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Animals I have Known Part 3

by Dan Hartman

Jan. 22, 2011

Back in 1978 Cindy and I hiked up to the fire tower on Mt. Washburn. As we reached the summit an orange fox with a gray tail trotted past us. It looked strange. Almost like a cross between a red fox and a gray fox. We talked to the guy manning the tower and he mentioned he’d been watching a strange looking fox. He’d even named it calico because of its weird color. What we did not know then is we had seen a not yet named mountain fox.

Twelve years later we brought our cabin here in Silver Gate, Montana. Our first winter I tried to photograph martens and flying squirrels, mostly at night. As an added bonus, I was able to grab a few shots of a fox. He usually passed by around three o’clock in the morning and because of his light color we called him Blonde.

That first winter passed, educating us in the realities of living in the north woods. It seemed at times we and the wildlife around our cabin were all struggling to survive together. While the animals outside our windows tried to find enough food and keep themselves from disappearing into the food chain, we found how much wood and money it took to survive.

When summer finally came, we worked hard to make sure we would be better prepared for our second winter. Also sometime in July, Blonde suddenly appeared at our front door. We hadn’t seen him since April and we were surprised until we noticed his coat. There were large patches of fur missing. He had mange. When he walked around he seemed weak, weaving now and then. I decided to break our rule about not feeding foxes and lay a handful of hamburger at his feet. He ate it and weaved off into the woods. The next day he was back and once again I put out a handful of burger. He ate and disappeared into the woods. We did not see him again that summer or fall. I figured he did not make it. But one winter day just after Thanksgiving, there he was. His coat thick and full. Looking beautiful as ever.

During the following winters we would often spot him mousing in our yard. In late winter, early spring we would watch him court his mate, then in summer have him pass by leading that year’s crop of puppies.

Once after a tough stretch of art shows, Cindy, the girls and I returned home long after dark. We had been discussing our options and had brought up the possibility of selling our cabin and trying something else. I remember it being one of our lowest points. As we pulled up to our cabin a marten ran by in our headlights. Blonde was mousing under our porch light. I looked at Cindy and said, “We are not ever selling this cabin!” She agreed.

In 1997 National Geographic called. A photo of Blonde would appear in the April issue with a short article on a newly discovered sub species of red fox. They would be called mountain fox. Soon after, National Wildlife ran a large article called “On the Trail of the Gray Ghost”. Once again a photo of Blonde was used. This time a page and a half spread. I remember when we received the national Geographic magazine; I sat on the porch that night and waited for Blonde. When he finally appeared I held up the magazine with his photo. “You made Geo”, I told him.

Some time in 2000 we realized we hadn’t seen Blonde around. I figured he would have been 11-12 years old. Every few years a fox passes by with marking like Blonde and we remember the old days.


Mountain Fox