I was in the Northern Cascades last weekend with a couple of good friends of mine, Katie and Glenn. We’d driven up Route 20 from Bellingham, to the base of Washington Pass, near where Kerouac had his cabin in the mountains that so moved and inspired him. It was a spectacular day: the sun shone brilliantly and a lacy haze of high clouds alternately obscured and revealed the white peaks.
We parked by Diablo Lake, right before the road starts to climb up in earnest, and took a stroll through the moss and pine and fern that typify Northwestern forests.
It was glorious; I haven’t completely recovered from my beginner’s appreciation for the landscape here. Green overwhelms – bryophytes and lichens swells up through the cracks in the rocks and on any unoccupied surface not strewn with needles. Leafy sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) tip over the trail, interlacing pinnate with the fern opposite. Great swaths of moss equitably blanket everything else, making bountiful pillows for our boots, and icing the Northern faces of all the pines we passed.
Back at the lot, temporarily sated, Katie and I sat on the bank of the Diablo with our toes in the water, while Glenn took a dip in the creek running off the mountains.
He came back with his hands clasped together, a mischievous look on his face.
“Hold your hands out!”
Katie and I both refused, envisioning a host of unpleasant creatures.
Eventually, he conceded to our timidity, and cracked his hands apart, revealing a long, pinkish snout coated in whiskers. Quickly the snout disappeared, replaced by a quivering gray back, as the shrew buried its face in Glenn’s fingers.
Glen put it down on the rocks of the dirt lot so that we could get a better look:
I though immediately of The Wind in the Willows, amongst the most iconic of anthropomorphic children’s stories, where the bumbling and fastidious mole ventures forth for the first time to explore the world around him.
This creature certainly seemed confounded by its new environment; traveling so abruptly from moss to rock is likely a shock, especially when one’s range of experiences are limited. We let it wander a bit, marveling at its adeptness at navigating, as, like the typical mole, shrews are nearly blind.
This shrew belongs to the genus Sorex, distinguished by its fairly lengthy, bi-color tail. Some Sorex shrews compensate for their poor eyesight via echolocation, just as bats do, though their high-pitched twittering does not allow for the clear “echo scene” that a bat can conjure. Still, shrews, and little shrew-like mammals from Madagascar, called a tenrecs, are the only land mammals that can utilize echolocation at all.
Another interesting shrew fact, and why you should never cross a shrew? Some of them are quite venomous, dispensing venom to their prey through grooves in their teeth. A shrew bite, though it cannot cause permanent harm to a human, seems at the very least worth avoiding.
Unfortunately for my little Sorex, this tale does not have a happy ending. After relocating our friend to the edge of the forest, we returned to the car to put on our shoes and start the drive back to Bellingham. Moments later, one of the many lakeside crows made a dive to the ground, and flew off with a shrew in its beak, nearby birds singing their approval, or envy, from the numerous tall pines.