This marmot hung out at our campsite for nearly an hour at Rocky Cove

I’ve heard them called whistle-pigs. Or bear milk duds. Marmots are the piercing whistles that burst out from boulder piles along many an alpine ridge. They are the fuzzy, chubby guinea pig-like rodents, posing on rocky ledges. They are almost unreasonably cute. And we spent our whole trip searching for them.

Jumping away from strict chronology here, this post is on some of the work we were doing with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation along the way, cross-posted on their blog. Stay tuned for the next installment of our journey in a few days

For coastal marmots.

Why did we care?

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure at first.

Hig: “There’s a researcher who’s really excited about us looking for coastal marmots around the inlet. Says our trip is perfect for it.”
Erin: “Is there even any such thing as a coastal marmot?”
Hig: “Well, I know there was one that lived at White Rock Beach when I was a kid, but I always thought he was kind of a fluke.”
Erin, shrugging: “I guess we can keep our eyes out.”

Ice frosted the cliffs of outer Cook Inlet. Blizzards battered us along the rocky shores of southern Kachemak Bay. In the bitter cold of March and April, we forgot about the marmots. If they existed at all, they were surely hibernating.

Hoary marmot pups in their coastal burrow

We forgot about them through the sandy bluffs of the Kenai Peninsula, and the vast marshy mudflats of upper Cook Inlet. And by the time we started seeing the ground squirrels in Ursus Cove, I’d given up on seeing them at all.

The researcher, Link Olson, had gotten in touch with us through Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC). It’s an organization that started up just a few years ago, linking adventurers going to interesting places with scientists who need data from those places.

It’s hard for adventure to make time for science. Hig and I have worn both those hats. And while we observe and learn a tremendous amount on each of our journeys, it’s far more quantitative than qualitative. It’s hard to take careful measurements if you can’t afford the weight of the tools, and need to get around that next point before the tide rises. The goal of getting everyone from A to B in one piece takes priority, and every additional goal (writing, photography, science, video) has to fight for its place. Even on this journey, we had some failure–taking water samples from glacial rivers, in circumstances where we couldn’t get them back to the appropriate lab in time to be analyzed.

A lake dammed off from the ocean near Ursus Cove

The first marmot was sent as an emissary, the morning after I’d finally declared my disbelief in the concept of coastal marmots. I raced across beach greens and logs in my socks, grabbing the camera to photograph it posing on a ledge just above my mother’s tent. It surveyed us from the ledge for most of the morning, then eventually scurried off down the beach, scrambling, swimming, and backtracking as it struggled with the high tide. I’d never seen a marmot swim.

The marmots became like treasure hunting. I always love seeing wildlife. But the idea that someone cared about these marmots specifically–that he was looking to us for proof of their existence in remote spots that others might not get to–made it all the more fun. We didn’t get much. But a few days later, we took the first photos of sea-level marmot pups.

Marmot on Sea Cliff

What will this lead to? Summarizing from Link’s emails: Hoary marmots are generally thought of as being restricted to alpine habitats. But in Alaska, they’re not. How have they managed to occupy such a different habitat? How widespread are these coastal dwellers? And, since alpine ecosystems are the first to be impacted by climate change, what can these coastal marmots teach us about the resilience and adaptability of alpine animals?