A little over a year ago, March 2023, I attended a seven-day silent meditation course at a snowbound retreat center near Sun Valley, Idaho. To get from the cars parked on the snowy main road to the retreat lodge, they ferried us in a wheelless Econoline van body attached to massive circulating snow treads, turning the vehicle into a makeshift sno-cat. Some people chose to hike or cross-country ski the 1.5 mile distance on top of the 4-5’ of compressed snow instead.

During the animated conversations in the Econo-Cat, I heard several passengers mention seeing pine martens at a previous retreat several years earlier. I was surprised and delighted. Pine martens! I had never seen one! They are a small member of the weasel family that live in the deep forests of the Northwestern U.S. I became hopeful that I, along with my trusty camera, might encounter these elusive creatures.

The local “pine martens” were actually a species called the Pacific marten, who are a separate species from the similar American Marten. It seems that the term “pine marten” is used now for the European variety only or when speaking about martens in general. Pacific martens range from Montana to Washington, down to Northern California and up to Alaska. Both their appearance and their behavior reminded me of a cross between a red fox and a house cat. These martens are actually the size of a large kitten, weighing in at 1-2+ pounds. But their luxurious long and thick fur make they appear larger.

What I didn’t expect to discover was that these forest dwellers were also “garbage rats,” “dumpster diving” wildlife. On my second day, during a short walk over crunchy snow after lunch, I caught my first glimpse of a Pacific marten. It sat atop the fence that enclosed the garbage area. I was elated! For the rest of my stay, I saw them frequently near the dumpster. It was tightly sealed, but small bits of debris must have escaped. Or perhaps the piquant smell of a rich mix of food was enough to keep them returning. They tolerated the presence of people walking by or standing still with a camera.

Pacific martens are related to otters, mink, fishers and ermine. They are small and agile compared to their ferocious cousin, the wolverine, but bigger than the more common short-tailed or long-tailed weasels. Although most weasel family members are carnivores, martens are omnivorous, eating berries and other plant matter along with hunting small prey, robbing nests and finding creatures underground.

Someone spread birdseed on one of the heavy wooden tables on the wide porch deck of the lodge. I’m not sure if was meant for the birds or the martens, but the furry creatures came and eagerly devoured it while people watched from the warmth indoors. The retreat center staff then scolded everyone for feeding the wildlife. I felt my usual inner conflict. I totally agree that wildlife should not be intentionally fed but I also enjoy seeing these wild creature up close.

The adult Pacific martens have the look of a young animal so, to our human eyes, they appear quite cute, like some cuddly reddish stuffed animal with a bushy tail. Their alert, curious faces and playful behavior make them entertaining to watch, from rolling in the snow, sleeping in the sun or climbing the fence and the nearby trees. I wondered if people ever keep them as pets. Their close relative, the ferret, has been tamed into a household member. Later, I looked on YouTube and saw an amazing array of domesticated wild mammals from river otters to beavers, marmots, prairie dogs and even capybaras. But I saw no housebound martens which is just as well. Let the wild stay wild.

Enjoy these photos of a beautiful animal that most people will never see.

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