A Yankee NotebookColumns

It’s Gotten too Civilized

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – I gave Kiki her Kong with a healthy dab of peanut butter inside, promised her I’d be back as soon as possible (the next day; my daughter Martha would pick her up in a couple of hours), tossed my gym bag and rain parka into Hagar, and turned his ignition key. The dashboard screen lit up and displayed the route ahead of me. Three and a half hours, including a pit stop, and I wouldn’t need gas until I was on the way home. I hit “GO,” and Bridget (Siri with an Irish accent) told me to go down the driveway and turn left.

It’s what I do: travel for work, and it’s not at all unpleasant (usually). I don’t care much for heavy traffic, unless it’s moving reasonably well; I try to avoid driving at night nowadays; and I don’t enjoy driving west, the direction I’m usually traveling at the end of the work day, into the setting sun.

My route this day would be over roads I’ve traveled frequently since 1968, when we moved to Hanover. I drove often then to the Dartmouth College Grant for hunting, fishing, and camping with Outward Bound students or the Geriatric Adventure Society. The route from Montpelier to the Grant is about 20 miles shorter, but the GPS calls it even for time. Doesn’t matter much; I’ve pretty much given up on the Grant. It’s gotten too civilized with its now-permanent roads to facilitate timber harvesting. Also, the cabins are alive with mice, which means primarily two things: A night spent in any of the cabins with Kiki, who’s an aggressive hunter, is a little too lively for sleeping; plus, it’s impossible to know whether a previous renter has carelessly left an open container of rodent poison somewhere. She probably couldn’t get into it, but eating a poisoned mouse could prove lethal. It might kill me, too.

But today we were going right past the Grant. Just beyond its entrance we crossed a highway bridge over the Magalloway River, and were in Maine. We were headed for Rangeley, about 35 miles farther on. After a rough patch for a while with Mount Magalloway looming above the highway, I looked up at it and said, “We climbed that once on skis? Holy Toledo!”. Maine appreciates the vast amounts of cash that tourism brings in, and the Rangeley Lakes have been popular for over 100 years.

But I wasn’t here for the fishing or boating this time. Instead, the camera crew and I would be interviewing a pair of biologists who’re testing an interesting theory about a bird called the Canada jay. We’d also try to call in a couple of the jays with a recording, trap them (easy), and band them (hard; they peck and bite).

All of us who’ve traveled the North Woods winter and summer are familiar with Perisoreus canadensis. It’s the size of a small blue jay, but shaped more like a long-tailed robin. It spends winters in the north, and in fact hatches its chicks in the half-light and below-zero weather of late winter. It has calls and screeches, but the sound I associate most with it is just the sporadic flutter of its wings as it comes to see who’s passing through its territory or to cadge a treat. They’ll famously land even on hands, shoulders, or caps to provoke a generous response. I’ve had them follow me in the College Grant, the Connecticut Lakes, and the Chimney Pond trail in Baxter Park.

Notice that these are areas where they’re most likely to see kindly disposed human passersby. They become quite habituated to people, and in earlier times haunted logging camps, where the cook or some of the loggers gave them treats. Some naughty loggers gave them bits of bread soaked in whiskey, with the expected (to them) hilarious result. One of their many common names is “whiskey jack.”

They’ll eat almost anything, from peanuts and insects to birds’ eggs and even small animals. During the best foraging times, they stash food behind spruce bark scales and in the crotches of trees. During lean times, they’re attracted to human sources of nourishment and, unfortunately, to the eggs and even the young of neighboring songbirds.

Interestingly, the Canada jays most habituated to people seem also to be the most aggressive in their behavior. I remember feeding one some gorp I was carrying in a plastic bag that I’d placed between my skis. On his third trip to me, he bypassed my outstretched hand and went straight for the bag. In these days of threatened species, behavior like that can be a huge problem. Thus the biologists’ study.

The jays didn’t fall for our blandishments. So as the scientists headed off to try another site – a hike that’s still beyond me – I excused myself, fired up Hagar, and turned west, this time beating the setting sun.