We’re sitting on top of a bluff overlooking the Thumb River in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, watching and waiting for Kodiak’s famed brown bears. The slope down to the river is steep, partially vegetated, but mostly exposed dirt and rock. A wildlife trail leads down to the river, but it’s certainly not navigable for me.
I’m standing near the edge watching a large flock of chattering magpies when I notice a fox trotting along the edge of the slope. She’s near the top in the vegetation, and I suspect, has ducked down here off the well-trodden path to go around us. “Fox!” I excitedly whisper. There are just three of us here; me, my husband, and our guide. They both slowly move to get closer to see over the edge when she rejoins the path on the other side of us and turns back toward me. “She’s coming back this way!” Everyone freezes. We don’t want to deter her approach.
She nears the edge of the clearing where we’re standing and pauses. Her neck is stretched forward with intense curiosity while all of her weight is shifting backward, ready to flee in an instant. She creeps forward, investigating, shying away, and returning. We stand still and watch, making no movement. Until she moves past me to the bench where my open backpack is propped, her intent is written all over her face.
She is so polite and so inquisitive. With a word or a subtle gesture, she demurely retreats from my pack and slowly moves around the backside of the clearing.
Rob’s raincoat is bunched on the ground next to his pack. This is now the object of her desire. Again, she’s respectful in her attempt to take something. Anything.
We wonder what her den looks like – akin to the notorious packrat’s nests? After several thwarted attempts to grab and go, she moves on.
In the tall grasses behind us, she’s distracted by a half-hearted attempt to catch a vole and then stops to eat some bits of a carcass she found.
She is only twelve feet from us and is comfortable enough to be engaging in her normal behaviors with her back to us.
As I described in my last blog, this is likely her first encounter with people. She is not one of the three foxes that I encountered yesterday. She has become reasonably comfortable with us very quickly. After finishing her tidbit, she trotted off into the meadow.
A Second Fox
It isn’t long before she’s back. This time she’s come up the same trail that we took. And she’s brought reinforcements. There’s another fox behind her. She walks into the clearing while he pauses several yards back on the trail. He quickly decides he wants no part of this, turns, and trots off. I wonder what she told him when she asked him to accompany her.
Rob is lying on the ground. (It’s good to get comfortable if you can when you’re spending days in the wilderness). She is particularly intrigued by this.
This young fox is a vixen, a female. Male foxes are disappointingly just called dogs. She is distinctly canine but at a petite ten to twelve pounds with sharp vertical slit pupils and a fluid, graceful movement that is quite feline. She’s the perfect combination of dog and cat.
She is cautious and respectful as she investigates closer with each subsequent approach.
She eventually makes a quick, gentle tug on the zipper flap at the bottom of Rob’s rainpants. Then she has the great idea to approach him from behind. Being the wildlife-savvy guy that he is, Rob sat up. No good was going to come of letting this continue, and it may have resulted in a lost (stolen) ballcap.
After entertaining us for a blessed while with her adorable antics, she moved on, and we didn’t see her again this day. Of course, there were bears to interspersed in the fox encounters. But that’s a story for another day.
The Next Afternoon
The next afternoon, we’re on the rocky shore at the mouth of the Thumb River. Today, there are four of us set up in a tight row, shoulder to shoulder on collapsable, canvas tripod seats (the smaller our group appears, the less intimidating we are to the bears, so we bunch together). We’re facing the river with our backs to Karluk Lake, waiting for bears to coming fishing down the river.
With a subconscious feeling of being watched, I turn to my left to see a familiar face staring at us just ten feet from the end of our row. It’s amazing that this fox snuck up so close on all of us. I wonder how long she had been sitting there. She is stealthy!
Again with her insatiable curiosity and compulsion to take something, she begins probing around the edges of our group. Our guide is seated closest to her with his backpack on the ground with a tempting strap strewn across the rocks. She comes closer and retreats, closer and retreats. The guide never moves. The rest of us relocated for a better vantage point. Like yesterday, each time, she comes a little closer and lingers a little longer until she’s mustered the courage to touch the strap. She paws at it. Unable to pull it away, she deftly curls her toes using her sharp claws like a cat to scoop it off the ground. Next, she gently tugs with her mouth, just the tips of her incisors holding it in a timid grasp.
The strap stays with the pack. She reconsiders her options, trying to make sense of this thing, cocking her head one way and then the next. She gets cuter every moment.
And then she’s off to other things; a scent on the beach, motion in the grass. She stays nearby, exploring the grassy edge of the beach.
Again, behaving like a wild fox despite four alien people sitting several yards away. This kind of acceptance by a wild animal is a feeling like no other. It fills my heart.
The Second Fox Returns
Just as I was recounting our experience yesterday and saying she’d brought reinforcements, a second fox materialized in the grass. She ambled over to greet him in the grass. They sniffed noses and then played like puppies! Pouncing, biting, rolling, kicking, chasing.
He came out of the grass a time or two but wasn’t as comfortable out in the open with us. He never approached and clearly didn’t have the interest in us (or our things) that she did. It’s unclear whether these two are littermates or a mated pair. He crossed the shallow river and disappeared over a bluff. She wandered off in the opposite direction along the beach, past our boat, where she paused for a moment to consider its accessibility and risk. She continued along the beach for quite a while before disappearing in the heavy brush.
Lest you think it was all foxes today (which would’ve been okay given the spectacular encounters), there were fishing bears here who we watched feast on sockeye salmon in the shallow river. More about that soon.
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