It’s -20C outside, but by the time I set my pack down I’m sweating and thirsty. I have to take a seat in the snow before I’m able to continue.
A wall of thick white ice greets me at the entrance. Nature has shut down this old mine for the season, but I have a duty to get inside. I pull my pick-axe out of my bag and get back to work – I must be quick and I must be quiet or I will disturb the residents of the mine. I chisel at the ice until late into the morning hours, and am thankful that I had the foresight to set out before sunrise.
The hole is just large enough for me to wriggle through if I lie flat on my back. Luckily I’ve been here before and I know what will be waiting for me on the other side – I am prepared with my chest waders. My legs flail until they find the hard ground, and I slide the rest of the way through the hole with a plop. I turn and pull my bag through after me. The mine is nothing but a black wall before me until I maneuver my headlamp onto my head and flick the switch. The water below me is deep and treacherous, and stretches out as far as I can see. I wade slowly, choosing each step carefully. Every sound is magnified a hundred-fold in the mine, and the splashing sound deafens me.
I’m thankful when I finally reach dry ground again. One sweep with my light and my breath is taken away: the walls and ceilings are covered by tiny glistening ornaments. No, these are not priceless gems or gold, but they are even more precious. Myotis lucifugus, Myotis septentrionalis, Myotis leibii, and maybe even Pipistrellus subflavus. The tiny bats are hanging from the walls and ceilings of the mine. They are torpid, and their still bodies are covered in ice crystals that dazzle in the light of my headlamp.
I have no time revel in their beauty. I try my best not to disturb the heavy peace that lies over the colony like a powerful spell. I set my bag to the ground and assemble my gear. I reach up and gently pluck one from the ceiling, the ice from her fur melting instantly on my glove. She barely moves in my palm. I shine my light in her face, on her back. I spread her beautiful, paper-thin wings and gently place my silver band on her forearm. She is healthy. My heart fills with joy as I complete my examination and place her back into her comfortable spot. I silently wish her a long and happy life as I reach for her neighbour. I check her face, her back. I gently extend her right wing, and I’m hopeful. Finally I prepare my band and extend her left wing.
There it is. The sight of that fungus hits me like a punch in the gut. I place the band and write the number on my blank white form – “01-555 – White Nose Syndrome”. Chances are very good that it will kill her. It’s also highly contagious intraspecifically. This disease has devastated bat colonies across the eastern United States and Canada.
I place her back in her spot and wish, against all odds, that she will make it. I know that now more than ever I must not disturb the delicate rest of the hibernating colony, but I cannot stop myself from taking a walk up the tunnel and scanning with my light. Thousands of them hang perfectly still around me, obscuring the walls from view. Ice glistens on their cold brown fur. There are white faces everywhere. Tears fall on my crisp white paper, smudging out her number.