At the furthest reaches of the Florida keys lies Dry Tortugas National Park.  Except for a scattered collection of seven small islands, almost all of the park’s one hundred square miles is under the shallow water of the Gulf of Mexico.  A ferry boat, the Yankee Freedom II, makes a two hour plus trip from Key West everyday to Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson stands.  The fort is the largest masonry structure ever built in the Western Hemisphere, it’s estimated sixteen million bricks were laid in the years prior to the Civil War. 

     Camping is primitive and extremely limited on Garden Key.  Only ten passengers each day are allowed to bring their gear and stay overnight from the ferry.  I was able to be one of them and stayed for two nights.  After the ferry departed the population of the island fell from a couple hundred to about two dozen, and the fort on it’s tiny, isolated isle home seemed like the last place at the edge of the world.

     Fort Jefferson is surrounded by a concrete moat that I walked around several times each day.  I enjoyed the exceptional view of the gulf while also hoping to get a photo of the crocodile that supposedly lives in the moat’s waters.   He was swept to the remote location during a tropical storm in 2003 and has made the island his home ever since.  I assumed that he enjoys a steady diet from fish and the birds that breed, nest, and continuously squawk on neighboring Bush Key.  Without any competition for food the solitary crocodile is supposedly thriving, but I wondered if one day he might leave his carefree reptilian paradise in a foolish search for short-term companionship. 

     I also viewed the moat wall from below by snorkeling.  Marine life was abundant, the coral clinging on the century and a half old bricks with colorful tropical fish darting around.  At a hole in the moat wall I saw a Rock Lobster at home in it’s non-culinary environment.  The old naval docks of the fort, the surfaces now gone but the rusted up pier pilings still remaining underwater, were an even more vibrant place to swim around.  

     Later, during my second afternoon on the island, I was told by another camper that a coral reef could be found by swimming out from the nearby beach and taking the same angle as the moat wall to almost where one of the outer pylons was moored.  But as I swam out the water only got deeper as I reached one of pylons.  I had missed the coralhead so I began to swim back.  On my return a very large fish seemed to be swimming below me in the opposite direction maybe thirty feet away.  Then, as I was about to turn my underwater camera on, I realized that it wasn’t a fish at all, but a shark!  This was the only time that I was ever truly terrified by a wild animal in a national park — I was helpless if the soulless creature decided to take a bite out of me.  My moment of real fear was over in a second as the bull shark took no notice of my presence and quickly swam away.

     There have been a few other encounters where I have been at least startled.  In the Southwest I’ve gotten uncomfortably close to being bitten by Mohave rattlesnakes twice, accidentally finding them hissing and rattling underneath the brush.  At Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, I spotted a black bear up a tree while hiking.  As I maneuvered to get a clear shot with my camera the bear heard me, climbed out of the tree in an incredibly short amount of time, growled when it reached the ground, and then ran away into the woods.  In the swamp lands of Conagree National Park, South Carolina, I saw for the first time feral hogs, a pair that were huge and galloping across the woods.  I wouldn’t have believed it until then, but big pigs can move fast and it is frightening.  

     One of the more bizarre experiences I had was on the Highlands Trail in Montana’s Glacier National Park during a mid-summer afternoon.  The hike was one of the liveliest I can remember.  Above the tree line, the wildlife was plentiful and easy to spot.  I was able to get close to marmots, ground squirrels, sage grouse, a mountain goat, and then as the day turned to twilight, a small herd of male bighorn sheep.  The sheep did not act shy as I slowly approached them.  After about five minutes of photographing them they gathered into what looked like a small football huddle.  I imagined that, in whatever manner sheep are able to communicate with each other, they were discussing what to do with an unwelcome intruder.  Better safe than sorry, I decided it was time to get going.

     During one of my less eventful times walking alone I pondered the rough justice of nature.  All living things need energy to remain alive, therefor animals need to either eat plants or other animals.  So violence is a requirement for survival, and necessary for evolution.  A jackrabbit wouldn’t be so fast and elusive if something wasn’t chasing after their ancestors, nor a wildcat so sly and quick if it’s mother wasn’t able to kill and provide for it as a kitten.   Fear is the natural emotional reaction of the prey.  It’s purpose is to get away to safety and not be eaten.  The predator, however, is burdened with a gnawing emotion related to it’s hunger, to the possibility of failing to kill again and starving to death, best expressed, I believe, by the word “dread.”

     I witnessed the act of predation while in the damp rainforest of Redwoods National Park.  Not far from where the tallest tree in the world stands I discovered below at  ground level a banana slug overtaking a giant snail.  The snail seemed to be writhing in pain, trying to escape it’s shell as the banana slug grasped it — a moment of slow motion horror.  After an agonizing minute the snail moved no more and the banana slug began it’s long meal.

     Killing isn’t always about nutrition.  East Anapaca Island is very small but the most visited of the National Park’s Channel Islands off the southern Californian coast.  I arrived there in early June, a few weeks after the chicks of the western gulls had hatched.  The chicks were fluffy with spots and moving about while one of their parents nearby looked on.  I was warned that the adult gulls were territorial and might peck or bite as you walked by on the trail.  Humans were not their main concern however.  During my time on the island I became steadily aware of the constant turf battles that were occurring among the gulls.  I saw several chicks lying on the ground pecked to pieces and one gull flying fast with a chick squirming in it’s beak.  The competition for space is so intense within the colony that the Park Service estimates less than forty percent of the chicks survived long enough to leave as juveniles.  At first delighted, I departed from the island somewhat disturbed.

     A bird encounter I more fondly remember took place at the higher elevations of Zion National Park in Utah.  There I hiked the Angels Landing trail, famous for a steep and narrow, half-mile path that leads to the summit, beside a sheer drop-off over a thousand feet above the canyon floor of the Virgin River.  The trail was not as treacherous as I expected because of the chains that were provided to hold on to at the most hazardous points.  On my safe return from the peak I noticed a very large bird that looked like a vulture soaring below.  After descending further I found the bird perched up in a small dead tree surrounded by many onlookers, an endangered California Condor tagged as number ninety-nine.  The spectators, including myself and at least fifty others, sat down and watched the peaceful raptor doing nothing in particular.  As the viewing area below her became crowded I felt compelled to leave.  While I was walking away the condor left her perch and surprised me, swooping by within twenty feet.

     If the condor was the rarest bird I had sighted then the most commonplace was the raven.   In the western United States the black bird can be found at every altitude, climate, and environment.  They seem to be fearless — I stared down one in the Canyonlands, who dared to perch almost within arms length of me on the top of my van.  At other places they cackled in defiance as I approached what must of been their food cache or nest.  Within the Grand Canyon I saw a raven flying by with a sandwich, snatched from a man eating his lunch.  The worst they could do, I was told, was open up your backpack and fly off with your keys, shiny objects have a special allure for them.  But for all of their mischief they serve in their own way as unpaid volunteers of the Park Service, dutifully devouring the small scraps left behind by people.  I remember watching a raven scavenging, with an expression of pure joy, a few peanuts that had fallen to the ground from the table I had picnicked at an hour before.

     The raven and other birds are obviously not confined within National Park lands.  But to see America’s largest land animal one must travel to one of several select locations.  The National Park Service has five national parks in Wyoming and the Dakotas where they protect several American Bison herds.  (Another is in Tallgrass Prarie Preserve in Kansas.)  During my tour through the Great Plains I saw many of them, often from behind the wheel of my van.  Driving through a herd required extreme patience, the largest buffalo were usually the most stubborn and did not always move out of the way when I slowly inched forward.  There were a few  occasions when I moved only about the length of a football field within a half hour.  Nevertheless, the time that passed by felt more like being on safari rather than in traffic; the best way of viewing buffalo is from the safe confines of a vehicle — although hearing two bulls locking horns together convinced me that they are very capable of doing significant auto body damage.

     Bear attacks may get more press, but buffalo actually hurt and kill more people.  This is due almost entirely to ignorant tourists behaving as if they were in a petting zoo.  The archetypical story I’ve heard is that of a man who placed his daughter on top of a buffalo in YellowstoneLooking back there might have been a couple times I’ve gotten closer to an animal than I should have for the sake of a better photograph, but at least I’ve known better than to try to attempt physical contact with any critter, even with something as small as a chipmunk.

     However, bears are a great danger, especially to property.  They are smart, opportunistic scavengers.  In most areas where they live the Park Service advises visitors to keep food locked inside vehicles, but in places where a dense population of black bears have been living among a large numbers of campers for many years, such as in California’s Sierra Mountains, further precautions are necessary.  Food, cooking essentials, tooth paste, soap, and even child safety seats all have to go into a metal lock box because the bears in those areas have learned to rip car doors out with their claws.  One remote campground I stayed at the higher elevation in Sequoia National Park had a strange, additional requirement.  The hood of a vehicle was to be left up while unattended because the marmots there picked up the unhealthy habit of hiding below cars and then chewing into fluid lines in search of sweet smelling anti-freeze.

     Although I followed the posted rules, my van was still broken into by the worst sort of predator, a thief who threw a rock into my passenger side window and swiped my cell phone.  I should have been more careful than to leave a valuable in open view in southern California, even at one of the most remote parking lots in the Santa Monica MountainsI suspect the thief was a teenager who ran by while I was returning down the trail from the overlook.  He was skinny so I wrongly assumed he was just another trail runner.

     Thankfully, everyone else on the trails I crossed paths with tended to be law abiding.  And often it was the people I met, more so than even the animal encounters, that made the places I visited memorable.  In the National Parks out west I found the many Europeans who toured them, especially German speakers, to be particularly approachable.  I have learned that people are more willing to talk to strangers while they are far from home than during everyday life — myself included.  And conversations on the trail sometimes turned into fast friendships, which usually lasted no longer than a day.  On a couple of occasions I did make the acquaintance of a lonely woman — affairs which lasted no longer than a week. 

     If my luck in romance was perhaps limited at least I held some attraction for the animals I wanted to photograph.  Like the condor at Zion, a rare and elusive gila monster propitiously ran straight across my path during my first evening walk in Saguaro National Park.  I also recall an unusual approach three wild horses made at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, trotting up and posing in front of me for a group portrait.   And then there was the adorable, little wild pony I found after taking a wrong turn on a backroad in Nevada.  And finally, during my very last minute at Fort Jefferson, I was able to photograph the crocodile that I had been searching for.  As soon as I took my shot the ferry back to Key West blew it’s all aboard whistle, and he then slowly sunk under the water, disappearing once again beneath the moat’s wall.



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