For the first three decades of our Utah years, our home nestled among old stands of conifer forest at 7,000 feet in the northern Wasatch Mountains east of the Salt Lake Valley. We had selected the area because of its relatively undiscovered nature, and because it resembled in many ways the northern New England landscape we had left behind. It will always be remembered by our adult children as the place where they grew up, and for each of us it is bound up with a host of memories that enrich our ongoing lives yet.
The home was designed by its builders to fit in with its alpine surroundings, with exposed timbers and covered decks and balconies, its three living levels capped off with and dominated by a roof of wide, hand-split cedar shakes. The upper level, where the bedrooms were located was low-ceilinged, and in a storm the sound of rain drops and hail bouncing off the thick shingles just overhead rang like a lullaby to the sleepers below.
Some time, during the late summer and autumn of that first year under the pines, we became aware of nighttime visitors somewhere overhead. At first we feared that the narrow attic space had witnessed an outbreak of mice, or something even worse. Investigation though revealed no evidence of a rodent population beneath the canted attic braces. I began staying awake, listening intently, waiting for that first mysterious tread somewhere over my pillowed head. It was always near or just after the hour of midnight that I would catch the first soft, stealthy footfall. It would come as if from out of nowhere, with no hint of a claw-footed approach. It was more like a light cushioned “thump”. Often there was more than one such thump, always to be followed by the unmistakable “scurrying” of animated motion.
By many nights of careful listening and a process of elimination I came to realize that our visitors were not in the attic but over the attic; something was climbing to or otherwise getting onto the high pitched roof itself. It had to be small, of very light weight, with soft feet, and possessed of great agility. Of course I thought of the tall pine trees, but the nearest of these was a lofty distance from any part of our roof; much too distant I thought for even the most nimble and athletic of “leapers”.
That was before the night of a full moon on which I lay in wait on the path leading to our front door, a five-cell flashlight beneath the lawn chair which I had set up to make my midnight vigil more comfortable. Then – just before I thought about giving up and returning to the comfort of a warm bed – I was rewarded by a sight few ever get to enjoy, as a kite-like “something”, outlined against a moon-lit sky soared silently from the top of a tall pine tree to our roof-top followed by a second and third “somethings”. My flashlight beam reflected off the large convex eyeballs of a small furry creature staring back at me in almost-comic surprise, tufted ears standing erect and alert from the edge of the roof’s overhang.
Known by the scientific name of Glaucomys sabrinus, the Northern Flying Squirrel is one of two varieties of this nocturnal member of the rodent family resident to conifer and mixed forests of the north, from Alaska to Nova Scotia. Bearing only a slight resemblance to other squirrels, this creature of the night comes equipped with a flat tail for steering and a webbed membrane connecting front and rear paws which acts as a “wing”, permitting it to sail like a glider over descending distances of 60 or 70 feet at a clip. The largely communal Glaucomys has a remarkable ability to sniff out its favorite food, underground fungi such as the truffle, in the process of which it scatters spores elsewhere in the forest duff contributing to Nature’s ecosystem, in addition to providing prey for the endangered spotted owl.
Years have gone by since the roof of that mountain home became a “landing strip” for these space travelers, but even today on dark and sleepless nights, I find myself listening for the quiet footfalls of those ghosts that fly at midnight.
Almost impossible to photograph, Al Cooper has captured the image of this animal in his original pen-and ink sketch. © Al Cooper