Back at our house in Maryland we had a beautiful backyard – wooded, sloping hill with a patio and garden plots close to our backdoor. I enjoyed looking out our sliding doors into the backyard – every year it seemed we had a family of chipmunks who would make a home in our garden and who would frolic and dash nervously back and forth across the patio pavers. I worried that the neighborhood cats would wipe them out. However, my recent climbing trip to Oregon has changed my perspective about these creatures.
This first began to happen as I finished setting up my tent at Devil’s Lake campground, close to the trailhead for the South Sister climber’s route. I was planning to get an alpine start the next morning for my hike to the summit. The tent was set up and I was sitting at a picnic table, getting my stove ready for a nice, relaxing dinner. The view was great – I could see Devil’s Lake from my campsite and a number of paddle boarders were still out on the lake. I saw a chipmunk dashing about near my site and thought “oh how cute – and he isn’t nearly as skittish as his Maryland brethren!” I continued on with my dinner prep. Meanwhile, the chipmunk was dashing around closer and closer to me. He actually darted under the picnic table where I sat. “Adorable!” Then, I happened to turn around and saw it – the chipmunk was peering at me imperiously from partly inside my open backpack. “Hey!” At that, he actually jumped out of the pack and scurried away (but only about 10 feet). I went over to my pack and looked inside. In this very brief period of time he had nibbled his way into the bag that contained my snacks for the next day. I looked up and saw the chipmunk heading my way again – not concerned in the least with my reaction.
For those of you with tender feelings toward chipmunks, ignore the next few sentences. Out of annoyance, I picked up a few small stones, selected one, aimed near the chipmunk and threw. I presumed this would scare the crap out of him and he would just disappear. Oddly though, he didn’t dash away instead he scampered to the stone I had thrown, checked it out and THEN CAME BACK TOWARDS ME. I threw another stone, the same thing happened. And again. And again. He always first checked out the stone then came back, TO ME (or was it my pack of earthly delights?). Now, I started aiming directly at the chipmunk. A series of near misses ensured. But the pattern repeated – he checked out the stone then came back to me. This was like playing catch with a Labrador retriever only on a much smaller scale. I grew frustrated and, yes, I admit, a bit panicked. I couldn’t keep this up all night. Finally, I surrendered, took all my food, and the pack itself and put it in my car in the parking lot and locked it up.
The next day my alarm went off at 3 AM (yes I did say I was planning an alpine start). I was on the trail by 3:45 AM, the trail illuminated by my handy head lamp. The South Sister is a trekking peak – no technical aspects, especially in the summer, no special equipment needed – just endurance for a trail that is 6 miles to the summit and 4900 ft of vertical elevation gain, a lot of it in the final mile as you ascend a miserable scree slope. The added challenge on this day was the wind – gusting upwards of 50 to 60 mph as I headed up a very exposed ridge line and slogged up the final summit slope. I topped out, the second person on the summit that day and walked around the crater rim to the true summit. I had a spectacular view from there, it was a clear day. And, the rock rim at the true summit gave me protection from the wind – a perfect place for a well earned lunch break. Down went my pack, out came my snack bag and …
A FRICKIN’ CHIPMUNK SCAMPERED UP TO WHERE I WAS SITTING? What was this? Who was this? Was this the same one who had terrorized my campsite the previous night? I had just climbed 4900 feet in winds gusting to 60 mph. I had not seen any greenery in the last 1000 ft and I was looking at a crater half covered in a snow field. The rest was rocks. WHAT WAS THIS CHIPMUNK DOING AT 10,358 ft? Did it hitch a ride in my pack? I didn’t think about this for long as the chipmunk was eyeing up my pack and my snack bag. I grabbed a handful of small stones. This time I didn’t fire single shots, instead I let loose with shrapnel. The chipmunk happily chased down all the stones, determined that they weren’t food and then came back to me.
Belatedly, it hit me – this chipmunk was here not because it was living off the land – IT WAS HERE WAITING FOR CLIMBERS TO FEED IT FREEBIES AFTER THEY GOT TO THE SUMMIT! It was able to make a living here at the summit. There was no other way that it could survive up here. I scarfed down a quick lunch while continuing to fling shrapnel at the chipmunk, then headed back around the crater rim to my exit point and began my descent, leaving the chipmunk to beg from the next climbers to top out.
Three days later I was on the Wonderland Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park. They, uh, have chipmunks there who also apparently earn a living from the hikers at the campsites spread around the mountain. But, I’ll leave the Washington clan for a different post …