Coyote Heals a Broken Heart

(I’ve had some recent encounters with coyotes that reminded me of an experience I had with one over a decade ago that was truly out of this world. This essay appeared in Super Sunday in Newport.)

October 9, 2008

Do you know what it is to have your heart broken? What it means to get your ass kicked in a battle to preserve something in nature you love? Well, I do.

The headline read: “Nestucca Bay Refuge Opens with Art, Audubon, and More.” The article, in part, read:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service…will host a Celebration of Wildlife…on Saturday, Oct. 11. The free community-wide event is in honor of the grand opening of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge near Cloverdale.

The refuge will open at 9 a.m., with a ribbon cutting at 10:45 a.m. and free guided walks from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Visitors are also welcome to explore the new Pacific View Trail.

In 2004 the Oregon Department of Transportation awarded (a) grant to the USFWS, to design and construct visitor facilities on the refuge. The project includes two parking lots; a paved, wheelchair-accessible trail that leads to an elevated viewing deck; road improvements; interpretive panels; and a restroom. The paved Pacific View Trail and Deck perched atop Cannery Hill, afford visitors a sweeping view of the ocean…

I lived on site and served as caretaker of the 600-acre Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the Oregon Coast for ten years, from 1998-2008, and ascended Cannery Hill over 8,000 times during my tenure. I went up there with my dogs in every kind of weather imaginable and at every time of day and night and might have been the luckiest American alive to enjoy this privilege.

What was once a bankrupt dairy farm, an abused and forlorn piece of land, I helped restore to fuller ecology. Indeed, I led the restoration and cleared acres of blackberries, planted 2,000 trees, and organized over a hundred volunteer groups to plant an additional 20,000 trees. I ripped out miles of barb wire and hauled away tons of garbage. I made friends with geese and swallows. I gave the land everything I had, and in turn the land gave me everything of things I didn’t even know existed. This exchange—an exchange older than words—saved my life, transformed me, and made me become a writer. I love the refuge so much that I tattooed its greatest symbol—the Aleutian Canada geese it helped save from extinction—on my body.

Tell me an employee of the refuge would do that. Many jobs undermine our best principles. A while later, they usually disintegrate them.

And now the humans invade with their pavement and their cars and their plastic and their restrooms and their expensive optics. USFWS estimates that in the peak season, 250 vehicles a day will park on the refuge. At the point, visitors won’t see any wildlife. But they will have a sweeping view of the ocean from the Pacific Wildlife Dispersal Viewing Deck.

I happily labored on the damaged land, but never for the benefit of other humans. I was called “selfish” at an April 2007 public meeting after I read a statement in opposition to a public presence on the refuge. “You want it all for yourself,” a woman said angrily.

Here is part of that statement:


At least two, frequently three times a day, I take the same half-mile walk. In nine years that adds up to 6750 trips. That’s how many times I conservatively estimate I’ve walked from the house on the grounds of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge to Cannery Hill since becoming caretaker in October of 1998. Through these walks and my other caretaker experiences I’ve established a special seasonal and daily relationship with Cannery Hill that I believe qualifies me as holding a unique and unprecedented personal perspective to comment on the proposed public access plan.

The draft plan states that when USFWS established the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge: “The Service would seek to manage Refuge lands for maximum benefit to wildlife, and provide for public use which is compatible with the purposes for which the refuge was established.” According to USFWS’ own definition, a compatible public use is defined as a use that does not “materially interfere with or detract from” the purposes the refuge was established.

Undoubtedly, year-around, sunrise to sunset public use of the Cannery Hill Overlook would “materially interfere with or detract from” the purposes the refuge was established. How could it not when the public use plan calls for a hiking trail and viewing deck on the hill that invites hundreds of people a day to traverse the site? To assert otherwise is to lack a basic ecological understanding of what happens on Cannery Hill with respect to wildlife.

On page eight of the plan, a sentence reads: “Since Cannery Hill is primarily vegetated with introduced grasses including invasive reed canary grass and is mowed regularly, wildlife use of the hill itself is relatively low.” I can say from experience of the sort that comes from 6750 trips up the hill that the second half of this statement is totally and empirically false.

The plan anticipates “disturbances” to wildlife if the overlook is established, including impacts on forage for deer and elk and the availability of prey for raptors. Disturbance is not the proper noun to employ here. Displacement is. A year around human presence on Cannery Hill would unquestionably displace coyotes, bobcats, foxes, deer, elk and bears, all mammals I have observed or seen evidence of on the headland multiple times. As for birds, on my walks up the hill over the years, I’ve observed merlins, kestrels, kites, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and a few other raptors I couldn’t identify. They typically leave when they sense my presence. Now imagine 250 vehicles a day parked near there and hundreds of people walking the trail to the viewing deck. You couldn’t devise a more efficient plan to displace this raptor population if you brought in a team of consultants working for a month.

Establishing and maintaining a wildlife refuge on the primary basis of affording scenic views of the Pacific Ocean to humans stands as wholly incompatible with what I understand the purpose of establishing and managing the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge, or any refuge for that matter. Refuges should be first and foremost a sanctuary from sustained human presence, especially here at the Oregon Coast where there are so few undeveloped places left to protect wildlife habitat.

It might seem as if possess a conflict of interest regarding the public access plan since I served as caretaker and led the ecological restoration effort of the refuge. I do possess a conflict of interest but not because I want to remain living here undisturbed.

No, my conflict of interest flows from my overwhelming love for this place and joy at seeing it slowly healed and evolving before my very eyes into a special place where in the near future, full ecology is possible. I’m not objective about this place. How could I be after nearly a decade in residence here, seeing all sorts of wonders of nature, planting upwards to 2,000 trees, cutting acres of blackberries by hand, and leading about a hundred student tours of the grounds?

It’s my belief that the Cannery Hill Overlook would undermine, if not undo the healing that has commenced here, particularly the upland areas where leaving the place alone has proved the best strategy for attracting wildlife. That’s right, doing nothing. How often does an opportunity to do the right thing for nature entail us doing nothing? This is one of those rare opportunities. It is so obvious.

It was not obvious to USFWS and less than a year later I was gone from the refuge. During the last month of my service I was walking the dogs to the top of Cannery Hill four, occasionally five times a day. At that point I had pretty much stopped going to work and wanted to spend as much time as I possible on the grounds. On one of my last days I saw a cougar and laughed aloud when I did because I knew I would be the last person in history to see a cougar on Cannery Hill.

The woman at the meeting called me selfish. Was I? I only wanted humans to leave a place alone. To do nothing. To let it heal and become wild. They could not. They almost never can. Both the Right and Left are guilty of this. Rednecks don’t run marathons on Antarctica and hippies don’t fly to Africa to shoot big game.

To think that my service on behalf of the refuge enabled humans to visit the refuge is one of the most unbearable thoughts I’ve ever had. But it’s probably true. No, it is true. In 2002 USFWS brought the Under Secretary of the Interior to the refuge to inspect my work and in 2003 I won a national volunteer award and from USFWS and $1000 for my service as caretaker. In 2004 USFWS applied for and received the grant. I literally paved the way for this invasion!

Not too long ago, as I drove by the refuge for the first time since I moved away seven months ago, and saw the pavement and the Pacific Wildlife Dispersal Viewing Deck from Highway 101, I nearly vomited out the window. Then the nausea ebbed and the sound of a breaking heart commenced. It sounded worse than anything I’d ever heard inside of me.

What is a wildlife refuge? I know what it is not: a place where humans intrude on wildlife for human satisfaction. If a person defines the phrase any other way, he is unconscious. He is someone who stands in a smoking clearcut and claims clearcutting benefits forest health. Or believes a smolt reared in a concrete pond is a part of a rational strategy to save wild salmon. As the writer Derrick Jensen clinically described this kind of human, many of whom earn their living as biologists, “You are insane.”

If I was half the man I wanted to be, I’d take a flamethrower to the deck or chainsaw it to the ground the night before the ribbon cutting ceremony and film it for all the YouTube world to see. I would free Cannery Hill and make Edward Abbey proud. Unfortunately, I am a coward and don’t possess the courage of the tree sitters or the whaler rammers.

I was going to boycott the “Celebration of Wildlife”—if the celebration is the word. I prefer the more accurate noun ‘desecration.’ Defilement is a good one too. But what good does it do a writer to sit out his story if that story is in play? It does no good. So I’m going up there, on my own, on a mission.

October 10

On a 38-degree morning, I walked Ray to the beach to plot my mission. In 18 hours, in the dead of night, I would drive alone, sneak onto the refuge, and execute the mission—my last noble service as caretaker. I had ruled out any vandalism—I think—but really couldn’t predict what would happen when I saw the viewing deck on Cannery Hill. Losing my cool was a distinct possibility. I store an ax in the truck and as Edward Abbey once wrote, “One brave deed is worth a hundred books, a thousand theories, a million words.”

My idea of a brave deed was to make a 20-foot poster of yellow butcher paper that read “Welcome to the Desecration” and staple it to the viewing stand. Naturally, USFWS officials would tear it down before the ribbon cutting ceremony, but they would read it, know who wrote it, and that’s all that mattered to me. I would have the last word and they would have their wooden trophy.

After a half mile walk from the house, I approached the beach from a winding and descending path that cut through salmonberry and willow. Soon the path leveled, led into an opening, and I looked west, across a creek, out to a Pacific of perfect surfing waves and perfect blue sky.

Suddenly, a large brown, orange and white-colored coyote entered the foreground. He was running north down the sand not more than 50 yards away from me. At almost the exact moment I noticed him, he stopped and turned to me. I’m certainly no animist but I instantly identified the coyote’s presence as some kind of urgent personal message, although I was at a loss to fathom its meaning. In my decade on the refuge of seeing coyotes at least a couple hundred times, sometimes a few feet away, I’d never received a message like this, much less from a coyote so fit and with such distinct and handsome coloring. He seemed groomed, like a prince.

A few seconds later, the coyote resumed his northward course, disappeared from my sight, and I felt compelled to follow. I unleashed Ray, crossed a bridge, and jogged down the path to the beach. Ray lagged behind to sniff around and mark his territory.

A high tide had swept the beach clean of all markings except the coyote’s footprints. I followed them for a few seconds and then looked up and saw 75 yards down the beach the coyote sprinting closely parallel to the rock and sandy cliffs that rose 60 feet high in some places.

Then the coyote abruptly halted and turned around. He looked right at me and I was transfixed until Ray zoomed by me in pursuit, if a 14-year old partially epileptic dog with two bad hips can be said to zoom. I marveled at my old dog’s burst of energy and watched the spectacle for a couple of minutes until I realized the coyote hadn’t moved and seemed to be waiting for Ray.

I took off running and when Ray closed within ten yards of the coyote, I saw the coyote scamper up a nearly vertical 20-foot rock wall, and then, surprisingly, sit up instead of disappearing into a thicket of Scotch broom and shore pine. Ray went to the base of the wall and started barking and making short aborted attempts to scale the wall.

By now I had closed within 30 yards and was calling to Ray. He turned his head and then I saw the coyote slide down the wall to within several feet of Ray. Ray made no move toward him, nor did the coyote advance on Ray.

As I came within 15 yards, the coyote scampered back up the wall and sat up. I went to the base and looked directly up at him, into his white and orange face. We stared at each other for ten seconds and then I disengaged, leashed up Ray, and headed home. A few seconds later I turned around and the coyote had slid down the wall again and appeared to be following us. I stopped, he stopped, and I began to listen.

Here’s what the coyote told me: I must let the refuge go, let go of my bitter shame of losing the battle to save it, let go of my anger at the lunatics who perpetrated the desecration, let go of the attachment of being the caretaker, the greatest role in my life. The coyote told me that my one brave deed should be to have the courage to not do something out of anger or disgust or vainglory. You let it bleed, he said, now let it be.

October 11

And that’s exactly what I did with Ray by my side, this morning, on the beach, at dawn.

October 14

After I moved off the refuge, I used to tell my friends and family, “I haven’t even dreamed about it.” It was a boast but it was also true.

Now I understand why I never once dreamt about the refuge. In my mind, I’d never left it. I was still the caretaker.

Last night I had my first dream about the refuge since I’d moved away. All I remember seeing was large green trees. Ray was there too.