How A Lowly Rock Rabbit Saved Big Jim, the Mountain Man


Early one morning, Phineas Pika (a small tailess cousin to rabbits also called conies or rockrabbits) sat quietly sunning himself. He was on his favorite lookout rock outside his den in a rocky slope situated high in the mountains of the Gray’s River country of Western Wyoming. The year was 1840 and it was already late May. The few remaining drifts of unmelted snow lay in stark contrast to the newly awakened landscape of a few bright yellow dandelion flowers, dark green evergreens, quaking aspens with their brilliant white bark, and the bright blue sky. Close by, Gray’s River, just a trickle a few miles upstream, had now grown to a rather formidable stream, almost large enough to be a river.

Phineas lived with other pikas in his den hollowed out underneath a slope littered with large, craggy rocks. His winter coat of gray-brown fur, now slightly ragged and faded after a long cold winter, would soon molt away and be replaced by new growth. His fur had served him well during the long winter when the temperatures had plummeted to 40 degrees below zero. His winter’s food supply, carefully harvested dried plants, appearing somewhat as miniature farmer’s haystacks, was depleted. Phineas had worked especially hard last summer in order to store up enough food for the long winter, even much more than his family really needed. This was fortunate indeed as an unforeseen event had occurred the past December that could have caused the family starvation. Thinking back, Phineas remembered and rehearsed to himself the rather remarkable events as he was able to reconstruct them:

Late one December day when all of the small mountain animals were curled up warmly and securely in their dens, a huge blizzard with strong winds descended upon the high country following several days of intense snowstorms. The wind whistled through the nearby pines and purred through the rocks. The falling snow was sculpted into fantastically appearing drifts as though shaped by unseen human hands. The nearby river, almost covered by ice, was piling higher and higher with snow, rendering the flowing stream of water beneath invisible. Phineas had no worries, as his supply of food, piles of dried grasses, were secured nearby under a blanket of snow, or so he thought.

On the far side of the flat below the rock slide, the unexpectedly ferocious storm had caught a trapper unawares. Big Jim, as he was known by his fellow mountain men, had been at the end of his trap line checking beaver traps when the snow began falling two days ago. He and his faithful mount, Jupiter, had already spent two incomprehensibly cold nights with only little shelter. His faculties, already strained and chilled, had led him to leave his crudely constructed shelter in order to begin the long trek to his cabin far down the canyon. Then the storm had set in, with the wind churning the snow into a blinding whiteout. The strips of jerky he had taken along for food were long since gone. Jupiter had not eaten for three days. Horse and rider were now at the end point of their physical strength. Bucking huge snowdrifts had consumed all of their energy reserves and they wandered aimlessly down the canyon, not being able to even see or follow the trail. Unbeknowns to Phineas, the two had come to a frightening stop directly over his den. Both were devoid of energy and were bitterly cold. Almost certain death lay awaiting. Fearing the inevitable fate of freezing, as every mountain man was accustomed to face, Big Jim vaguely thought about crawling towards the grove of aspens on the far side of the rock slide, but utter exhaustion finally overcame both man and beast.

The rosy warmth of mortal cold began to feel tantalizing irrestible. With the instinct of the mountains, Big Jim semiconsciously began to dig in the snow. His mittoned hands pawed into a “new“ kind of snow—it was in fact, Phineas’ winter store of dried plants! A slight whinney of recognition of food elicited from Jupiter’s throat. Half-startled, Big Jim vaguely recognized his “find.” Burrowing as far under the pile of dry grasses as he could, Big Jim slept—while a famished Jupiter feasted.

Sometime later in the day, Big Jim, glorying his his newly found “warmth” was annoyed by the constant tugging at his clothing. He clumsily swung a half frozen mitton to be rid of the bothersome pest–old Jupiter–who was rudely interrupting his comfortable reverie. Persistent tugging, however, finally paid off as Big Jim grudgingly awoke. He foggily regained his senses with great effort, gradually remembering their precarious situation and grateful the wind had ceased.

Clumsily and Wearily he grabbed hold of a saddle stirrup and urged Jupiter towards the dense stand of pines and quaking aspens a short distance away. Entering into the midst of the trees where there was less snow, Jim pulled off some dead aspen bark from a fallen tree. He shredded the soft inner bark as finely as he could into a small, dry ball and then clumsily fumbled for his flint and steel. After a dozen or so tries, he was finally able to protect a small spark and nurse it gradually into a full blown fire. Finally warm, he constructed a crude lean-to for protection. The continued warmth of the fire was life-saving. He made several trips to Phineas’ nearby hay pile to feed Jupiter. He himself was able to chew on chunks of some of the remaining fat and flesh still clinging to several of his beaver hides. Their nearly starved bodies gradually regained some of their strength. When he felt stronger a day or so later, Big Jim and Jupiter proceeded on down the canyon to the one room cabin and outlying shed each called home.

Phineas and his family were a bit hard pressed the remainder of the winter to find sufficient food to eat. They had hidden several smaller piles of dry plants
a short distance away and concealed under the heavy snow. Fortunately for the pika family, Old Man Winter left the high country unseasonably early, or they might not have survived. Now, though, wild plants were again beginning to push through the ground, offering a new and welcome supply of nourishment.

Painfully vivid and uncomfortable memories seem to diminish as time moves on—and Phineas pika could never fully know of the gratitude of two of Star Valley’s original “mountaineers.”

Postscript – Have You Ever Personally seen a Pika?
The pika, rock rabbit or cony, Ochotoma princeps, live in colonies and inhabit rocky talus slopes and large boulder-strewn hillsides of western North American, Canadian and Alaskan mountains. Pikas have underparts of creamy white, upper parts of gray/brown. They live at altitudes normally in excess of 7,000 feet, although some have been found at sea level. They have excellent hearing and vision and climb from rock to rock with ease.
Breeding season is in May and early June, with 2 to 6 young per litter. Young are born blind and hairless after a gestation period of about 30 days and reach adult size in 40 to 50 days. At one year of age, females can produce young and sometimes even two litters per year may be born. Longevity is about two to three years. Pikas have a home range of about 30 m in diameter. They are quite vocal, emitting several kinds of calls, especially a steady series of “kie” sounds. Hay gathering usually begins in late June by cutting and dragging nearby local plants to the den site. Each pika makes several haypiles within its home range.