Nina Ramsey is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and writer in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and creative essays have appeared in The Farallon Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, Hospital Drive, Portland Magazine, and elsewhere.
What I Know About Marmots
1. Marmots belong to Order Rodentia, Genus Marmota, Family Sciuridae. They look cute and cuddly and a bit like Himalayan cats—the big fat ones—but marmots have ugly, yellow teeth (incisors only, no canines) and their heads look similar to a beaver’s head. All spring and summer marmots gnaw and chew on seeds, grasses, sedges, spiders, and worms; during the fall and winter they hibernate. They can grow portly and stout during the summer feeding months. Marmots have a gait that is more like a four-legged waddle. They waddle a few steps and then stop and swish their tails—which look like furry beaver tails or fox tails on steroids—in a circular motion. This gives them the appearance of having something bothering them around their bottom. In the Cascade Mountains, our marmots are hoary marmots, after the color of their fur, which is silver, gray-blue, or frosty. They can look like snowmelt or a gray granite boulder.
2. From a distance, a marmot might be hard to distinguish from the gray granite boulder upon which it sits. It may commonly lay flat on the top of the rock; scanning all about with its black eyes and keeping its ears open for predators. Just how good is its vision? Its hearing? Its sense of smell? When danger is seen, heard, or smelt, it stands up and lets out a sharp whistle, which sounds more like a banshee shriek, and which is usually answered by another shriek and then another as the message is passed along the colony: OMG! Run! Hide! Duck into the burrows!
3. Marmot predators? All the usual: bear, eagle, wolverine, hawk, lynx, cougar, osprey (when fishing is poor), red fox, coyote, and dog. Wolves, too, if the marmots happen to live in wolf territory, which the Cascade Mountains are once again becoming, with an estimated nine packs, three in the North Cascades and the rest in Eastern Washington State. Some native peoples hunted marmot for their fat, prized for its medicinal value. But not the Yakima Indians (see No. 5). Nowadays, people do not prey on marmots. Not for meat, not for sport, not for fur. I don’t know if marmots were ever trapped for their fur. I doubt it. Not because their soft, silver underfur and the gray-blue guard hair of their pelage isn’t lovely. It just looks ratty when they moult. Well, they are big rodents.
4. Marmots, in order to protect themselves against predators, graze in large groups, spread out, with sentries posted on gray granite boulders. When the sentry shrieks, each marmot runs to his or her nearest burrow entrance. There might be over one hundred seven-foot deep refuge burrows in an established colony—and the marmots remember every one. Sleeping and hibernating burrows are deep chambers up to eleven feet long lined with dried grass and leaves. These burrows have multiple entrances and exits—and the marmots remember every one. Marmot memories are so good, when they wake up in spring and dig themselves a tunnel up through the snow, they can then waddle or slide a few hundred yards away and with no signs, no trail markers, no mailboxes, no burrow numbers, dig straight down through the snow to another burrow entrance. Their visual memories are magnificent; their visual spatial cortex must be massive. Imagine visualizing tunnels and burrow holes that cannot be seen. Marmots might make good dentists. Or, at least, score high enough on the visual spatial perception tests to get into dental school. Lord knows most marmots could use a good dentist (see No. 1).
5. Marmots are family oriented and friendly—the Latter-Day Saints and Pentecostals of Order Rodentia. In the National Parks, where they’re used to seeing people, they will ignore us and go about their marmot business (grazing, digging, play fighting, and wrestling), or approach us as two-legged dispensers of granola and gorp. In remote alpine and subalpine basins, where marmots rarely encounter people, a marmot might take one look at a human and think predator; then shriek, run, hide, fight, or rise up on its hind legs and snarl. But whether you encounter a marmot in a National Park or in the wild backcountry, you’d better keep on your toes. A marmot might lure you—with chirps, whistles, or trills—toward a mysterious alpine Shangri-La. Hunters from the Yakima tribe once told ethnologist Eugene Hunn, that marmots were associated with mythical Little People, “whose whistling might seduce a lone hunter, calling him ever on until he loses all track of time, space, and identity.”
6. Once, when we were camping up on the Railroad Grade on the west side of Mount Baker, a huge marmot got its incisors into one of my husband Bob’s t-shirts. We’d had a hard, hot, hike up to camp, and that t-shirt was caked with dried salty sweat. We tried to get the t-shirt away from it. It hissed and growled and gnashed its teeth and shook its head side-to-side, clenching the t-shirt in its jaws, in the manner of a rabid dog. Its growls and hisses sounded like the horrible sounds Linda Blair made while playing a young girl possessed by a demon in the film The Exorcist. One of the scariest and most disgusting films ever produced. I’m just saying. This marmot kept Bob’s t-shirt.
7. Upper Goat Lake, the North Cascades. We’d had a hard, hot, day hike—north up the Pacific Crest Trail, over Rock and Woody Passes—and we were returning to our remote camp above Upper Goat Lake, an alpine tarn sixteen miles north of Harts Pass and fifteen miles south of Monument 78 at the Canadian border. Suddenly, this yard-tall marmot rears up. A marmot with—I’d guess—a version of that growth hormone disease, gigantism. He blocks the trail, stands, staring at us and gnashing his teeth. His marmot forepaws curled in fists at his chest. A marmot version of a big time wrestler. I thought Bob would have to fight him with his trekking sticks—engage in some wilderness swordplay. In my mind this marmot was definitely a “he.” Although I have no idea how I would actually examine—how I might handle—a marmot to determine its sex. But I’m sure this marmot had huge cojones. He made no sound—no whistles, no growls, no snarls—he just stood there with his mitts up, staring and gnashing his teeth. After a while, he dropped to the ground and crept into the meadow.
8. Mount Robson, Canada; the trail to Snowbird Pass. AKA the Valley of a Thousand Marmots. Some hikers from New Zealand were terrified of marmots. They thought the marmots were wolverines, whose bone-crushing canine teeth and powerful jaws could rip your throat open and your bloody beating heart out of your chest. I have never seen a wolverine nor do I wish to see one. I did see a badger once, in the brown sage and dry dirt below the Taggert and Bradley Lakes trail. It was an ugly sucker. Mean-looking. I imagine a badger would score in the ninetieth percentile on a nastiness scale. Marmots for the most part have a gentle nature. Except when it comes to predators or salt-caked t-shirts.
9. This morning I encountered a young yellow-bellied marmot as I started up the Beaver Creek Trail, here in Grand Teton National Park, where I am sitting now in my cabin typing the draft of this essay. It was two feet off the trail, digging near a rotten log. I stopped and baby-talked to it, and it looked into my eyes and blinked; then it waddled closer to that rotten log and resumed digging. Its fur was a rusting-red, rich, copper and gold, the same color I get using Indian red henna on my hair. I couldn’t see its belly but it must be yellow, because after all I am in the Teton Range of the Rockies, where the yellow-bellied marmots rule. This marmot was digging under the snow and down into the dirt with the curved claws of its forepaws and then licking something—spiders, worms, or minerals—up from the soil. The snow was all around. Several feet in places. Taggert Lake was still covered in ice. This youngster was an early riser.
10. One time, I snapped photos of three marmot pups sunbathing and playing atop a gray granite boulder. This was in a subalpine basin below Three Fingers, a peak in the west Cascades. The pups chased each other and play-fought, rolling about and wrestling; then they flopped into a pile of gray fur and fell asleep.
11. Marmots are clever. Whether they are black-capped, yellow-bellied, long-tailed, hoary, alpine, or steppe, they understand taking turns and teamwork. I once saw a dozen yellow-bellied marmots in a basin at the foot of the Middle Teton, circling a food bag some climbers had hung off a branch they’d jammed into a crack on an enormous boulder. One-by-one, the marmots climbed to the summit of the boulder, but could not manage to climb out on or dislodge that branch. Which would have been child’s-play to a raccoon. Nevertheless, the marmots kept at it. They circled below the food bag, like children under a piñata at a birthday party, waiting for candy to fall. Later that same day, I sat on a rock by the side of the trail to rest, and a marmot waddled down the scree and sat beside me on another rock. I expected it to cross its legs, lean back, and light a pipe. Instead, it gazed at me—its powerful dark eyes imploring me—so, I hear you have some trail mix in your pocket.