By Lisa Densmore
Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
We had just crested Jonas Pass in the Canadian Rockies, 20 miles from the trailhead in the middle of a 60-mile backpacking trip, when an unexpected visitor approached us. The friendly intruder provided an hour of trailside entertainment before we continued on our way. Actually, I approached her first, expecting her to shyly scurry away. I wanted to take her photograph. Turns out, she was more than happy to pose for me, though she had ulterior motives.
My model was a hoary marmot (Marmota caligata). Hoary marmots are so named for the white and gray fur on their shoulders and back, the color of an old sage’s beard. Most live in Alaska, though they also dwell in alpine meadows throughout the northwest including Alberta and British Columbia. In pioneer days, they were called “whistlers” for their high-pitched warning call. Whistler Mountain, which hosted ski events during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, is named after this large rodent, the largest species of ground squirrel in North America. Adults weigh between 17 and 22 pounds and are about 20 inches long.
Hoary marmots hibernate up to 8 months per year in burrows that they dig into the soil around a rocky outcropping. This one surely gets a long winter snooze at Jonas Pass which is snow free only about 3 months per year. They eat grasses and seeds. Mrs. Marmot had also gnawed the shed caribou antler lying on the rock cairn which marked the top of the pass, adding needed calcium and other minerals to her diet. She was apparently lacking salt though and knew a sweaty trekker could provide it. She marched straight to my friend’s pack where she started licking the straps. Then she attempted to lick his shirt. We finally chased her away when she tried to nab a small bag with a camera and my friend’s passport inside it.