Vanlifers of Chincoteague

I have always been an animal lover, through and through, since before I can even remember. My Nana used to love to tell me the stories from my Great Uncle and Great Aunt’s farm. These stories would span from when I was only about 1 to 3 years old. She would smile and reminisce on how I would help collect the chicken eggs, how I would lie with the dogs, and follow the cat around. The most remarkable story of which was how I had a special connection with the horses. There was one horse in particular and he was no ordinary animal. He was a beautiful, solid white gelding and his name was Prince. He was the horse that liked nobody; the biting, stomping, grumpy, throw you off his back horse. He loved my Great Aunt and only her. Apparently, he may have loved me too. Nana would laugh and exclaim how I could just walk right under his belly, around those strong legs that would remain so carefully still in my presence, and around his powerful jaws that would never dare to snap in my direction. My innocent, loving spirit would just waltz right up to this grazing horse, grab his halter, and smile from ear to ear as he lifted me up into the air. Prince would then gently lower me back to the ground, and this became our game.

I share this memory because I feel it gives an insight into the desire, developed at such an early age, that pulled me to our next destination: Assateague Island to see the Chincoteague ponies. There are a few novels from my childhood that have left an impact on my heart and branded themselves into my memory. Misty of Chincoteague and its sequel, Stormy, Misty’s Foal are two of them. These childhood favorites, written by Margueritte Henry, describe the account of two children acquiring Misty and her mother from the Chincoteague roundup, and the subsequent exciting drama behind grown Misty’s birth of her own foal. So these tales, combined with my natural affinity towards these beautiful creatures meant I had to see a Chincoteague pony.

We were leaving Laurel Falls, Tennessee early in the afternoon and knew we would not have time to make it over to the island that sits off the eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland. I had previously spoken with an old college buddy and neighbor, JP, who told me he would love for John-Hilton, Bella, and me to come visit. He has a Weimaraner named Ziggy whom Bella used to play with all the time when we lived in Gainesville. We were so fortunate to live in an awesome, close knit, dog friendly community which I honestly don’t know what I would have done without at the time. So, JP lives in Richmond with his girlfriend, Claire, in a beautiful, older, historic looking home. They were incredibly welcoming, letting us stay in their extra room, grilling out for us, and taking us on a walk down to the river the next day. It was a blisteringly hot day, which made the river all the more rewarding once we got there. We hung out in the calm pools created by slabs of large rock, which created a boundary and protected us from the river’s rushing rapids. I experienced one gut wrenching moment when Bella saw a tennis ball floating in a swirling circle of doom at the edge of the rapids. I could tell it was taking all of her inner self control to keep her from chasing it, and thankfully some brave soul swam down to grab it. After walking back home, showering, napping, and rearranging the van, we said our goodbyes and continued on down the road. Our stay in Richmond had been wonderful. JP had said something to me that really made me smile, something along the lines of, “Look at us now, who would have thought we’d be doing so well!” It truly is a blessing in life to have friends you haven’t seen in years and to feel like a day has not passed. The moments have gone by, we have all grown, but the laughter and happiness and comfort in friends still remains.

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Walking through the art corridor:

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The drive to Chincoteague Island was uneventful and peaceful. Driving on the bridges over the Chesapeake Bay was particularly beautiful, although the $15 toll fee came as a bit of a shock. Assateague Island was where we had preferred to camp, but camping was full there as we had unfortunately arrived on Memorial Day Weekend. For those who are unfamiliar, the Chincoteague ponies are wild ponies that live on both islands. They are typically easier to spot and will actually walk through your campsite on Assateague Island, not to mention the park side of Assateague Island is dog friendly while Chincoteague Island’s is not. So, we were able to snag a spot at Maddox Family Campground, which was pretty lucky as most of the campgrounds were fully booked on both islands. It was like arriving to a music festival, there were cars parked wherever they could fit and tapestries hanging to separate the tents from each other. A lighthouse spun its guiding lamp in a timely, repetitive circle as we cooked ourselves dinner and settled in for the night.

In the morning, a fog covered most of our immediate visual area. AKA zero visibility. Well, we thought, fingers crossed that by the time we get to Assateague the sun will heat up and drive the fog away. It did, but only by a little. Upon arriving at the National Seashore, we asked every park ranger we could find, “Have you seen the ponies today?!” We finally were told to check out the ocean side campsites, that they may be over there harassing campers for food. I sighed, I wanted to be the camper being harassed for food. A few more loops in the van around the beach side and we spotted two chestnut ponies grazing by some bathrooms. I felt like a little kid again! John-Hilton was being so painfully slow in my impatient, excited, childlike state. “Come on! Come on! Look, they’re right there, let’s go! Hurry up!” I pleaded, waving my hands at him, beckoning him in my direction. “Oh wait,” I reminded myself, “I’m an adult human being.” So I walked over there, excitement in check, and started snapping pictures of the ponies. We let Bella take a look at them, but having been scarred by her last interaction with horses which left her in a death defying chase, we kept her at a distance.

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We all climbed back into the van and John-Hilton said, “Well we can’t leave after only seeing two ponies!” Yay, he was sharing my excitement, I smiled in agreement. We looked for slow moving vehicles that would give away the location of more ponies. We found some! And the ponies really were harassing campers at their campsites! They were eating food off picnic tables, rolling in the campsite lawns, and intimidating people back into their campers. I laughed, it was awesome. Bella stole my passenger seat to hang her head out the window in order to sniff a pony who had walked right by the van window. I had stepped out take more pictures, keeping the van between myself and said pony. Thankfully so, after talking to the park ranger on site, she told us how that pony was the most aggressive on the island and had pinned a lady against her car for an apple recently. We saw one more pony walking along the side of the road on our drive out, and I was totally satisfied.

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My “Almost” Lion Encounter

*First off I’d like to start by saying if someone would like to prove me wrong and tell me this is a paw print from an extraordinarily large dog, please do so! Otherwise, after comparing to many pictures online, and from the sheer size of it in person, I’m going to go with what I know and say it’s a mountain lion print.

Today I decided I wanted to take Bella on a nice long hike. It was another beautiful day here in Denver, not to mention I’m going up in to the mountains this weekend for Winter Wondergrass, and unfortunately Bella cannot join. So, I wanted to get her outside and have a nice fun filled day before the weekend. I had been wanting to check out the Beaver Creek Trail out of Genesee Park, so without much thought we jumped on 70 and headed west.

To give you an idea of where my head was at, a few days ago, Bella and I did a quick hike up in Golden, to the top of Lookout Mountain. I ran into a couple guys before we started the trail who had been hiking up from the lower Chimney Gulch trail. They stopped me and asked if I knew about the mountain lion advisory as there were several signs posted in the gulch about a recent sighting in the area. I replied, “Nooo… but running in to a mountain lion is a big fear of mine.” We talked for a minute and decided we would all kind of shadow each other on the trail, just in case. The walk was uneventful and Bella and I climbed down by ourselves after I was fairly certain there was enough foot traffic and actual road traffic sounds to keep any animal from wanting to make its presence known to a human. A few days later we hiked up in Pike National Forest, the story of which I’ll save for another post, but here I came across a rather large paw print. If you’ve ever seen my dog’s paws in person, you will know she has rather large ones. So, for her paw print to look “tiny” is saying something. I didn’t have cell service at the time and was unable to look up what a mountain lion paw print looks like, so we just rerouted our hike to a more open and populated area. Later, when  I got home I looked up all the details on identifying mountain lion tracks and signs that they could be in your area.

Any way, needless to say I had already had mountain lions on the brain, so when I saw the sign at the start of the trail saying that the trail was in a known mountain lion area- pretty much every trail has a sign that says watch out for lions but this one was a little more specific- and to leave the pet at home- even though pets are allowed on the trail- made me very uneasy. Here I was again out all by myself, which is what every tip on hiking in lion country says not to do. From where I had parked, it was a .4 mile walk to the start of the trail head…I think I walked maybe half a mile in to the actual trail before my anxiety and nerves got the best of me.  I paused for a bit, made a phone call to a friend complaining that I didn’t know if I was psyching myself out or what, but ultimately decided I wasn’t going to have fun no matter what at this point, so I might as well just go back. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to hike a strenuous up hill climb, you better be having a damn good time. Oh and the fact that a few minutes before we turned around, Bella wouldn’t stop staring in to this one section of the trees and growling. I couldn’t shake the anxiousness, so I stayed on the phone with my friend, checking behind me and around me as we walked out of the woods, until we got to the open dirt road area. I thought alright we’re good, we just have under half a mile to the car. Bella brought me a giant stick, we played fetch for a minute and started up the road. No sooner had we walked 20 yards from where we were playing, we came to this iced over section of the road. I veered over to the left side where I had came down 30 minutes earlier and saw a massive, what I’m assuming was a deer leg, that had been completely stripped to the bone. That was not comforting. About another 20 yards later were the paw prints. They were probably 3-4 times bigger than Bella’s and perfectly matched the descriptions and pictures of tracks I had read about earlier in the week. I wish I had snapped a picture of Bella’s paw print next to these prints, but I was in a hurry at that point to get to the car as quickly as possible. The bone, nor the prints had been there before, of that I’m mostly certain. I typically walk with my eyes on the ground; it’s a habit from looking for snakes back in Florida when I’m out hiking. I noticed both immediately, so I’m 98% sure I would have not missed them the first time around. Bella also came running over to inspect the bone before I reached it, so I doubt she had missed it the first time around either.

After I had reached the safety of my car, I thought it would have been really cool to actually see the lion. Although, for human safety, I know it’s a good thing it never made itself visible to me, as long as it wasn’t stalking me that is. I don’t know too much about mountain lions, the only ones I’ve worked with were pretty lazy and docile. They would hang out in their dens and generally keep to themselves, unlike the other big cats who would stalk the sides of their enclosures when someone walked by. Mountain lions are also the biggest feline that can still pur, which is a pretty cool thing to witness. However, out here in the mountains and from stories my family in Canada have told me, they definitely take on a much more menacing vibe. I definitely do not want to ever have an issue with one of these powerful creatures. So for now, I’ll try to remain comforted by the fact that this lion kept hidden and seemed to want nothing to do with Bella nor myself, and that my encounter remained an “almost.”

 

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In another track I found, you could see the 3 lobes at the bottom of the paw pad, like in the drawing above. However, I was not concerned about picture quality at the time I took this. If you do look closely you can kind of see where the ridges of each lobe are. One toe is supposed to be slightly longer than the others (like a middle finger for us), but I think the deep mud kind of distorts that aspect of the track. I think the mud may also be why you can kind of see claw marks in front of the toes.

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These tracks made Bella’s big ole paws look tiny in comparison.

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St. Mary’s Glacier

My first “weekend” (my weekend days are Wednesday and Thursday) in Denver made me fall in love. After hiking the decently challenging Chimney Gulch trail, a friend of mine, who had moved here a month before me, and I went to St. Mary’s Glacier. Both hikes were so close to my house, and so easy to get to. It took about 40 minutes to get to St. Mary’s and the drive itself was beautiful. That’s something I’ve learned about Colorado, any trip into the mountains doesn’t feel like it’s actually taking very long, because the views are incredible. We were lucky to see the beginning of the Aspens changing colors as my little car chugged along the steep incline to the roadside trail head. St. Mary’s has a 5 dollar usage fee, but you can also camp there if you so choose. My friend had brought her dog, Ruby, along for the day as well, so all four of us started up the rocky path to the main lake. The altitude had both of us humans feeling a little winded although the dogs seemed just fine. After a few stops, we made it to the lake and it was spectacular! The dogs sniffed around, running after sticks and each other for a few minutes before we ascended to get a closer look at the glacier. Both of our pups had never seen snow before so it was quite entertaining to see them playing in it. It’s as if someone had let them outside for the first time and said “Go crazy!” They chased each other around, pouncing and sliding through the snow with the biggest, goofiest grins on their faces. Since we were both a little tired and winded, we saved climbing to the very top for another day and ate a few snacks before heading back home. I definitely recommend St. Mary’s Glacier as a spot to take friends and family if they come in town to visit. The hike to the lake isn’t too bad and the altitude can be managed by  taking it slowly. The views are totally worth the trip.

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Working with Animals and Hiking

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I got back into Denver from Wyoming just in time to start my new internship. I was (and currently am) interning in the polar bear and otter division, which is very exhausting, on your feet type of work. Animals are an incredible passion of mine, as is conservation of our planet, including all animals and our environment. Although I don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of zoo culture, learning about these animals, caring for them, and trying to educate the public about them and their precious habitats is something I wanted to gain experience with. Working with animals gives one an insight on how to connect with another being on a level that goes way below the surface of normal communication. These animals have very real personalities and feelings and ways of communicating those feelings with you if you pay attention. I have always found that when I’m working one on one with an animal, I am in a very meditative state. My mind is clear, I am in tune with my own breath and body and the vibes it is giving off… all so that I can be in tune with theirs. I had the opportunity to work with two bear cubs in Melrose, Florida at a wildlife sanctuary, called Single Vision. Being around those two rambunctious critters taught me a lot about myself and how to be patient, not to be fearful (which can be hard when a playful 40 pound bear cub is lunging at you with a mouthful of teeth), and to forget any personal issues I may have going on.

I find a similar state of mind when I’m out hiking. It’s such a peaceful time to reflect or forget. I get to be in tune with myself and my surroundings, responding to the environment to help me reach my goal. I always hike with Bella and there are times when I have to help her climb over rocks or jump down off of steep drops. This provides such a great bonding time for us, as we both must put our full trust in each other to keep moving forward. The point of this was to express how important being around animals and exploring nature are to me in my life. I feel so grateful to be in a place that allows me to combine both of these passions into aspects of my life.

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