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Driving the Keeper Tour Jeep

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Driving the Keeper Tour Jeep
June 18, 2019

For Northwest Trek guests, the Keeper Adventure Tour through the Free-Roaming Area is a mix of off-road thrills and up-close animals.

But for keeper Deanna Edwards, it’s a way to share a passion for wildlife – combined with friendliness, unflagging animal care and some serious driving skills.

“I’m always doing new things, like this track here,” she says, gunning the tour jeep up a muddy track into a perfect three-point-turn. “That’s one of the great things about the Free-Roaming Area. I’m also in keeper mode, playing Where’s Waldo with the animals and making sure they’re all okay. But what I really love is getting people to care about nature.”

Keeper, Vet Tech, Wildlife Ambassador

vet and keepers with moose taking xrays
Dr. Case positions the x-ray machine while vet technician Sara Dunleavy takes the images and keeper Deanna Riley steadies Ellis the moose’s hoof.

Edwards has been working at Northwest Trek since 2006, first as a keeper in the Wetlands area, then in Free-Roaming. She’s a licensed veterinary technician, and helps at many animal exams and procedures.

But since the Keeper Adventure Tours launched last year, she’s taken on an extra role: lead driver and quasi-ambassador for the 435 acres of forest, meadow and lake that houses the park’s elk, caribou, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black-tailed deer and trumpeter swans.

And it’s the combination of roles that makes the experience so special for guests.

“I like to look for the animals that are harder to find, like the moose and bighorn sheep lambs,” she says, winding around the curves. “I look at behavior; how they’re chewing, walking, breathing, acting with the others. Then I pass all my notes along to Dave and Ed, the other Free-Roaming Area keepers, and to our veterinarian Dr. Allison. Look, there are the lambs.”

She points, and sure enough her keeper’s eye has spotted this year’s two young lambs hidden in dappled shade. She stops long enough to check they look healthy – and for tour guests to take a photo – and moves on.

We pass the bison herd (“That mom looks a bit hot, I’ll come back later and make sure she gets down near the lake,” notes Edwards) and round a curve to where the mountain goat kids are lined up on a log.

“Secretly, they’re my favorite,” smiles Edwards.

Kid Favorite

mountain goat kids under treeAs the kids notice Edwards they hop off the log and right up near the jeep. Dave Meadows, the other keeper, has already been on rounds to drop piles of pelleted food for them, but mostly what they seem to want is attention.

“Hey, cuties!” calls Edwards. “How are we doing?”

She never gets close enough to touch – all the Free-Roaming Area animals need to stay out of contact range of humans, for everyone’s safety – but she’s close enough to point out each kid by name, ear tag and personality.

“That’s Klahhane, he’s the brave one that loves putting his face up to a camera,” she says. “And little Bailey, she’s grown so much.”

It helps the relationship that on her keeper days, Edwards often sits guard over the goat kids’ food so they can get to it before one of the bigger, more senior animals decides to eat it.

Sharing Nature

keeper tour jeep and bison
The Keeper Adventure Tour jeep pulls up near the bison herd.

Then we’re off again, Edwards radioing Meadows to stay in contact about location. When she started as keeper it took a few weeks to learn the Free-Roaming Area, and now she knows it by heart, including the inside keeper names for all the meadows, curves and patches of forest.

Right now, there’s a bison sharing The Beach (just what it sounds like) with a flock of ducks, and the elk herd is enjoying some shade, the long grass dotted with purple lupine.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” she asks admiringly. “It’s so cool, they’re just doing what they’d do in nature. Back there, that’s where their calves were born this year.”
Then she pulls to a stop and cuts the engine.

“Just listen,” she says. “It’s so quiet, all you can hear is nature. I’ll even stop talking.”

Birdsong and leaf rustle fill the bright, golden air.

Reluctantly, Edwards starts up again, and heads back to the front of the park to drop us off, and refuel and clean the jeep for the afternoon tour.

“I love both parts of my job,” she says, passionately. “I love looking after these animals. But I love the tours because I get to really share my job with people. I tell them everything. That’s what people need to know – how great this place is, and how amazing wildlife can be.”

TAKE A TOUR: Keeper Adventure Tours (driven by Deanna or Amber) run daily and seat 8-10 people. Reserve yours here.