The pileated woodpecker struck first. The fiery red streak across the top of its head stood in sharp contrast to the muted yellow of an alder grove as it hunted carpenter ants up a 15-foot snag.
A golden eagle rose from the slope below the road to Tiffany Mountain, 20 feet away as it lifted off over Boulder Creek.
The valley glowed yellow below glacier-carved mountainsides hung with wide swaths of burned forest, some as gray as the slopes facing Mt. St. Helens but without the blast effect. Steep acreage with sharp boundaries, rich green with new growth, showed off dots and stripes of larch, its uniquely deciduous needles golden in the sun.
I felt disappointed there wasn’t more snow. On a previous visit, I’d spotted mountain lion tracks in morning powder. The fresh paw prints emerged onto the edge of the washboard and headed down the road. I followed.
Maybe 100 yards on, an equally fresh set of deer tracks appeared, heading in the same direction. Did the wily feline sense the deer down in the brush and take the higher road to look for it? Perhaps the deer came up on the road to make better time getting away. The two sets of tracks ran parallel for 200 yards before disappearing downslope. Who won the duel of wits?
On our hike up Freezeout Ridge toward Tiffany, we spotted many tracks. Traversing burned and fallen stands of Engleman Spruce and Lodgepole Pine, we found snowshoe hare, the prints shallow and muted, covered by the previous night’s thin layer of powder.
A deer, its tracks as fresh and clear as Jessie’s, had taken the easy way up for a while, walking the trail before veering off.
As we moved out of charcoal forest and onto snow-blanketed meadows, we spotted skittery mouse tracks, barely visible due to new snow. The dry brown remnants of summer flowers poked through crust strong enough to carry a 54-pound dog. Hard to say, but surely some of those grass tips were the tops of tall, delicately flowered and, at least to me, curiously named Kotzebue’s Grass of Parnassus, a signature of the Tiffany biosphere.
The largest prints, at first, looked human, old and rounded by wind and snowfall, but one revealed a cloven hoof. Another set looked brand new, the print of the hoof and dew claws of an elk clearly visible, the telltale scatter of snow around the footprints revealing just how fresh they were. We stopped, wondering how close this animal might be, how big, how many prongs on its vast antlers.
But what would an elk be doing at 7,500 feet on a ridge two feet deep in snow? A smart and savvy veteran staying high to avoid human hunters? A young misinformed male trying to establish territory in a place no self-respecting female would venture? An alpine gourmand looking for still-green Idaho Fescue hiding under the densely packed branches of ridgetop krummholz? Or an old timer, like me, looking for some sunshine to warm his tired bones?
On the way home, a hawk circled up from a roadside tree and resettled on a branch 15 feet from my car window. I can’t identify it, other than to say it was about two-thirds the size of the golden eagle, dark brown with many white markings. Seeing it motivated me to spend a couple hours researching the flora and fauna of the Tiffany highlands. Go. I’ll certainly go back.