Look for the Stones That Breathe

An American pika looks out for the talus field that it calls home

Whenever I pass a talus field as I’m hiking in the mountains of Oregon or Washington or Wyoming, I always look for the rocks that live and breathe, although sometimes it’s my ears that find them first. The amazing pika spends its whole life here, in the rock fields of the high places, and doesn’t hibernate in the long winters the way so many other mammals do. The warming climate is going to be hard on these remarkable creatures as they rely on snow to insulate their homes during the coldest weather. At a younger age I couldn’t comprehend why the same people who insist in the truth of Noah’s ark would so eagerly condemn such a creature to extinction. The answer would break my heart.

A Surprise Visit From an Old Friend

An American pika peeks out from a moss-covered rock in a talus field near Upper Horsetail Falls in the Columbia River Gorge

I left early this morning to hike in one of my favorite spots, the short trail in the Columbia River Gorge from Horsetail Falls to Upper Horsetail Falls and on to Oneonta Falls. I was mostly interested in shooting video of the waterfalls, with some photos too, but stopped to shoot this moss-covered rock in a talus field. My heart filled with joy when I noticed a familiar face looking back at me, an American pika that I hadn’t seen when I stopped (it’s on the far left edge of the frame in the middle, looking straight at me). The location might seem surprising if you know much about pikas, as I was close to sea level and pikas normally live high in the mountains. But there is a population here in the Gorge, they live at the lowest elevation of any pikas in the United States.

I had seen them in the Gorge several times before, once near Multnomah Falls and a couple of times on the way to Angel’s Rest, but I had passed by this spot a number of times and never seen (or heard) them. I always look when I pass a talus field, I can’t help myself, pikas are always a treat to watch. I hadn’t even brought my 100-400mm lens on this hike as I don’t usually see much wildlife on this trail and I was just taking a quick hike while it was still cool (it was unusually hot today and is going to bake tomorrow). I wouldn’t have had time to get out the lens anyway, I didn’t see the pika for long, but I did hear it calling out several times as it moved about invisibly under the rocks.

Kingdom of the Pika

A pika looks out over the landscape where it lives

I spent over four hours watching a couple of pikas on the Palisades Lake Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, keeping an eye on the clock as I had a set time when I needed to depart for Olympic National Park. This pika was below the trail, the other above it, and I watched and photographed them through my biggest telephoto lens.

This pika spent most of its time with its back to me, sitting on a rock and looking down the hill, so I grabbed my widest lens to better show the world of these amazing little creatures (the pika is sitting dead center on a rock near the bottom of the frame). Winters are long and harsh here and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around how, without hibernating, pikas can survive a winter that would kill me within hours.

This is the same pika as in my I spent over four hours watching a couple of pikas on the Palisades Lake Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, keeping an eye on the clock as I had a set time when I needed to depart for Olympic National Park. This pika was below the trail, the other above it, and I watched and photographed them through my biggest telephoto lens.

This pika spent most of its time with its back to me, sitting on a rock and looking down the hill, so I grabbed my widest lens to better show the world of these amazing little creatures (the pika is sitting dead center on a rock near the bottom of the frame). Winters are long and harsh here and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around how, without hibernating, pikas can survive a winter that would kill me within hours.

This is the same pika as in my earlier picture, which was taken further up the trail to the right.

The Siren’s Call

An American pika calls out from its home in a talus field in Mount Rainier National Park

I’ve tried to hike the Palisades Lake Trail in Mount Rainier National Park three times over the past decade but never gotten very far. Once because of thunderstorms, twice because of pikas. I can’t resist them and spent my last hours of my latest visit watching this pika below the trail and another above it. Normally pikas let out a fairly quick call but thankfully this one let out an extended call as I had already packed up to head back up the trail and had to grab a quick handheld shot.

One day I’ll have to hike the trail with friends who can cover my eyes and stop up my ears and lead me safely past the siren’s call.