Tag Archives: Salt Creek

The Disappeared

Tuesday, March 22

Rathskill found his motorcycle where he had left it five days before, parked illegally under a stairway landing behind the college cafeteria. It was an Indian Chief, a massive V-twin flathead assembled from spare parts after the Indian factory went into receivership. The 1955 Chiefs were considered a myth by many motorcycle experts. Rathskill’s myth required two men to set it upright if it fell over.

He turned the ignition key and the Indian roared to life, startling a gull that was scavenging French fries on the sidewalk.

He drove Highway 101 to the narrow Juan de Fuca Highway, over the Elwha River Bridge and through the countryside scattered with homesteads and pastures carved from the forest. Beyond the patches of cultivated land, the mountains rose steeply, a looming presence shadowed by forest.

He turned off Crescent Beach Road onto a dirt track with the unofficial name of Witts End. A dozen mailboxes marked the intersection. The house on Salt Creek was a rough cottage with sprung boards and peeling paint but a magnificent view of Crescent Bay. Salt Creek meandered across a floodplain in front of the cottage, then broadened into an estuary. He had few neighbors and no guests.

Two turkey vultures sat on the telephone pole in front of his house. They watched him with professional disinterest as he parked the Indian. It was early in the year for vultures but a forecast of things to come.

Rathskill had bought the house for its solitude and the landscape, unaware of the annual drama staged in his front yard. Each spring vultures gathered on their migration north across the Strait to Vancouver Island. They roosted on fence posts or shouldered one another for space on split rails, in dead trees, on ruined barns and water towers and bare rock and the roof of his house, waiting for the sun to warm the earth and the earth to warm the air enough to carry them 2,400 feet aloft.

It was simple geometry. The shortest passage across the Strait was 12 miles from Salt Creek to Beachy Head on Vancouver Island, 12 miles of cold water and sinking air. A turkey vulture lost two feet of altitude for every second of glide. They had evolved to soar, to sail on the wind, but their wings were too weak to beat that distance.

They had to start their glide at 2,400 feet. If they fell short of the far shore, they drowned.

Two vultures were harmless enough but soon there would be dozens, then hundreds, then bird watchers with their cameras and telephoto lenses and life lists. They would soon be so thick you could throw a stone blindfolded and hit a buzzard or a birder.

While they waited for the rising thermals the vultures splattered the landscape with wet shit, Rathskill’s house, his second-hand patio furniture, his plastic flamingos and plaster garden gnome. He’d have to cover the Indian with a tarp. Then, with a few days of warm weather, they would all be gone until the fall.

One of the vultures on the telephone pole squirted a stream of feces that covered its legs like a whitewash. The stomach acid of a vulture could peel the chrome off a bumper. They used it like disinfectant to kill bacteria accumulated while walking on rotting corpses. It also provided evaporative cooling, a self-contained swamp cooler. It was an elegant evolutionary solution to multiple problems but smelled like digested death.

“Nice,” Rathskill said to the vulture. “Your mother teach you that?”

Nelson appeared from the brush behind the house. He covered the ground between them with a rolling gait like a sailor on shore leave. He licked Rathskill’s hand.

“Heh, old dog,” Rathskill said. “With all the neurons in your head dedicated to the sense of smell, one stink is still no worse than another, eh? Give me a few minutes to clean up and I’ll have something on the table for both of us.”

Nelson was a mutt that looked mostly like an embattled Australian cattle dog. His right foreleg and left eye were missing. He wasn’t Rathskill’s dog. He wasn’t anyone’s dog. He wasn’t even named Nelson.

They found each other on the beach. Nelson followed him home at a safe distance. Rathskill left a pork chop on the porch. That defined their relationship. Nelson kept him company on long walks and he fed Nelson leftovers. A week after their introduction he named the dog after the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, another battered hero.

After dinner, they walked on the beach. The sand stretched from the state park at Tongue Point almost to Port Crescent, a ghost town that once had pretensions of becoming a lumber port. The beach was privately owned, a campground at one end and a resort at the other with nothing between but forest pressing against the shore and a thread of white sand so fine it sifted through his fingers like flour. Rathskill had an arrangement with the owner of the campground that allowed him to freely pass the signs warning against trespassing.

A half mile down the utterly empty beach he sat on a berm at the high-water mark with his toes in the sand. The day was clear, the air crisp as a Washington apple. The clouds in the west were ignited by the setting sun. The long twilight of the northern latitudes settled on the Strait. Only the peaks of Vancouver Island still reflected the sun. Nelson busied himself with a dead gull wrapped in bull kelp.

Nelson lifted his head and looked toward the forest, his mouth full of feathers. His ears pricked and pivoted forward.

“What is it?” Rathskill asked and turned. The old man in the cape stood on the far side of the road in the shadow of the forest, the same old man who had mooned him in class.

“So, I’m not the only one who can see him,” Rathskill said, somewhat reassured until he realized he might be hallucinating the dog’s reaction as well. Once you questioned the reality of one perception, he warned himself, there was no bottom to the rabbit hole.

“Time to go,” he told Nelson, “If we want to get back before dark.”

Nelson bounded ahead or lagged, following his nose, but kept a wary eye on the old shaman.

“What’s your point?” Rathskill finally shouted at the shaman, exasperated. “I know you’re just a projection of my unconscious, some unresolved conflict, but what’s the point if you don’t help me resolve it?”

The irony of a conversation shouted with himself occurred to him. The shaman remained mute.

He lowered his voice. “Of course, I might just be batshit crazy, like Vanoy said. How can a crazy man know he’s crazy? Does the act of questioning your sanity prove you’re sane? Or is it just another layer of madness?” The twisted solipsism made his head hurt.

It didn’t really matter whether he was crazy or sane, he thought, whether the world was real or imagined. You followed your own path because there wasn’t any other. It didn’t matter what other people thought if they were all batshit crazy too but hadn’t realized it yet.

At that moment he recognized his decision was made already. He would follow the trail of Tad Marc’s murder wherever it led, whatever Detective Vanoy or Chief Johnson or Dean Haskell said. Something about the boy’s fate compelled him.

He turned to shout at the old shaman but he wasn’t there.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Vultures

Late in September the sun rises over the Glacier Peak Wilderness and strikes the Strait of Juan de Fuca like a temple bell. The morning resonates with light. The evening mist lifts from the water and the vultures crowding Beachey Head and Rocky Point meet the rising sun with wings outstretched, waiting for their blood to regain the warmth surrendered to the night.

They roost singly on fence posts or shoulder one another on split rails. They roost in dead trees, on the roofs of ruined barns, on water towers or barren rock at the southernmost end of Vancouver Island. They are waiting for the day to warm enough to cross the open water of the Strait and continue south.

In late September turkey vultures begin to mass at the southern edge of island like a river current against a log jam. If delayed by the weather they may cross 400, 500, or 600 a day when the log jam breaks. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is only 12 miles wide between Beachey Head and Salt Creek, between Canada and the United States, but those are 12 miles of cold water and sinking air. Vultures have evolved to soar and glide rather than beat their wings against gravity. They are not strong swimmers.

A turkey vulture may glide at 45 miles per hour,  requiring only 20 minutes to cross 12 miles, but they lose 2 feet of altitude for every second of glide. That’s an elegant glide path but it doesn’t annul gravity. Their flight must begin with at least 2,400 feet of altitude in order to make the far shore or regain altitude in flight. The cost of failure is death.

As the sun rises the air heats unevenly over the land, over freshly tilled fields, roads and towns. Warm air rises, cold air sinks. Convection cells form as localized heating increases. The vultures begin rising from their roosts, rising with the heated air, banking steeply to remain in the core of the thermals, grazing the cell walls where cooler air descends. From a distance they appear like debris carried aloft in a tornado. The behavior is called kettling, perhaps because it resembles roiling steam rising from an iron pot. Their flight is a thing of exceptional grace.

Turkey vultures are much maligned. Some of their behaviors are wonderfully practical but hardly endearing to humans. Obviously they eat carrion, sufficient reason for most people to disdain them, but the fact that they kill nothing is usually overlooked. Farmers sometimes shoot them for fear of infecting their pigs without realizing that no bacteria can survive the caustic hell of a vulture’s gut. As well most people don’t know that vultures coat their legs with their own guano or vomit in self-defense.

They gather at fish kills, on the spawning ground of salmon, on fields of harvested hay where small animals have been mangled by machinery. They forage in the cleared path of high tension power lines, on farmland, rangeland, in pastures and estuaries and tide flats, along roadsides and sewage lagoons, marshes and landfills and slaughter houses. They eat beaver and black bear, ground squirrels, muskrats, coyotes, deer, domestic cats, cows, goats, rabbits and sheep, harbor seal placenta and harbor seals themselves, voles, sea lions, opossum, porcupine, skunks and marmots, garter snakes, gopher snakes, even rattle snakes, wigeons and geese, chickens and chicken droppings, double-breasted cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls, great blue herons, swans and scooters and turkeys. There’s almost nothing dead they won’t eat but they are most drawn by the smell of the freshly dead.

Ethyl mercaptan is a chemical compound with a distinctive smell that humans can recognize in concentrations as low as one in 2.8 billion parts of air. The Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the “smelliest substance” on earth. It’s added to odorless butane and propane to alert people to a hazardous gas leak. It’s also generated in the first stages of organic decay.

Few birds have a sense of smell. Turkey vultures are an exception, adept at smelling ethyl mercaptan from miles away. They can locate carrion concealed beneath the forest canopy or a shallow grave by smell alone, providing competitive advantage over eagles, ravens and crows. Union Oil engineers supposedly abused their keen sense of smell by adding mercaptan to their pipelines, using the circling vultures like short-haired pointers to locate leaks.

Unlike raptors who kill their prey, turkey vultures are more willing to share. For a vulture, all food is a windfall. They hunt alone but are attentive to the flight patterns of others. When a vulture abandons its pattern of listless circling and becomes more purposeful in its flight, others take notice. The behavior of the others is in turn noticed. Within a short time newly discovered carrion can attract vultures from beyond the horizon. A venue of vultures (the proper name for a group of vultures on the ground) are surprisingly well behaved. They don’t haggle over scraps like gulls.

A turkey vulture’s beak is adapted for tearing flesh; it’s not strong enough to rend the tough hide of a large animal like a deer, a cow, or a bear. In the northwest they can sometimes be seen on fence posts, white legs and red heads in line abreast, patiently waiting their turn while ravens or eagles breech the hide.

Their red heads are featherless. Baldness is an advantage when thrusting your head inside the bloating belly of a goat three days dead. Feathers would trap bacteria and require constant preening. Long intestines, an industrial immune system, stomach acid that would peel the chrome off a trailer hitch, and a low pH also defend them against infection. Their naked legs are stained with guano for a similar reason and another benefit: cooling.

It’s called urohidrosis, an almost unpronounceable name for a behavior shared by storks and new world vultures. They use their feces and urine for evaporative cooling, lifting one leg at a time to precisely apply a coating of guano that dries like whitewash. The feces of a turkey vulture is sufficiently caustic to kill most bacteria acquired while walking on corpses.

Vultures aren’t aggressive but neither are they well suited for defense. Weak and clumsy on the ground and slow to take flight, they are easy prey. Their only defense is projectile vomiting. Within a six foot range they are supposedly quite accurate. It’s hard to imagine the emotional impact of a vulture’s stomach contents smack in the face. If the viability of the species is any indication, it’s an effective deterrent.

There are more reasons to admire than disdain vultures if we can disassociate them from mythology and our own mortality. They are an elegant solution to the problem of recycling resources and limiting contagion. The Cherokee called them the peace eagle because they killed nothing themselves. Perhaps they would make a better national symbol that than the thieving bald eagle. Long live the eaters of the dead!