Photo Credit: Illustration by Facundo Gastiazoro
I was standing on a footbridge over a small creek that runs parallel to the railroad tracks, watching a ‘black snake’—a line of loaded coal cars—with my usual regressive wonder. Suddenly a splash of water swung my attention to the creek below, where a furry animal twenty feet away swam towards me, a wake spreading behind it. At first I thought it was a beaver, for there was a lodge in the immediate background, but as it came closer I could see that it was slimmer than a beaver and propelling itself with a snaking rat-tail.
If it had continued on its course, it would have passed under the footbridge directly beneath me, but the creature took heed of my presence, submerged, and described a few quick underwater figure-eights before taking refuge under the nearest bank.
The encounter was only 15 seconds in total, but it seemed significant for its novelty. It was the first muskrat I ever saw in the wild. (The baby muskrat I observed cowering behind a wooden box at a friend’s workshop didn’t count because it had strayed out of its element to be trapped in ours.)
After several decades of living in the Northwest, there were few local animal frontiers left when I met the muskrat. The most prominent beast on my short never-seen list is the wolverine, which also comes runner-up on my don’t-want-to-see list after the mountain lion.
Most animal encounters I have occur when I’m riding a bike, with regular sightings of northwest BC’s Big Three: bear, moose and deer. However, coming across animals for the very first time while out pedaling is very rare. The first marten I ever set eyes on, slinking across Highway 62 near the Hagwilget Bridge like a chocolate-coloured, low-rider cat, happened in the saddle. While bike-touring near McBride, I surprised a small grizzly bear chewing something on the side of the road in the pouring rain. We sprinted away from each other full throttle—his swift retreat perhaps mocking—and I concluded I would rather have seen my first ursus horribilis from the turret of an armoured vehicle.
My first encounters tend to occur in the spring. My first lynx emerged in a field next door in mid-March. It crept into my yard a few days later, astonishing the housecats at the window. Both the muskrat and the marten debuted in May. Spring is also the setting of the spotting game First Bear of the Year. However, the grizzly, badger and elk all first wandered into my sightline in summer.
Since the muskrat’s footbridge is just behind the shuttered New Town Pub, I believed I would see the little animal again through sheer diligence. Every morning as spring ran towards summer I walked a loop a couple of kilometres in length, with the spanned creek near its end. In a marsh across the tracks from the creek, I glimpsed a rat-tail just before it was pulled under the water. It could have been him or his kin. But I never saw him in either tugboat or submarine mode again.
I walk my daily route no matter what the time of year, but now that the creek flows free again, I pause on the footbridge and stand very still. If I don’t catch sight of the semi-aquatic mammal, I always have an opportunity to survey the beavers’ nearby industry. Just west of the muskrat enclave, the beaver wages a pitiless guerrilla dam war against an alliance of the highway maintenance company and the town. And I can testify that the toothy rodents are as elusive as their muskrat cousins.