Just yesterday morning, I went for a sunrise walk with my dog on Soldier Ridge Trail. Perched on the fence post of the gate a couple of miles in was a bald eagle, looking regal. He’d watched us come in and stuck around until we were no more than a few yards away. Then, as soon as he was ready, he took off with a few powerful strokes and headed down toward Soldier Creek Road.
I smiled and felt lucky. I feel that way a lot out here.
This past March, I walked with my dad on the same trail. It was early morning, and we came upon two porcupines having a loud and serious conversation up on their hind legs. We watched them for a good 20 minutes — totally floored by something neither of us had seen before and may never see again. It felt special — encounters like these always do.
After a week in the desert last spring, I came home hoping to chase the last bit of snow from a bountiful season. It was April 2, and the snow off Highway 16 was so deep that I had to crawl up from a pullout to put on my cross-country skis. Even though it was sticky and the wind was ripping through the trees, I got to see a moose that day, and a snowshoe hare.
The best part was seeing the tracks first. The moose tracks looked like someone had popped a post in and out of the deep snow across my path, leaving no prints behind, when in fact the “prints” were all I was seeing. I’ll never forget following shallow white impressions to that silent, white hare breathing carefully and deeply against an all-white backdrop. If not for the light that early afternoon casting the faintest grey-blue shadow, I may never have seen her.
This August in the high country, a small herd of elk spooked and ran right by, their bodies svelte, their fur the color of mahogany.
Then later in the fall, on an unseasonably warm day, I saw an ermine — newly changed in anticipation of winter — but also a few too many mountain lion tracks to stay long enough to enjoy it. These moments are so special to me, and while they are something I’ve grown to expect, I can’t help but know that they are rare and precious. So precious that sometimes I don’t want to share my stories, for fear that everyone will seek them — and quickly they will stop happening to me.
But I’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years working in land conservation and promoting community trails close to home. The first is that wildlife has a home here. For this we are extremely lucky. And if we are careful with the habitat that exists now, it always will. The second is that if we care, we can do work to protect it. The third thing I’ve learned is that you care as much as I do.
As we grow as a community, we can be mindful about where we develop and where we don’t. We can prioritize the health of the creeks, streams and rivers that run through the county and on which virtually all of these creatures depend.
Perhaps most importantly, we can continue to expose our kids to the most special parts of this outstanding place we call home so they can learn to care for it too.
Katie Belton is the director of marketing and community engagement for the Sheridan Community Land Trust.