It's late January and I'm in the parking area of a Nordic ski center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It's been a tough but exhilarating three hours on the trails. My skills on cross-country skis are still coming back after taking last season off, and I'm struggling with my endurance.
Ermine (left, center) running across the snow
Bone tired, I pause near the passenger seat of my SUV to remove my ski boots. Right foot, then left, my fingers sore from poling, it takes me twice as long as usual to swap shoes. Success! Once my feet are out of the ski boots and into sneakers, my cramped feet relax again.
As I tie the laces of my shoes, I notice something white flashing across the rocks in front of me. A retaining wall rises about 35 feet from the parking lot to the subdivision above. Big boulders, some the size of a small car, provide nooks and crannies for little critters like rabbits, mice, and weasels to hide.
Another flash of white.
She pauses on top of the snow bank a bare three feet in front of me. Her obsidian-dark eyes miss nothing, nor does her sharp sense of smell. Whiskers twitch.
In a flash, she's down into a crevice between the rocks. I reach inside the SUV for a camera. It's not my wildlife camera with its huge, fast lens, but just a simple point-and-shoot. It will have to do.
I quietly walk to the front of the SUV and lean back against its hood, then wait. I know I'm not going to get any award-winning photos with this little camera, but I know it'll be fun to try. What I really want to do today is simply observe her, immerse myself in her world for a while.
Her white head pops up again, just a foot or so from the last spot. I try to snap a picture but she's gone before I can even start up the camera. I marvel at her quickness and decisiveness. She appears to be quite deliberate in her search among the rocks. My guess is that she's looking for lunch. She pops her head up for a moment, pauses briefly, then dives back down into the rocks a split second later.
Ermine are ferocious hunters. Mice, voles, small birds, and even rabbits flee at the sight of a weasel. These little predators weigh almost nothing -- a squirrel is almost double the size of this little, white-cloaked beauty -- but the squirrel's size doesn't keep it safe. Ermine can take down surprisingly large prey, including squirrels. If an ermine were the size of a Labrador Retriever, I suspect even a mountain lion would give it a wide berth.
I've never seen an ermine before, let alone had one allow me to be part of her world for over an hour like this one. I watch her hunt the full height and width of this retaining wall. She's in and out of the rocks like a shot, then bounding quickly over the open snow. I sense her need to move quickly. Weasels themselves can be prey for hawks and eagles.
Too fast! Ermine disappearing off-camera
I know I'm not getting the photos I want with this little camera, but it doesn't matter. I'm grateful and happy simply to let the experience unfold and to allow her to carry me away from my human world for a time.
Other skiers come and go while I watch the ermine. Maybe people wonder why I'm standing in the parking lot in ski gear, paying rapt attention to a snowbank. A car drives by on the road, its windows open and spewing heavy metal music for all to hear. I turn back to watch the ermine, being content to stand still and observe another world.
A calmness settled over me this past hour as I watched her hunt. The time felt like a meditation. I also see again that what I learned during my near-death experience holds true.
Stillness and patience can help us see what's hidden. A quiet mind can bring insights unreachable to us during the stress and drama of daily life. And there is more to this Earth than just us. Life abounds all around us, and in many forms. Quietly observing that life can put us in touch with something in our own hearts and souls that we can't find any other way.
All content copyright Nancy Rynes, 2015. Please read disclaimer and Legal Notes here.