Of Mentors and Mountain Squirrels

June 27, 2013

As we entered the historic Grand Canyon Lodge, perched at the rim of one of the seven natural wonders of the world, I glanced toward the soaring windows of the great lobby, stopped short and hung a left to talk to the desk clerk. “Where can I photograph a Kaibab squirrel?” I asked. The clerk politely began to address my inquiry but she must have thought, “Does he realize that he is standing only 30 feet from the Grand Canyon?” Some of you might also be wondering why my priority was a charcoal gray squirrel with long ears as I stood at the door of America’s greatest landscape.

The answer to that question takes me back 39 years to the 10th grade in Mr. Kuester’s Ecology class at Richland High School in Missouri. It was in that sweaty classroom where I first learned about the isolation of a group of squirrels as the Colorado River carved a great chasm across the Kaibab Plateau. The result was a unique population of squirrels with long tufted ears and white tails. It wasn’t really the story of the Kaibab squirrel that fascinated me as much as the way that Don Kuester told the story. He took us to the Kaibab Plateau; it was as if we were there although most of us had never been out of Missouri. All of Don’s lessons were like that; he was the first person I ever met with a strong passion for natural resources, beyond fishing and hunting.

As the school year progressed, I learned more about Don Kuester. He held a Master’s Degree in Fisheries and Wildlife and had worked at the Missouri Department of Conservation before buying a farm in Richland and becoming a teacher. He even showed us films where he had conducted fisheries research out west. As a young country boy I saw him as no less than Marlon Perkins after watching those films. We learned about everything imaginable that year as it related to natural resources. And once a week we all piled in the back of Don’s Chevy truck and headed out for a field trip — no seat belts required or available! We seined ponds and conducted mark/recapture studies, learned to identify all of the trees on Don’s 300 acre farm along the Gasconade River, explored deep into the caves of Pulaski County to study bats and cave fish, and learned the importance of Ozark streams at a time when many people I knew only used the Gasconade River to wash their farm trucks.

Don and his wife Gaye eventually became my very close friends and Don even served as best man at my wedding in 1983. During my younger days, Don always encouraged me not to “sell myself short” in life. Somehow he made me believe I had potential to make an impact on the world and I couldn’t convince him otherwise. Later, I received my own Master’s Degree in Fisheries and Wildlife — big surprise — and began working for the Missouri Department of Conservation myself. After all of these years, Don has never suggested that he had anything to do with my success. He still loves to discuss my work, especially my wildlife photography, and holds me in much higher esteem than I deserve…..but maybe I’m selling myself short again. 🙂

So……now you know why the Kaibab squirrel held my fascination as I stood at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I was finally in a position to come face to face with a creature from my past, almost mythical as I remembered it from Don Kuester’s lesson. It took three different hikes over a couple of days to finally get close enough to a Kaibab squirrel for an image and I can’t describe the excitement I felt when I finally captured the featured frame. As I showed it to the same desk clerk I’d met on that first day of our trip, she looked at me and said, “You sure are having fun here.” If only she knew.

Thanks for looking,


Kaibab Squirrel:  Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 300/4 L IS Lens with Canon 1.4 TC III Extender; 1/160 @ f/5.6; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Feisol CT3301 Tripod with Markins M-10 Head; Converted and Processed in Canon DPP

21 comments on “Of Mentors and Mountain Squirrels”

  1. What an awesome story Danny….Little did you realize that Don’s influence would shape your life….and this picture is stunning….I learned so much from this blog that I never knew…I would imagine that Don would like to see your book too…I am still waiting and will the first in line to buy…no matter the price…

    • Hi Jessee — A new coffee table book is coming out in a month or so and it will feature several of my photos and even a bit of my writing. It is not my book but I think you will like it. I’ll keep you posted.

  2. Wonderful as usual. Glad you are having a great time.

  3. This is amazing! I never have heard of one of these squirrels. Very cool pic and story! Thanks for sharing about how a teacher inspired you and taught you so much! I can only hope my students are being impacted in the same way.

  4. Great story on how you were introduced to wildlife beyond fishing and hunting.

  5. When I first saw this photo, I thought it was an animal that was part bat and part squirrel.
    The squirrels in Virginia don’t have long ears like that!
    I had never even heard of a kabib squirrel….thanks so much for posting!

  6. What an affectionate salute. How fortunate we are in having these guiding spirits in our lives!

  7. What a GREAT story, about your childhood. I loved it, and the wonderful frame of that very unusual looking squirrel. I never knew about the existence of a Kaibab Squirrel, until now. You learn something new everyday. Never too old. Don Kuester, was a good teacher, and he certainly had a good student. Thanks for sharing. By the way, Marlon Perkins uses to shop in my store, when he was in the area. I got his autograph on a Wild Kingdom book, that I gave to one of my kids. Who knows, whatever, and happened to it. I was a big fan of his, while growing up, and couldn’t wait of the TV show, Mutual of Omaha-Wild Kingdom to start. I hope you have a Great time, at the Grand Canyon.


  8. Glad you’re having a great time. We love the US West, too. Wish We were there now!

  9. What a great story to go with the unusual creature. Good stories can provide so much meaning.

  10. I’ve never heard about this squirrel and plan to look them up. Don was a mentor to my brother Mike in Fishes, Wildlife and Zoology. Mike teaching style was also influence by Don’s style. Wonderful man.

    • …..and still inspiring people to this day with his interest and enthusiasm about the natural wonders of Missouri and the world.

  11. Neat will print for mom. Dustin leaving on Saturday. More later. Happy 4th

    Sent from my iPhone

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