Monday, June 8, 2009

My Close Encounters In the Wild

As promised some time back, here is the tale of my close encounters whilst camping in Towanda some weeks back.

I did a little walking in the wild while camped at Salt Creek. There's a nice little mountain trail (Striped Peak) adjoining the park that goes from sea level (where I was camped) to an altitude of 1000' - a nice little day hike. I left camp 10 am-ish, my daypack filled with slices of apple, chips, cookies, water, my camera, and my travel set of sketching/painting gear; my long walking staff in hand. Two days prior to my little hike it rained, and rained HARD, so the trail was seriously muddied up, very slippery and treacherous in many spots. Falling down was NOT something I wanted to do, so I proceeded VERY carefully, noting as I went that there were no trails of cougar or bear in the mud, just some coyote and raccoon.

I made good progress uphill, and felt terrific as I crested the first big hill. Noting the steep downturn of the trail ahead, and spying a particularly muddy patch on that slope, I decided to stop and think it over while having a snack. So I stepped off the trail and found a nice downed tree to sit on while I ate. A perfect day, with filtered sunlight dappling through the trees, a light breeze, and fruit, salt, and sugar at the ready!

As I sat there, tucked out of sight from the trail but able to see it, I heard something big crashing along just out of sight around the bend up ahead. In the woods around here, only two things crash through the woods like that on a trail - humans and bears. So I sat quietly and waited to see what was going to show up on the trail. The crashing grew closer, but not a single sound of humans accompanied the sound; no talking, singing, or even the occasional exclamation of effort most of us make when hiking. And then I heard the grunting and snuffling, and I knew it was no human around that bend, but a bear.
Now I had a very close encounter with Ursus Americanus a few years ago..I literally stumbled into one taking a sun bath on a sand bar on the lower Quinault in the Hoh Rainforest. Annoyed, it jumped up and ran off into the trees. I figure that's pretty much as much close contact with a bear needed in a lifetime, you know?

So between the mud, the steep descent, and the almost certain bear just ahead, I decided to pack it in and head back. I took a different fork of the trail back that brought me out at the official trailhead. I was looking at the map to see how far I'd gotten along the trail when I noticed the bright square of paper at the lower corner. It said "CAUTION: A mama black bear and her two cubs have been sighted on the Striped Peak Trail. Do NOT hike alone, and if you encounter a bear (blah, blah, blah...the rest of the cautionary advice)." Kinda cool, huh? And a fun tale of an almost close encounter with a bear, but NOTHING like what happened to me the NEXT day.

The next morning, after a lovely breakfast of eggs and bacon and strong coffee, again I donned my laden pack and picked up my walking stick, this time deciding to try my luck in the adjoining forest. I had studied the trail map thoroughly and reasoned I could surely follow the cliff line until it linked up with the trail to the peak a mile or so away. So off I went, stopping to tell my camp neighbor what I was attempting just so SOMEONE would know to miss me should I not make it back by dark. I also thought to take my cell phone along, as I had good reception via Sooke, BC, directly across the Strait in Canada. So off I went, at first easily following the many trails made by humans before me.

Before long I needed to bend over at the waist and crouch to get under branches and still follow the increasingly faint path. It quickly became clear that the path I was following had been made by animals, but they were still clearly visible paths, so on I went. After awhile - an hour? two? fifteen minutes? time is so hard to track when you're deep in the woods - I realised that I was no longer following a path and that there wasn't a chance that I was going to cut through to the main trail this way. As I'd gone along I'd kept my wits about me and my senses open to the forest around me for any sign of danger, and nothing felt wrong so no panic - yet.

I stood and turned in a full circle. Going back wasn't an option, as I'd had to cross some areas that were one-way jumps, and forward...well, which way was THAT? So as I often do when faced with a difficult situation, I asked for help from the Cosmos; the Great Mystery; the Ancestors, or as some would say, God. And when told to turn a direction that didn't seem right at all, I trusted the Cosmic Higher Wisdom and went in the direction I'd been instructed. And indeed, the turn would bring me back in line with the direction I knew I needed to go to get out of the forest. I noticed as I passed them, a couple of trees had deep scoring high on the trunks, and another had been clearly debarked. Bear or cougar? Difficult to say, but neither was a good choice.

It was very slow going, as I was in such deep forest that the only really solid foundation to step on was directly around tree trunks. I used my staff to feel the ground ahead of me with each step, but eventually I took the fall I had been trying so hard to avoid, and for a few scary minutes I feared I wouldn't be able to put any weight on my knee, let along put it through the strenuous workout that was required to get me out of the woods.

So I stood there, in throbbing pain, and I felt the slightest electric wash of panic flood my system. But I'm not an idiot, and I knew pushing ahead was the only way I was going to get out of the bad situation in which I found myself.

And then I noticed the forest had gone suddenly silent all around me. Not good, I thought. So again I asked the Cosmos for some direction on getting out of that forest safely, and was told I needed to go around the large downed tree to my left. Now that did NOT look like a good place to explore at ALL, so I pushed back. "Are you SURE I need to go that way? Isn't there some other way I can go?" When the only answer I got was an insistance that I go around the tree, I took a deep but shaky breath and walked toward and around the tree.
The next few seconds are like a series of snapshots rather than a normal film-like memory. Click! fur Click! a leg Click! hooves Click! an eye Click! fresh blood And as fast as a breath could be taken, I registered the fact that I had walked into the middle of a freshly killed mule deer, and within another breath I had backed out - BACKED, not turned - and was moving away from that spot as fast I could possibly go.

There are only two creatures in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula that kill deer; Man and Cougars.

No human had killed this deer.
I took my walking stick and waved it over my head as I walked purposely away from that terrible scene (never run, make yourself seem bigger than you are, if you get jumped curl up in a ball and protect your head and stomach..the litany of warnings was like a mantra in my head). I could no longer hear the forest over the sound of my own heart in my ears, but the deep and sure sense of being watched put every sensor in and on my body on full alert. I kept looking up as I passed one clawed tree after another, constantly expecting to see a very large golden cat looking down at me. To say I was scared is a word that simply has no relation to the terror coursing through me at that moment. I fell hard again, but I got up and kept going. WHAT knee? And as I braved armpit deep nettles (WHAT burning pain?), I suddenly saw, through the trees in the distance, the campground. Never has a grassy area covered in tents and rvs looked so good. Back at my bus, I fell onto the bed and just lay there, deeply aware that life is GOOD.

Later that day, I told the park ranger, who'd been stopping by for a gab session every few nights since I arrived, about my experience. He proceeded to tell me about an incident last winter, when some cougar prints were seen in the 2 feet of snow outside a camper's tent one morning (yes, I used "snow" and "tent" in the same sentence...we're a hardy lot up here in the north woods). He brought a local expert on the wildlife of the area out for a look at the prints, and the fellow estimated they were made by a cat between 200 and 250lbs! That is a BIG cougar (the average weight range of the male is 115-160lbs, and for females between 75 and 105lbs). Here're a couple of "fun" facts that I'm glad I didn't know while trying to get out of the forest: cougars can jump vertically 18ft (two stories), horizontally 20-40ft, and can run between 35 and 45mph!

Now some may not call this "a close encounter," but I will tell you that it was close enough to qualify as aerobic exercise, just based on my heart rate over a 20 minute period! I always thought it would be VERY cool to see a cougar in the wild, but now? I'd still like to see one in the wild, but I want it at a distance that requires good binoculars. Or to paraphrase Veruca Salt, "Daddy I do NOT want to see a cougar up close!"

1 comment:

jonio said...

There is a lady in Black Mtn., NC (I think) this past week who had a bear encounter - she & her dog were in her garage and a mom and 2 cubs walked by the door, the dog jumped at the momma bear and the woman jumped for the dog and the bear slapped the woman and walked away. We've had a couple of young black bears who've rambled their way into our county over the years - opossums and raccoons I can take - wouldn't want one of those on the back porch however (lol).