There are lots of cool stories about wildlife in the alps, like the dahu, pictured to the left. The dahu, now extinct, had four legs and looked a bit like a mountain goat, but it had one important difference. As it grew to full size, two of its legs grew longer than the other two, allowing it to walk on steep mountains and stay completely upright. They became extinct because they were too easy to catch. The French folk loved the taste of the dahu, so they would creep up behind one and say, “Dahu, dahu…” and the dahu would hear its name and turn around. However, with the two longer legs now being the uphill legs, it would fall over straight away, allowing the hunters to catch them very easily!
By now, you may have guessed that the dahu is not a real animal. It’s a legendary story, but sadly just a story about a mythical creature that never existed. There’s even a piste here in La Clusaz called ‘Dahu’, which is odd, as it’s a pretty flat access track.
And then there’s the marmot. Now, I first learnt of the marmot during my first season as a ski bum. I had seen these plush soft toys in the shops that looked like an American gopher, and just presumed that’s what they were. Then people started talking about marmots. They sleep through the cold part of winter, waking up in April to bask in the sun on the rocks re-emerging from the melting snow. I spent four seasons looking for a marmot. I heard they hung out under one of the chairlifts in Meribel, and I checked each rock beneath the chair every time I was on it. I never saw a marmot.
By my fifth season, I was well and truly convinced that the marmot was a made-up animal — a marketing ploy by the French tourism board to sell plush toys (see photo to the right, above) to unsuspecting tourists who were destined never to see a marmot in real life, since they didn’t actually exist.
And then, it happened. I saw a marmot. Actually, I saw two! Some friends and I had headed over to Chamonix late in the season. When we stopped for lunch, one of them pointed out the marmots, busily arranging some scraps of food that the chef must have left for them. They were a level below our outdoor eating area, which was surrounded by perspex. So, I tried to take a photo. The result, sadly, is lacking clarity due to reflection and distance, but here it is (pictured to the right). I decided it needs this red star around the marmot just to make it clear.
So, last summer, I decided to go on a marmot mission. I put my walking shoes on and armed myself with my (pre-SLR) instant camera and food supplies and I walked to the hills! I walked and walked and never saw a marmot. I sat on a rock and ate my packed lunch, waiting for a marmot to poke its head out. Nothing. I had already waited for a few hours and I was getting bored. Lots of other people were wandering around so I presumed that the marmots had gone into hiding until everyone went away. Resigned to not seeing a marmot, I descended the rocks and hills. And then — in the distance — I saw one! It hadn’t seen me and it was sitting on a rock right next to a path. My luck was in! I got my camera out and took a photo from afar. Alas, the zoom on my old instant digital camera was hopeless and I knew the photo would be like a Loch Ness monster sighting — kind of small and blotchy and a little bit blurry (see photo to the left). Taking small, slow steps, I honed in on the marmot. Too late! It saw me and scurried under a rock. “No worries,” I thought, “I can wait a bit longer: it’s a sunny day.” So I sat on a close-by rock and waited. And waited. And waited. The camera was propped by my eye so I didn’t have to make any sudden movements when it did return. Finally, its little nose emerged, followed by the rest of its body. And just as it did, a family of tourists approached. It was a catch-22: if I had asked them to wait, the marmot would have heard me and run away again, and if they got any closer, the marmot would have heard them and run away again. And it did. So, I sat and I waited again. And I waited. My arm muscles grew sore from holding my camera by my eye, so I put my arm down for a moment. And of course, the marmot returned before I had put the camera back near my eye. I moved my arm slightly, in an effort to fluke a photo without it being by my eye, and the marmot saw and ran back in. So I gave up and went home.
I decided today that I would not let the marmot beat me. I wanted to take a proper photo of a marmot now that I had a proper camera and a few hours to spare. So, I set off late in the afternoon and headed for a different area, which is normally a lovely piste on the way down from the La Balme ski area. I passed some cows that were roaming un-fenced near their farm and watched as a dog herded them. The cows were running to avoid his wrath and I continued up the hill. I passed some giant, man-made rock sculpture. I spotted a gardening glove — odd for an area of rocks and cattle, but perhaps it was a left-over the man-made rock sculpting. I spotted a disposable camera. I guess someone fell over in the snow during winter and lost it. I stepped over a variety of types of poo. I spotted a bone, which to me, looked like the remains of a goat’s tail bone. Perhaps one of the wolves I’ve heard about had eaten it when it strayed from its herd. I had reached as far as I wanted to go and still hadn’t seen a marmot. I decided to return home, defeated again by the marmot. As I walked towards a rise, a little red-brown slinky thing appeared from the other side of the rise. A marmot! We both froze and stared at each other. As I raised my camera, the marmot turned around and slinked away to another rock and watched me cautiously. There was grass in the way and it was much further away than the other marmot had been, but I snapped a photo as it contemplated climbing another rock (see dodgy photo to the right). As soon as I did, it ran out of sight. I went past the rock it had been on and found one to sit on, hoping it would emerge. Alas, the marmot stayed in hiding and I eventually gave up again.
So, that’s three photos which all look a bit like the dodgy Lock Ness monster photos we’ve all seen. If I hadn’t seen the little buggers scurrying around each time I took my dodgy photos, I would still be thinking a marmot is as mythical as the dahu or just a French marketing ploy to sell plush animals to tourists. And of all my friends who have seen marmots, none of them have photos. Coincidence? I think not. Google has images of marmots. Here’s one of them (see left). But Google also produced images of dahus and they never really lived. So, the marmot: fake or real? Judge for yourself.