SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
January 14, 1980
Trailing, or tracking animals by their signs, is unrivaled in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains, which contain an astonishing variety of habitats
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January 14, 1980

A Range Of Diversity

Trailing, or tracking animals by their signs, is unrivaled in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains, which contain an astonishing variety of habitats

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"I saw one here, in Bear Canyon. It was gone like that. They're the hardest thing there is to see. Look at us, how much we've been out trailing and we've only had about 15 seconds' worth of bobcat between us."

Beyond the fact that in both activities a lot of time is spent walking along head down looking for something, there is another similarity between golf and trailing. When you hit a golf ball, it is generally aimed at the hole and there is a possibility it will go in, but the chance is remote and is seldom realistically anticipated. In the same way, signs can be followed until their maker is found and run into its hole, so to speak, but this involves so much luck and work that it is not a practical reason to go trailing. Yet as a climax to this splendid day we brought off the equivalent of a hole-in-one, or at least of sinking a long approach shot.

Copper Glance is a good place for javelina, the tough, pugnacious little wild pig that roams the Southwest in small family groups. We may well have passed some of their hoof-prints on the way up without identifying them because of the erasures and smudges made by the deer. At about 7,000 feet we came on a very straight trail made by a number of somethings that had crossed the stream going to or from the wall of the canyon. Considerable recent use had turned the trail into a mush in which no individual prints were clear, but the probability was that they were javelinas because they move along in close-order groups, rather than cavorting about individually like deer. Backtracking along the trail confirmed this guess. It led into the mouth of an abandoned mine tunnel. No deer would go into such a place, but javelinas very obviously had: tracks aside, their scent, a strong, skunky one, was evident. Cautiously, with an eye to quick escape routes, we tossed a few pebbles to see if we could flush out anything.

Javelinas have a local reputation for ferociously attacking anyone who gets in their way. I met one hunter who claimed great familiarity with these savage beasts. He said they would chase a man up a tree and then wait in a circle below it until he starved to death, fell out and became pig food. The man was a Phoenix road hunter who tended to be terrified by things both real and mythic in the mountains. Yet there is a basis of fact in the javelina attack stories. They are shortsighted and upon hearing or smelling something strange often will trot closer to see what it is. They may come directly at you for this purpose, but they are easily avoided simply by stepping out of their way. Generally, it is prudent to do so. They are not savage killers, but for a 40-pound animal standing no higher than a boxer dog they have extremely powerful jaws with formidable teeth, two of which are tusks. Now and then somebody ends up with a badly mauled leg because of getting crossways with a javelina.

There was no response to the stones we threw in the tunnel so we went back across the stream and, heads down, began to follow the javelina path in the other direction. Our heads came up quickly only a hundred feet or so from where we started when we heard a sharp commanding grunt. Ahead of us stood an obviously agitated sow. Her bristly mane was raised, she was pawing the ground audibly, and she was suggestively gnashing her teeth. Farther up the slope, three animals that looked to be yearlings and a mature boar were unconcernedly uprooting and munching away on prickly pears. We stopped dead in our tracks and soon saw why the sow was so exercised. Two newly born offspring (an umbilical cord was still attached to the sow) stood just behind her in a rough circle of bare pine needles from which the snow had been pawed and scraped. The piglets may not have known we were there and gave no indication that we had alarmed them. The sow, on the other hand, obviously did not want us around and would have run us off had she been free to do so. She did make a series of short, noisy charges in our direction but never moved more than 10 feet or so from her infants. Recognizing this safety margin we edged to within 50 feet of the family to watch. The unsteady piglets pushed at leaves with their snouts, bumped each other playfully and nursed when the sow was not occupied rushing and swearing at us.

"She would fight for those little fellows until you killed her," Will said approvingly. "There isn't anything but death will make her leave them. I was thinking about some hippies I saw over in Bisbee. They had hair down to their tails and were all dressed up in leather suits and beads and cowboy hats. They had a little tiny girl, I guess it was theirs, with them. It was a cold day but that little thing was barefooted and just wearing a pair of bib overalls. Her hair was all snarled. I'd like to bring her mama over and show her this javelina and let her think about it."

"Come on, Will."

"I'm serious. The first rule for everything, people or pigs, is take care of the little ones, no matter what, no matter what it costs. We've got a lot of problems because too many people have forgotten why that mama pig acts like she does."

Interested as we were, we decided that too much observation might create harmful stress for the pig family. We forded the stream, made a quiet, cautious circle around the javelinas and continued climbing in the canyon. When we returned in late afternoon they had moved farther back into the brush. The sow had cleared another nursery space in the snow and all seemed in order.

Up and down, we walked about 10 miles in Copper Glance canyon and by the time we got back to the truck we felt all of them. "I'm dragging," Will said. "I've spent too much time being a dozer jockey lately. But"—he uncorked one of his back-smashers—"what we've been doing is about as good a way as two old fellows could find to get tired."

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