“In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau
A dark shape in the matted grass above the Thumb River catches my eye. A cross fox is rolling, feet toward the sky, scratching his back. He stood, shook, and disappeared behind a large clump of tall grass. And then he’s moving upriver in my direction along the opposite shore.
He leaps a small side channel with the agility and grace of a cat and saunters on. As if intentionally hanging out to spend some time with me, he lies down – sort of napping, sort of listening for fish – at the gravelly confluence of a side stream and the river. Occasionally an ear flicks, and he’ll raise his head to investigate the sound. After a polite amount of time, he strolled over a log jam and disappeared into the dark, thick trees.
Later that same afternoon, at a curve near the river mouth, a blonde shape appears behind a tuft of grass. A bear! No, it’s a red fox scavenging a fish carcass. Mostly obscured from my view, he eats and then stretches into a beautiful downward dog.
He scrambles up the eroded bank to the same riverside trail I had taken to the spot where I now stand. I cannot see him, but I know he’s coming my way.
Fox are curious creatures. It’s part of what gets them into trouble living in proximity to people who often do not enjoy their antics. I am in the remote Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on native Alutiiq tribal land. This particular spot is closed to all access. That means no one has been here hunting or fishing. No one has been here hiking or photographing without a Koniaq guide. Due to the pandemic, this place was closed all of 2020 and has only been open this year for the last 4 weeks. In that time, my guide has not encountered any fox out here. These foxes have likely never seen people before. They have no expectations, little fear, no prejudice of previous experience. Raw wild. Nature as it should be. Free to be a fox without any imposed constraints.
The fox makes his way through the curtain of grass and fireweed as tall as my shoulders. I can see the wake he makes as he approaches. I’m watching out of the corner of my eye, my body turned away, pretending not to see so that he won’t be afraid. As he draws near, he veers off the path away from the river to come around behind me. I lose track of him until suddenly he’s there – in the air! He leaped arcing his body almost fully above the vegetation in that classic fox pounce. And then it’s quiet for a moment. He does it again. This is one of my favorite wildlife displays – the aerial attack of a rodent-hunting canid. I thought I had come here to watch bears. This is almost better!
In a moment, I see his face peering at me through a grassy veil. He pauses. He’s curious but wary, unsure of his next move. He steps closer. We share an intimate moment eye to eye before he casually turns around to leave. I’m giddy.
I turn back toward the river, half expecting to see a bear to have appeared while I had my back turned preoccupied with the fox. All is quiet, except for a flash on the far shore of a short-tailed weasel hunting in a blur of kitten-like manic activity. Weasels are a good omen for me, serendipitously appearing throughout my travels.
Camp Island Fox
After dinner, another red fox appears at the water’s edge outside the lodge on Camp Island. I knew better than to leave my camera in the cabin. I ran back to get it, and snuck around the backside of the lodge to photograph him. There is a fox that’s regularly seen on this island so my guide tells me to approach closer and then lie down. “The fox will be curious and come closer,” he said. This fox is not having it. Put out by the weird lady on the lawn; he retreats to the woods. Apparently, this isn’t the regular guy.
A three-dog day. All in our first afternoon in the Refuge. This is gonna be an awesome adventure!
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