We started looking for moose in earnest at Kootenai National Forest and Lake Koocanusa when we stayed in Libby Montana. (Strangely the lake's name is the first three letters of the Kootenai River, Canada and USA.) The website for the lake promises that "Viewing opportunities abound for deer, coyotes, river otter, moose...” The word “abound” got me excited, but no luck. Great area though, and incredibly devoid of humans, even for Montana. Kathryn mused that bears would eat my body before anyone found it, whatever that means.
We also failed to find moose at Glacier National park, even though the park and the town of Hungry Horse, near our campsite, sold moose-themed tourist gear. In hindsight, there is a stronger focus on grizzly bear and huckleberry signs, statues and mugs in that town. After dropping a zero-moose in Montana, we were obviously beginning to worry about the success of our entire road trip.
When we pulled into the campground in West Yellowstone, I jumped out of the truck and went into the office to check in. I was lucky to find one of the owners, Ken, behind the desk. Ken gave me a very extensive run down on restaurants, sites, the current location of the bison herd in Yellowstone and other tips. When he heard that we had already seen bears and elk but were hoping to see moose, he told me that if we didn’t find any in Yellowstone, he had an “ace in the hole” location where we would have the best chances of seeing moose.
We did not see any in Yellowstone, so on our last night in the area, we followed Ken's advice and drove about 15 miles into Idaho, to Big Springs loop, which is an area maintained by the US Forest Service, and is adjacent to Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The loop is a long, dirt road and the only other vehicles that we saw were recreational ATV’s. The area is popular for ATV riders, and there are lots of dirt trails for them around Big Spring.
We drove very slowly around the loop, and even ventured a bit off of the road once or twice, all the while looking out of both sides of the truck for moose. We made it most of the way around the loop and were getting ready for disappointment when we saw a road leading down to a boat launch. It was deep pot holes all the way down to the small, deserted boat launch parking lot. Off to our left, across from the launch, we could just make out a meadow through the trees.
I burst out of the truck and went into the woods toward the meadow. Kathryn yelled that I should take our bear spray, which would indeed have been the wise thing. When I got through the woods and onto the edge of the meadow, I scanned across it and couldn’t believe my eyes.
I crept back to the truck, quietly jumping up and down and waving to Kathryn. After some high-pressure component swapping comedy with our camera equipment (camera wasn’t charged, video camera was charged, but had no memory card) we returned to the field and got some good video while watching a hungry lady moose through our binoculars.
She was a big sow, even as moose go. The field was wet, full of blooming lupine flowers and among the top three places I have ever been for sheer mosquito density. t was so bad that I’m not sure that Thailand and the Amazon are the top two.
This success made us very proud; even Sonny was impressed. However, our next stop was Grand Teton National Park, and only a few days later, while hiking the trail between Heron Pond and Swan Lake, we passed a pair of women who excitedly told us that there were two moose in the water at the other end of the lake. So, among bright yellow blooming lily pads, we got to see a medium-sized mommy moose and her small youngster. (Picture at the top of this post.)
Which was cute, I guess, sure, OK. But it goes without saying that our laser focus by that time was finding American Beaver. That's another story.
Today’s post will be a quick plug of an excellent project called iNaturalist.org. It is free and I don’t have any affiliation with it, I just like it. I’ve been using it for about five months now (since Texas) and it has made the wilderness parts of our adventure more fun and educational. The project has a website and a mobile app, which allow you to record photos of wildlife and upload them, share them with the community, and get help identifying them and discussing your findings. It is also great for figuring out the name of an unknown plant or animal, and sometimes even for locating wildlife that you want to see.
At it’s simplest, it works like this. You take a photo of a mushroom, flower, animal, or whatever with your phone, which geo-tags the location using GPS. Then you use the iNaturalist app to share that photo. You can browse/search their field guide and tag the photo with an identification, if you think that you know what the organism is. Others can comment, or provide their own identification. You get alerted when someone has identified your subject, and click a button to agree with their identification (or not).
After the ID has reached consensus (or an expert/scientist has reviewed and confirmed its veracity) your photo is elevated to the status of research grade, which means that it can be used by researchers who are interested in what plants and animals were seen, where and when. They can tell, for example, how wolves have migrated, whether an invasive fish species has reached The Great Lakes, or what effects the rain in California has had on seasonal blooms and wild bees.
Below is an example of one of my photos. Some folks identified it as a Beach strawberry. These also serve as a nice notebook for what plants and animals we see and where. You can use photos from any camera, but unless it has GPS you will need to manually tag the location.
The most useful part for travel is that you can access that information too. There is an 'Explore' feature that lets you see other people's uploads, with color-coded tags on a map. So, if you don’t want to run into grizzly bears, you can see where they’ve been spotted. If you do want to see river otters, you can at least make an informed attempt at being in the right place at the right time.
This can of course be a blessing and a curse – below, for example, is a phone screenshot from a park near Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. I got out of the truck, looked to see what animals might be in the area, and found an observation (the blue tag) from the parking space next to our truck.
iNaturalist.org is just one of the great new sites working to crowd-source scientific data gathering and analysis. If you are interested in astronomy, another cool one is planethunters.org, which I learned about on NPR's Science Friday podcast. Planethunters is just one of over 100 projects affiliated with Zooniverse, a platform specifically for launching people-powered research projects.
Data science and machine learning are advancing at the rate of science fiction, and these systems and models are just starving for large, quality data sets for analytic and AI training needs. A corresponding explosion in research funding for biology, physics and other sciences is probably not coming any time soon, but maybe we amateurs can get involved to collaborate and help create data sets while hiking, bird watching, fishing, stargazing or snorkeling, and have some fun in the process.
When we started planning this trip, one of the biggest questions we had was how on earth we were going to pull this off with our cat Sonny in tow. We were going away for a year, so he was definitely coming with us, but how was that going to work, exactly? We wondered if he'd be miserable, or worse, that he'd escape into the wilds of Yosemite National Park or something and never be seen again.
When we started researching road trips with cats on the internet, we didn't think there would be much information. This, of course, was stupid. Cats rule the internet and there a loads of websites and blogs about adventuring, RVing and traveling with cats. There are even first person accounts from cats about their experiences. No, really!
Armed with this information, we bought a massive cat traveling suite (actually a carrier for a large dog), which takes up most of the back of The Beast. We also bought a collapsible enclosure that we stick outside when we set up camp so Sonny can hang out with us when we're sitting outside the trailer. Our last purchase for him was a harness and leash, so that we could confirm everyone's suspicion that New Yorkers are urban hippies: "Hey, look at those New Yorkers with a cat on a string!"
We tried getting Sonny used to the harness while we were still at home, but this proved useless, because he was used to going outside on our apartment roof deck without one, and he is not an idiot. Every time we managed to wrestle him into it, he just lay down on his side like a dead fish and refused to move.
Now we're the road, though, and he has realized that he can explore sand dunes, beaches, forests and wade deep into puddles and climb up palm trees when he goes for a walk, he purrs and runs to the trailer door every time we get his harness and leash out. The fact that he gets a treat at the end of every excursion probably also helps. At first, he was a little cautious when we took him out, preferring to explore the immediate area around the trailer. Not any more! Check out the slide show below for pics of some of his outings.
Now we've realized how adventurous Sonny is – and unafraid to get his paws wet –we've been speculating about his former life before we adopted him at the age of four. Top theory: he was a boat cat back in the day, working his way up and down the Mississippi on a paddle steamer. Or maybe he just has mountain lion relatives that we don't know about, still mooching around Big Bend's Chisos Mountains.
While some of our fellow campers have done a double take seeing a cat on a walk, or rather more accurately, Sonny taking us for a walk, others have stopped us to say that they have been traveling with their cats for years. In our Miami campground, we even saw someone had strung a zip wire a few feet off the ground between two trees and attached the leashes of two cats to it so they could wander around.
The biggest challenge has been actually driving between campgrounds without a chorus of yowls coming from the back seat. Sonny does not like being on the move, and although we've tried using a cat calming spray and he has toys, snacks, water, a blanket and a bathroom in his cat carrier, he only really settles down if he's sitting on a human. Cats are supposed to be secured in a carrier in the towing vehicle when you're on the road, but when we're on a particularly long drive, Kathryn gets in the back with him, so he is either inside his carrier or restrained on her lap. This, of course, is great for Sonny, but not so great for us!
There have been other cat-related mishaps along the way, of course. Here are a few tips from what we've learned so far about traveling with Sonny so you can avoid our mistakes:
Keep the doors of your vehicle shut at all times when your cat is in it, even during short pit stops. We were worried about Sonny escaping from our travel trailer before we set off, but this hasn't been a problem because it has two exterior doors: one in the bedroom and one in the living room. Sonny stays in the living room while we go in and out of the bedroom, or vice versa.
He has figured out how to Houdini his way out of his cat carrier in The Beast, though. When we stopped to put air in the trailer's tires at a Florida truck stop, we were horrified when Sonny strolled right up to us on the concourse to find out what we were doing. Kathryn had left the back door of The Beast open while we were stopped for five minutes and he slipped the carrier and walked right out. We both nearly had a stroke and yelled "caaaatt!!" at each other, before one of us came to our senses and scooped him up.
Test out how your cat does in a harness before you venture too far outside. We tried out two different cat harnesses and a dog harness before we found one that Sonny has trouble escaping and he can even back out of this one (pictured above) if he really sets his mind to it. Don't leave your cat outside on a leash unattended and be ready to grab him if he makes an escape.
Make sure your cat has enough ventilation. Keep all the windows of your vehicle cracked if you have to leave him unattended while on the road. We have only left Sonny for 30 minutes at a time and never when it's been too hot to leave him without the air conditioning running. The interior temperature of our Keystone Bullet trailer stays much cooler than the inside of The Beast, but we always crack all the windows and open all the vents when he's going to be in there on his own for a few hours, and if it's really hot, leave a fan running.
Watch for slide outs! Our trailer has a motorized section that extends three feet when we set up, which makes our living area bigger. We've heard stories of cats getting trapped in the machinery, so ensure your cat is safely secured in the towing vehicle when you extend or retract any slides.
Check ahead to find out a campground's pet policy. Most allow pets on leashes, but some don't allow animals outside at all.
Bring paperwork to show your cat is up to date with vaccinations, particularly for rabies. We haven't had to show this yet, but some campgrounds require it and we will definitely need this when we cross the Canadian border.
Make sure you treat your cat for fleas and ticks before you allow him to explore new habitats. You don't want your cat to pick up any of these and you certainly don't want any of these critters inside your trailer!
We're sure that not all cats are happy campers, but we've been pretty amazed about how well Sonny has adapted to life on the road. We keep telling him that he's the most well-traveled rescue cat from Greenpoint, Brooklyn – or at least, one of the top three.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.