A Brief Encounter with an American Pika

Animals are wonderful teachers. A brief encounter with the American Pika sparked my curiosity about what this small but resilient creature could teach me about my ability to adapt to the changing environment on Earth.

In late September, my husband, son and I set out for a 3-day backpacking trip out of Convict Lake, in the Sherwin Range of the Sierra Nevadas in California. We’d planned to camp our first night in the Owens Valley, but poor air quality made it inadvisable. The small towns on this stretch of Highway 395 know all too well the long term economic and health effects of yearly droughts and fires. In August, the Caldor Fire burned over 200,000 acres (including more than 1,000 structures), threatened Lake Tahoe, filled the Owens Valley with smoke, and precipitated a month-long National Forest closure during a much needed comeback from the global pandemic.

At the time of our trip in September, the KNP Complex Fire threatened the ancient trees in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon, and was the source of the eerie orange sky that reduced visibility and made it hard to breathe. To avoid the smoke, we drove another 100 miles to gain elevation. We arrived at the Mammoth Lakes campground (8600’) close to dark and quickly ate a meal before diving into our tents for warmth. That night, an unseasonable cold front dropped temperatures into the 20s. The winter-like gusts whipped across the lake and through the grove with such a roar that we didn’t hear mama bear and her cubs open the unlocked bear box to eat the neighbor’s sweet bakery items.

The next morning, the air quality was much improved so we decided to go forward with the trek. I tell you all this because even though we thoughtfully prepared for this trip, studied maps, secured wilderness permits, and checked weather, a lot of what we were faced with required us to adapt to new circumstances. So much is out of our control; being flexible isn’t one of them.

Animals are attuned to their environment because they are their environment so adjusting to what presents itself is part of their survival skills. We are our environment too, but we’ve forgotten and separated ourselves with walls, roofs, cars, and technology. We could learn a thing or two from our animal kin who seem to be problem solving in response to climate change. We might not like it when bears ransack campgrounds and enter mountain homes but you’ve got to hand it to them for finding high caloric food on a regular basis!