Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Early Spring Comes to Jackson

We have a woodpecker visiting us in the house today. I’ve anchored a suet feeder by suction cups to the window of the backdoor. The door is currently open, filling the house with fresh air, and the woodpecker is hanging upside down on the feeder – he’s actually in the house and doesn’t seem to mind that Atticus and I are watching him. Atti is closer, sitting on the couch; while I’m on the loveseat typing away. My camera is not within reach and I don’t want to scare him away so you’ll just have to trust me on this. Meanwhile a chickadee has landed on the birdfeeder just outside the window next to the door.
I’m seated next to another window and it’s open. Outside two chipmunks scurry about racing after each other in the most playful manner, their chitter-chatter driving Atticus crazy. It won’t be long before we spend even more time outside and he chases after them – alas, it’s always in vain. They know he cannot catch them and take abundant joy in teasing him. They sit on the rocks just outside the backdoor while he sits on the back stoop. After a while he cannot stand their audacity any longer and launches after them. They skitter in between rocks and tease him as he sniffs about the various nooks and crannies. Eventually he gives up and comes back to the stoop again. The chipmunks then reappear and the game begins anew.

By the birdsong and the laughter of the chipmunks it is clear they feel the same way about the coming of spring as we do. Here we are with a dozen days left to winter and much of the snow is gone in Jackson. That’s rare. Then again most of it has been gone for a couple of weeks. It’s a different story higher up in the mountains, especially above 3,000 feet or in places like Crawford Notch where the deep snow starts down low and makes a simple hike to a place like Mount Jackson a difficult one. Over the past week hikers have reported frustrating attempt after frustrating attempt at reach various summits. Some do reach the top but often had to get creative in the approach since many trails have been lost in the incredible snow depth.

In past years, when Atticus and I were trying to knock out a couple of rounds of the 48, we would be chomping at the bit with so little time left in winter. This year’s different, however. Due to a confluence of influences the winter plans we had changed and I'm looking forward to the new renewal of spring. But with winter still here, I’m enjoying these extra warm days and the bright sunshine. It’s usually the other way around, with winter spilling into spring. This is a rare time indeed, with spring spilling into winter.

Watching the birds I’m reminded that it won’t be long before the bears are out again. I’ll have to take down the birdfeeders for fear of attracting them into the yard. They come out of hibernation famished and if nothing else is available they’ll go for birdseed without a second thought. I don’t mind encountering a bear now and then; I’m just not keen on Atticus and me coming between a mother and her cubs.

We have had some experiences with bears; the most recent one took place here in Jackson last summer. During the hottest days of the season Atticus and I sleep not in the bedroom but on a daybed that was built into the back of the house and overhangs the yard like a shelf. There are three windows looking out into the yard. If I set up the fans just right it pulls air through the windows and creates a cool space to sleep in. The drawback is that we are always up early. Inevitably wildlife makes its way into the backyard and I’m pulled from my sleep by Atticus’ stirring to get a better look. On a couple of occasions a fox stood just outside flirting with him and Atticus couldn’t decide whether he should be waking me up to let him out or trying to communicate with her. (He may be fixed but he’s still male!) On other occasions it’s the chipmunks or squirrels or a gathering of wild turkeys. No matter what the animal of the day is they stir Atticus up and he wakes me up with the dawn.

One morning I was pulled from a deep sleep not by his gesturing or his whining but by loud snuffling. Half asleep, half awake; I heard his nose scraping against the screen as he took deep sniffs. Still not fully awake and my eyes closed I made a mental note to call Mary Erlandson, Atti’s groomer, for an appointment. He smelled more pungent than normal. The snuffling was louder than I’m used to with Atticus. I fished around for my glasses and when I put them on I was stunned to see the large face of a bear on one side of a screen sniffing at Atticus while Atticus was on the other side of the screen sniffing right back! Their noses were separated only by the thin screen.

I didn’t move but watched intently as bear and dog made each other’s acquaintance. Neither one seemed fearful nor were they aggressive. If anything they were curious about each other. This went on for a minute or two before I moved and the bear took one look at me, looked back at Atticus as if to say, “Who invited the human?” and then left.

So far this year the closest thing we’ve had to a potentially dangerous visitor – at least where Atticus is concerned – are the raccoons that come around from time to time at night. But as I sit here looking at the daybed and the windows looking out into the backyard, I wonder if we’ll have another visit or two from that bear. Just in case I’ll have a camera ready…and maybe some air freshener, too.

(I was too late to capture the woodpecker but after I retrieved my camera we were visited by a chickadee.)

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