Novelist | Singer
Wild encounters are magical for those who love wild surroundings and their native residents. I often find myself talking to birds, deer, woodchucks and other animals as easily as chatting with someone in line at a supermarket. The craving for these experiences has led me to episodes which live in my brain like an old rerun of a familiar TV show. This story was particularly poignant.
In the summer of 1980, I took a job as a Field Assistant for Biological studies on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge in eastern Montana for the summer of 1980. The refuge is an astonishing one million acres and comprises Fort Peck Reservoir as well as the area known as the Missouri Breaks. The Missouri River pours into the western end of the refuge where it soon joins the reservoir formed by a dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 30s for flood control.
The Missouri Breaks were very different country than I had ever encountered. High plains desert stretched away from the river, though on the river bottom near the Missouri, the vegetation was surprisingly lush, and supported huge cottonwood trees as well as herds of elk and white tailed deer. Mule deer lived farther away from the river up on the breaks. It was a very wild ecosystem with loads of wildlife: elk, deer, sheep, prairie dogs, coyotes, bobcats, likely mountain lions, many varieties of upland game birds including sage grouse, millions of birds and in the river, teams of fish—among them the paddlefish; a monster pre-historic siphon feeder that fishermen would snag with huge treble hooks weighted with a spark plug.
It was incredibly desolate. Desolate and dangerous looking at times, especially at night, and especially when I participated in coyote siren surveys. There were loads of coyotes in the Missouri Breaks, but we never, never saw them. Western coyotes are small and wiry, about the size of a large beagle. A Montana state biologist named Duane and Shawn, a PhD student picked me up just before sunset at the bunkhouse, and off we went onto the top of the Missouri Breaks, into the spooky black night of the refuge. Duane had a particular route he would run a couple of times a summer to estimate the local coyote population.
The truck was equipped with a massive hand-crank siren mounted directly behind the cab. Duane gave detailed instructions while he handed out ear muffs that looked air traffic controller gear. We were to secure our ear muffs, which made us essentially deaf, then he would crank up the siren. I only heard it through the ear muffs, but that siren roared. It certainly would affect your hearing, causing temporary and eventually permanent hearing loss. Thus the ear muffs. We needed all of our hearing for what transpired.
The mechanism wailed for about thirty seconds, then Duane would stop cranking and we waited for the siren to die down before removing our ear muffs. Then the séance would begin.
There was always a slight delay, and I could almost picture the vigilant canids, straining their pointy ears in the direction of our machine. The response would wind up and crescendo, as the dogs would initially answer the siren, and then pick up the chorus of other packs who answered us as well. Songs popped up all around us, sometimes at frighteningly close quarters. Our job was to count individual howls. Adults were easily discernable from pups, who were several months old in mid-summer. Theirs was a fast, high pitched yapping, while the adults called more slowly, sometimes in yaps, sometimes in an almost wolf-like howl. We stood in the thick blackness, miles from any electric light, slacked jawed from the rising cacophony of multiple packs of wild Canis latrans. We all would count separately for the duration of the coyote songs, and this is where a big crew was most beneficial—we then compared notes. Duane wrote them all down and then took an average, no doubt weighing his estimates a little heavier than mine, which was fair. I was just happy to be along for the ride.
We then jumped back in the truck and drove for two miles. Evidently, humans can hear a coyote sing from a mile distant—no doubt the coyotes can hear the siren from much farther. So theoretically, if we drove two miles in one direction, we would be hearing a separate set of coyotes. Then, we’d do it all over again.
The siren surveys lasted until early morning, and we returned to the bunkhouse shattered, but those nights were some of the most memorable of my life. A rare connection with a wild animal—singing to them so they respond in that spooky, mournful, social, wild conversation of territory and belonging. I’ll never forget how it felt. To this day, every time I hear a coyote call, I think of those siren surveys in the thick blackness of the Missouri Breaks nights.