Seeing wildlife while paddling is more common than you might think. If you know where to look at what time of day, you’re sure to spot an eager beaver or brazen bear catching a meal or midday swim. Here’s a run down of eight delightful mammals I frequently encounter while paddling...
Authors note: Approaching wildlife is never a good idea - no matter how cute they are. At best you will scare them off and your opportunity to observe will end. At worst, you could get hurt. If you are on an overnight trip, remember to follow all guidelines around hiding, stashing or hanging food so as to not attract late night bears, raccoons, rodents or anything hungry for your treats.
The largest rodent in North America, and the second largest in the world (behind his Eurasian kin). Beavers are widely known as the engineers of the animal kingdom. Not only do they fell timber, their dams back up stream water which create wetlands - critical habitat to many species. The integral role beavers play in the lives of humans and the animals around them cannot be understated.
Sighting Tip: Most of my beaver encounters have happened at night time. Choose a favorite water way to paddle at night. Listen and watch for a beaver to approach you in curiosity. Once they decide to leave, they’ll dive, slapping their tail on the surface of the water. You can’t miss the loud smack. If you’re in Central Oregon, the headquarters of Aquaglide, check out the High Desert Museum’s exhibit, Dam it! Beavers and Us for more on the life and times of local beavers.
Black bear coloring can vary greatly, even within the same litter. For this reason they have been called cinnamon bears, blue-grey bears and brown bears (although the true brown bear is much larger). Even white coloring and markings can appear on the chest, sometimes in the shape of a chevron. Black bears are solitary and you are likely to see only one or a mother and cubs. They breed in spring to mid summer and can live for up to 20 years.
Sighting Tip: As evident by kitschy cartoons like Yogi Bear and his exploits to find picnic baskets in the fictitious Jellystone National Park, bears like food (human food especially). To see a bear in its natural habitat, I have been most successful watching the shoreline for berry patches in the summer and sources of acorns and beechnuts in the fall. You could also spot them fishing for salmon.
A semi-aquatic creature, the river otter can hold its breath for about 8 minutes before needing air. They are playful animals and use community swimming, tail chasing, snow burrowing, mud and snow sliding as social bond building activities. These games also help young otters practice hunting techniques. Their whiskers aren’t just for cute show either - in muddy or cloudy water they act as antenna and help with prey detection.
Sighting Tip: I have been lucky to encounter river otters on many river trips. There is almost always more than one and I spot them midday near the shoreline, often headed up river slinking over each other. Once I spot them, I usually only see them for another few seconds as they may choose to stay under water until you pass. You can also see an otter at the High Desert Museum, named Thomas.
These special and elusive packs exist around the world. In Australia they are called brumbys, in the American West mustangs, and in Poland, konik horses. Their origin? In many climates, if released from captivity, bands of horses can survive in the wild. These are referred to as feral equines and have descended from domesticated equines. Mongolia boasts the only truly wild horse breed, the Przewalski horse.
Sighting Tip: I am most successful spotting wild horses against the skyline, particularly on grassy rolling basalt hills on the Lower Deschutes through the Warm Springs Reservation. At 100s of yards away, they often resemble a tree at first glance. Upon closer examination, I’ll often first identify the movement of an elegant tail.
Although deer have excellent eye-sight, they are color blind - thankfully, their hearing and sense of smell are highly attuned. Deer spend most of the day relaxing on ridgelines where they can catch scents riding on the wind. A deer's day bed can be identified by a depression in the grass and perhaps surrounding signs of browsing, ripped or nibbled branches. Deer will consume 10-12 pounds of ruffage daily.
Sighting Tip: While occasionally I see a pack of deer ascending a rocky hillside, most often I spot them in the shade adjacent to the river. Under the cover of a rock or canopy of low hanging trees, I will notice the deer only at the last moment. They remain frozen, statuesque in the shade as I pass by on the water. I have also witnessed deer crossing wide rivers in great numbers.
Cotton Tail and Rabbits
Though compact, rabbits pack a powerful punch, especially their hind legs. They are social creatures who live in colonies. To avoid the constant threat of predators including owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, wild dogs, feral cats and ground squirrels — they mostly only come out at dawn and dusk. The rabbit’s long legs and ability to run for long periods at high speeds are likely evolutionary adaptations to help them elude things that want to eat them, as are their large ears.
Sighting Tip: Because rabbits are mostly out at dawn and dusk, I have often observed them in river camp, while preparing breaky or dinner. They are often hoping bush to bush in the sage, constantly moving and easily frightened. You may just catch a quick glimpse of a back-side or the edge of an ear.
You might be asking yourself - what is a snaffle hound, aka rock rat or timber tiger? These are innumerable species of chipmunk. Sneaking around rock piles and the base pine trees, these guys are ground dwellers. Known for their burrowing habits and love of nuts, look for stripes on their eyes to confirm they are chipmunks and not a ground squirrel.
Sighting Tip: These guys are everywhere. They move along the ground and up trees quickly. They also make a call in the mornings and evenings that could be mistaken for a bird vocalization. Once you identify their peep-peep sound, it helps to locate them in trees.