fool, but eventually emerging from foolishness into an important, "that's so true" lesson. 

It began for me on Saturday morning when I opened my eyes and realized it was already getting light out. I'd overslept! It was around 6:20 a.m., and I'd hoped to be at Alpine Lake when the gates opened at 7 a.m. There was no way I was going to make it, but I nevertheless got up, got dressed, and got on the road. 

As I was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge my heart ached as a most beautiful sunrise began to unfold before me. I wanted to stop so bad, but I am just too law-abiding. I watched the sunrise continue to create increasingly gorgeous artwork that I could grasp only with my mind and store only in memory. I could hear my camera whimpering in the back seat like a chihuahua that's dying to run outside and bark at the mailman. 

This time of year, sunrise colors last a long time, an exquisite torture. Even so, the whole thing was going to be over before I could acquire it. And of course, it was.

Having missed the sunrise, I was primed for further disappointment. I'd returned to the lake in the vain hope of photographing the river otters that Pam and I had seen during last week's hike. I was also camera-at-the-ready in case I saw coyotes again. I even thought I might hike all the way out to see if the lion's mane fungus had gotten any bigger (despite the nagging idea that it had more likely dried out). Deep down I knew it was hopeless. You don't get a second chance.

To go looking for something in particular is to beckon disappointment. I knew I had to let go of my expectations while remaining alert for the unexpected. Instead of going to the store to get what I wanted, I would roam the aisles without a cent. I would be given a gift, or I would leave empty-handed. Either way, I was okay with the outcome, enjoying a beautiful morning on the mountain.

I hiked across Bon Tempe Dam and set out along the perimeter of Alpine Lake, stopping to photograph what might be the most excellent grove of black oaks on the watershed. They were striking trees, with curvy trunks and high branches silhouetted against the morning sky. Easier to appreciate with the eyes than photograph with a camera. I should have been there weeks ago, when the leaves were golden. 

As my internal debate about whether I was really going to hike a couple of hours to the lion's mane fungus percolated at low heat, I kept my eyes out for the trio of otters. Where did the otters come from? Did they swim up Lagunitas Creek to Kent Lake, then hike up over Alpine Dam? 

A pileated woodpecker broke into my thoughts when it began calling out from a small, dead fir tree just twenty feet away. I wondered if I'd awakened the bird as I stopped to watch it skitter up the tree in a few quick pulses, then fly away east into the safety of the next grove of trees. My camera was still strapped snugly in my backpack.

The otters weren't there. Numerous mergansers paddled to the other side of the reservoir as soon as they saw me. Three osprey soared high overhead, calling out with their high-pitched whistles, way out of range. Varied thrush called from the forest darkness where no ISO could capture them. All out of reach. 

Since I wasn't having any luck photographing actual "subjects," I resorted to the last bastion of the creatively challenged by photographing reflections in the lake. I hiked a little farther along the trail just to stretch my legs and feel the earth under my feet before letting the lion's mane go and turning back.

I drove up to have a look at Lagunitas Lake for its sunrise possibilities, then headed back to Bolinas-Fairfax Road, up past the golf course and Azalea Hill, and stopped for a quick look at Lily Lake, where I didn't even take my camera out of the bag, thinking, "I'm not coming out here any more until we get some rain to freshen things up and move the season along."

I drove past a few cars parked at the bottom of Cataract Gulch, then up the hill to Bolinas Ridge. I figured I'd been skunked, photography-wise, but I kept my eyes open anyway as I headed for the camera trap I'd set the week before. I pulled into a turn-out just before the fire road down to Laurel Dell, got out of the Jeep to have a look around, and was surprised to see a lone coyote on the hill above Druid Rocks. I half-expected him to take off running when I started walking toward him, and it wasn't long before he did just that, taking refuge in a small grove of trees on the steep hillside. I could hear him moving around in there, but he wouldn't come out, so I walked back to the Jeep and drove away.

Slowly. Keeping an eye on the side-view mirror. Sure enough, the coyote was out in the open again, so I turned around and parked in the same turn-out to give chase once again.

I tried to find the right balance between pursuit and nonchalance in order to get close to the coyote without frightening him away, but it wasn't really working.

He marked his trail near the top of the hill, then disappeared behind it, heading north.

He followed the trail past Druid Rocks. I let him go and hiked back to the Jeep to try to intercept him farther along.

He walked out into the road and appeared to be crossing to head down the opposite hillside, but stopped at the double yellow lines and turned to continue following the road downhill. I shot this frame through the Jeep's windshield.

The coyote got off of West Ridgecrest and followed the Bay Area Ridge Trail until the trail again met the road. He sauntered down the shoulder until he was frightened up this hillside by a passing bicyclist. I took this shot when a second cyclist passed by.

The cyclists having gone by, the coyote resumed his trek.

As he got closer to the Jeep (where I was sitting with the window rolled down), he considered crossing the street in front of me to reach the McKennan Trail.

But something in his innate coyote wisdom warned him against passing in front of a vehicle, even if it wasn't moving.

So he passed right next to me and crossed the road once he was behind me (for what it's worth, all photos in this post are un-cropped).

The coyote was kind enough to wait for me.

A rustle in the grass next to the trail appeared promising, so I stopped to watch, but the moment passed, and whatever field mouse or gopher had stirred would live to stir again.

There appeared to be a naked guy sitting in the man-made vista chair in the upper right corner of this shot. I was hoping I could get the coyote and the guy in the same shot, but this was the last frame I was able to get. The coyote obviously saw the guy sitting in the chair and quickly bypassed him, trotting down the trail after squirting a quick scent-mark. I was glad to see that the naked guy was wearing running shorts. He was tuned into his earbuds and never noticed the coyote. I figured I'd followed the coyote far enough, grateful for the gift. For all I knew, he was heading down to Bolinas Lagoon. It would have been nothing for him, not even a step out of his way. For the coyote, every square inch of the place is home.

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  1. Forgot to tell you. Love the black oak trees.

    1. Thanks. I've got to visit that grove again when it greens up in the spring.

  2. Beautiful trip John. You made a friend in the wilderness, and shared him with the rest of us. What a treat. Cool.

  3. The coyote truly gave you a gift. Wonderful shots. Were all the coyote shots done with the 300mm? I think the one with him overlooking the oblivious biker is a one-of-a-kind shot. Doubt you'll get that chance again.

    1. All shots were from the 300 plus 1.7X teleconverter. I also have a shot with a bobcat and a biker in the same frame that I got last November.

  4. Sounds like a fun day with the coyote. Glad your luck turned. I love that shot with the cyclist.

    1. Thanks, Jen. I'll have to see if I can learn how to ID individual coyotes like we did with the bobcats. Hopefully I'll be seeing many more over the next few months.

  5. Wow! What a post! Exceptional images of those Coyotes. Great story.