Ron Marinucci July Column: "Wildlife"

Ron Marinucci July Column: "Wildlife"

It would be a stretch to say we live in a rural area.  But it’s certainly not the big city environment in which I was raised.  I now run through subdivisions and on some fairly well-traveled roads, if not major thoroughfares, about half of the time.  But I am fortunate.

 A short run of about a mile, through a subdivision, connects me to a dirt road, which itself leads to a network of sorts of dirt and gravel backroads that have few homes and sparse vehicular traffic.  As a bonus, with short drives of about five or ten minutes, I have access to trails in a couple of state parks/recreation areas.  (Until a few years ago, when I was younger, I used to run or ride my bike, and ditch it in the brush, to these state trails.  No longer.)

I mention all this because one of the excitable things about running where I live is the wildlife.  Surely seeing wildlife, even a lot of it, isn’t unique to many runners.  But as I’ve noted more than once, in my circumstances, “You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy.”  Yep, even seeing a bunny rabbit darting between houses in the subdivisions tends to brighten my run.

OK, maybe rabbits and chipmunks and squirrels don’t count as much.  I guess I don’t count raccoons or opossums, either, although I rarely see them and only when I am doing a pre-dawn run.  Mostly “wildlife” remains deer and turkeys.

Just the other morning as I turned up a path on the fringe of the subdivision across the street I was startled by some commotion in the underbrush.  Fewer than fifteen yards in front of me scampered two deer, pretty big ones, with beautiful summer coats.  As I plodded home the past two Sundays after my morning runs with my good buddy Bob, I noticed cars slowing almost to a stop at the same place; they were hesitant to proceed with a deer on the far shoulder of the road.  To me, it looked like the same doe both Sundays.  It, too, had a beautiful coat.

 That, the beautiful coats, are something I notice.  As summer turns into autumn which morphs into winter and early spring, the deer are not so “cute.”  The fur becomes matted and splotchy, hardly as pretty as it is in the late spring and summer.

The Sunday morning deer reminded me that more than once the four-leggers have seemed to be playing a game with me.  From a safe distance to be sure, sometimes they’d run when I did and stop when I did.  They remained ever-vigilant, never taking their eyes off me.  But those games have been infrequent.  Most often the deer see me, give a long look, and then run away.

Usually, though, I don’t get too close and it’s a surprise to both of us if I do.  One winter, some years ago, I rounded a corner in on a foggy morning and heard a loud snort.  It startled me.  Closer than either of us intended I’m certain was a sizable buck. The snort was the effort of quickly reeling and turning on the jets to escape.  I don’t know how I managed to sneak up so close, maybe ten feet, without intention or detection.  Pure happenstance.

Two memorable runs included seeing deer swimming across the Huron River.  One of them involved two or three (I forget) of them crossing a narrow stretch of the stream, just downriver from the dam.  The other caused me to stop and watch.  The width of the river was much greater there, maybe forty or fifty yards.  It appeared to be a herd.  Knowing my penchant for counting, I probably did that, counted them, but I don’t remember the number.  Maybe there were a dozen swimmers; does that constitute a herd?  I watched until the last one pranced out of the water and they all trotted off.

Wild turkeys were transplanted to our area maybe thirty years ago.  I see them periodically in the glens at the state parks and on the back roads, which they are often crossing.  Rarely are there just a few of them.  It’s not unusual to see two or three dozen or more, a rafter of them.  Yes, again I usually count them.  As slowly as they move it’s easy to do so.

Most often they are not intimidated.  They stay where they are, pecking for food or whatever they are doing.  If crossing the roads, the turkeys seem to take their own sweet time doing so, never in a hurry, not even for oncoming cars and trucks.

Not many, but I’ve seen foxes and coyotes, too.  Maybe there have been a dozen foxes, perhaps a few more.  Does it count that a couple of them were roadkill?  One was a neighborhood regular for a while.  He or she could be seen scampering between houses and even out on the bigger roads.  Not while I was running, but the red fox was as he darted behind Karen as she and a neighbor were talking.  Neither of them saw it and by the time I yelled for them to look, red had shot off into the back field.

Coyotes?  Yep, but not many.  Again I’d guess maybe five or six with a couple of them roadkill alongside a cornfield.  Two of them appeared to be pups, but still with their signature bushy tails standing upright as they jogged off at a distance.  They, the live ones anyway, steered as clear of me as they could.

 Unlike the herds of deer and raferts of turkeys, I’ve never seen more than one fox or coyote at a time.

Do goats count as wildlife?  Goats?  Earlier this spring, Andy (my Golden Retriever) and I were running across a field behind a nearby school.  Before Andy did, I noticed two pretty small deer a bit in the distance, a hundred or so yards off.  Yes, they were tiny and one appeared to be white.  I immediately thought of the stories of the albino deer at a local Metropark.

I slowed and attempted to turn before Andy saw what was ahead; he’d go berserk, I was sure.  But it wasn’t up to me.  The deer opted to follow us.  Only, as they neared, they weren’t deer, not at all.  They were goats!  Where did they come from?  I couldn’t think of any farms that were close.  Hmmm…..  By now, Andy noticed them and he stopped to look, wagging his tail excited to meet his new friends.  

But I managed to get him to walk, not run, away.  Still, the goats followed; we couldn’t shake them, even when we started jogging a bit.  By sheer coincidence, a county sheriff’s deputy had pulled into the school’s parking lot.  Andy and I jogged over and he rolled down his window of his patrol car.  I asked, “Are you here about the goats?”  Giving me a strange look, he countered with, “What goats?”  I pointed about 30 or 40 feet away and replied, “Those goats.”  After a long look, he said, “No, I’m not,” as he put his squad car in gear and hightailed it out of there.  It was apparent he wanted nothing to do with them.  

Andy and I headed slowly over to our car, accompanied by our shadows, who were getting closer.  We got in and drove off, too, with the goats following for a bit.  After we left the parking lot I lost contact with them.  I don’t know what happened to them and still wonder where they came from.

What about animals I didn’t see?  In the mid-‘80s, rumors were frequent and insistent around here of a black panther roaming the Huron River Valley.  Quite a few people, including some law enforcement officers, claimed to have seen it.  I never did and don’t know if it was a hoax, mass hysteria, or what.  Still, for a couple of months I was extra vigilant, just in case, especially in the deep woods and on trails surrounded by dense underbrush.  Now had I seen that black panther, well, that would have been wild.

Another worry came when I read of sightings of feral boars in southern Michigan seven or eight years ago.  None of them were particularly close to here, but several articles noted the swine were migratory and were moving.  Conflicting stories claimed they avoided humans or that they weren’t leery of people and would attack with their dangerous tusks.  I still have never seen one of them and, in fact, I’ve heard nothing about feral pigs since.  But I remember, as with the black panther rumors, while running in the woods I paid a little more attention to my surroundings.

But back to reality.  Once closing in on a finish to one of my early morning trail runs at the state park, a black-and-white brought me to a halt, a quick one.  No, it wasn’t a squad car out In the woods, but a skunk blocking my path.  I waited and even tried a few things from afar, but Pepe didn’t seem too eager to move.  Off the trail, the underbrush was too thick to bypass it and I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait.  So I backtracked to another trail which took me to my finish, adding about a mile to my run.  I figured it was worth it.  Getting home a little later than I said I would, Karen asked what happened.  She wouldn’t have believed it had I told her.

One time I heard rather than saw wildlife—or was it?  From a distance, far into the deep forest, no roads anywhere near, I heard tractor engines or at least some heavy equipment.  Huh?  Out here?  What would a tractor or heavy equipment be doing out here, in the middle of nowhere?  For that matter, how would it get here?  There were no roads, nothing but trails.  The engines grew louder as I approached to find them.  I finally arrived at a swamp.  They weren’t engines at all, but the loudest croaking of frogs I have ever heard.  Yes, to me they really sounded like tractors or bull dozers or…..  I remain stunned.  Although I’ve run that trail many times at the same time of the year, that loud sound never repeated itself.

I wonder how many Michigan runners have come upon, say, bears during one of their workouts!