In the Food Chain

How do you compare the Appalachians to the Rockies? In describing the Appalachians, you often hear words like bucolic, pastoral, rolling, comfortable, beautiful, peaceful. What about the Rockies? Striking, grandiose, intimidating, spectacular, sublime. At some level, one of the biggest instinctual differences between the two landscapes is what lurks within them. In Vermont, and most of the East, there is nothing wandering around the woods that will kill you. Out here, there are several options to choose from.

Mountain Lion=Cougar=Catamount=Puma=Panther
4.0" across at widest point.
Here’s a mountain lion track, just a few hours old, crossing my path on a big ridge jutting into the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The cougar biologists here say that there are only about 14 mountain lions in the Tetons and surrounding national forests. That’s well over a million acres, which is a lot of space, but a female needs over 100 square miles to roam in, and a male needs five times that space! I realize how lucky I am to have stumbled across the footprints of such a rare predator. On the other hand, one begins to wonder if it was really just coincidence. Seriously though, unless you find yourself hiking alone at night on game trails with a dim headlamp, you will probably never come within spitting distance of this track’s owner. If you ARE doing all those things, you may be within spitting distance and never know it. Creepy. And awesome.

not the clearest track, but claws and heel visible

a bit clearer track, but not a full imprint of the heel and claws

Here’s a grizzly bear track, which is something to be taken extremely seriously around here. To the right of the track is a can of bear spray, which is as essential as water and shoes on a hike around here. Bear spray is a non-water-soluble, industrial-strength pepper spray that has a range of about 25 ft. As the clerk at the local gear store told me: “if that stuff goes off in your backpack, you buy a new backpack. If it goes off in your car, you buy a new car.” Having had a minor accident with this stuff last year, I am totally confident in its abilities to ward off anything living (or dead). Statistics show it is far more effective than guns in preventing bear attacks. Bears only really attack people when they are threatened or surprised, so I spent most of my morning singing, shouting, and clapping while hiking through the thick brush, and hopefully to an empty house.

Yes, nothing quite like being in the midst of the food chain to keep you feeling alive and alert.

To participate in the local food chain, you have to either eat or be eaten, and fortunately (for us) there are still many more ways to do the former. The cutthroat trout below shows that my fly fishing success rate is already improved over last year. However, this is one of the only places in the country where cutthroat aren’t being perilously outcompeted by all their invasive brethren (rainbow, lake, brown, brook, and golden trout). I am still trying to decide on the ethics of eating this threatened species (which is perfectly legal), so this fishy went back into the river.

Most people today exist entirely outside of a food chain (a factory-farmed cow crossing your dinner plate doesn't count). Don't get me wrong, we should all continue avoiding bears and crocodiles on a daily basis. But you don't have to be under threat of predation to feel alive and connected (though it works like a charm). Grow a garden, catch a fish, hunt, help a friend carry his deer out of the woods. Engage your food from the middle.


  1. Great post, Sean! It's always good to be reminded how relatively small we are in the scheme of things. Being a bit vulnerable to the natural order, having to think about survival even in a small way, can take us back to some essential way of living that we otherwise easily forget. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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