Expert Hiking Tip: If you want a trail to yourself, go hiking on football Sunday, especially when it is a home game for your local team that you don’t happen to care about.
I had to sweet talk myself into getting this morning. Though my designation was planned out the night before, mapped in the phone and ready to go, I was feeling lazy. I’m a morning person, just not an early morning person. It’s a legitimate difference.
But as always, the moment I get in the car and bribe myself with a coconut-milk hot chocolate for the ride, I’m happy that my lazy butt is out of bed.
And I’d picked a winner of a hike too; approximately 8 mile round trip complete with a couple creeks and not one but TWO lakes at the end. Most importantly? It was primarily in pine and other evergreen trees and not aspens. The turning of the leaves of the famous quaking aspens of the Rockies may be good for tourism but they are less than ideal for a girls seeking some trail solitude.
I had my solitude, too. Other than one runner right at the trail head, it was me and the trees. I was about two miles in and cheerfully strolling along the gentle incline cutting across the sloped forest, enjoying the dappled sunlight trickling through, the 60 degree weather, and the complete silence.
About half a football field ahead of me (can’t completely ignore the sports season, right?) the trail took a slight to the left. It was at this time that the most unlikely of situations occurred: two large brown horses trotted around the corner and down the five-foot wide trail towards me. The following thought process happened in a span of approximately three seconds:
“Oh horses! I love horses!”
“They are so pretty and magnificent!”
“Why don’t those horses have riders? Or saddles? That’s strange.”
“Is it just me or are those awfully large horses. Like Clydesdale large.”
“That second horse almost looks like it has horns, or antlers……”
“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuu- those are MOOSE!”
So like any experienced, tough outdoorsy girl would do, I squeaked and threw myself down-slope off the trail and hid behind a particularly large pine tree.
(Actually it was one of those cool double trunked trees grown from one truck so it felt more formidable.)
As I stood there trying to regain control of my breath and straining to hear any sort of moose-like noises to indicate what had happened since my hurried trail departure, I struggled to contain a sudden burst of laughter. a I think you would call it your standard-textbook hysterics. I mean, what was I going to do? I couldn’t keep off-roading it up the trail. I couldn’t backtrack because they were heading down trail. And I really didn’t want to be trampled or kicked to death by a moose. So I caught my breath, regained control of my senses, contemplated the ridiculousness of my situation, and made a decision.
One of the best things about any solo endeavor or scrape, if you will, is how much you learn about yourself. I, it turns out, am not the hide-behind-the-tree-until-it-becomes-dark-because-that-is-the-safest-most-patient-course-of-action girl. I had probably stood there a solid 49 seconds before I decided that I had to make a move. (I know, my patience know no bounds.)
Besides, the moose had realistically moved on, right?
(Important Note: I don’t know how moose think.)
It has always bothered me in scary or suspenseful shows and movies how when the victim comes home to a door ajar or other questionable situation, they still go in the house, don’t turn on any lights, and tentatively call out; “Hello? Is anyone here?”
At least it did until today. I moved slowly out from the dubious (proverbial even?) protection of my double pine, rustling the underbrush with my clumsy human legs, and calling out in that same tentative tone “Hello? Moose? Are you still there?”
Yep, I asked the two moose if they were there.
I think part of me legitimately thought I might get a response. The rest of me was focused on no longer being a ninja silent hiker and making enough non-threatening sound effects to go with my slow and clumsy motions that I would be perceived as a non-important entity to said moose. Who I still deeply hoped had continued their gleeful trot down my err their trail. Thus my Minnie Mouse toned monologue continued, declaring to the potentially present moose about how I was not a threat, just a little human and to not worry about me. I clambered my way back up the slight slope to the trail again, verbalizing in concert with my slow movements.
I pulled myself up the last step back on to the trail and looked up – directly into the eyes of the lead moose. She was about five feet away from me, a young female with deep chocolate pools for eyes. Behind her, a young male with the beginnings of antlers peered cautiously around her body. Both sets of ears were swiveled towards me, both sets of eyes glued to me and my now frozen form. I could have touched them in a step and a half.
This stand-still held for what felt like a minute before I gently began backing down the hill again, my wavering voice changing up the monologue to focus on discussing how I was not a threat, how I was going away, how I hoped they wouldn’t hurt me, how they should just forget about the silly human and go about their business.
Their eyes held mine like magnets as I moved as gracefully as possible back down the slope (Note: not so much) and into the seeming protection of the open pine forest. It wasn’t until our eye contact was broken by the third trunk sliding between us that both moose moved, turning suddenly to continue their casual trot down the trail they clearly believed belonged to them.
I didn’t stop moving through the trees away from them for several minutes, keeping my eye on the trail above and continuing my inane nattering. When I finally reascended the trail, I took a minute to breath, laughed once in relief (A solid “Ha” a la Edna Krabapple from the Simpsons) and did something I have never done before; I took out my bear bell.
Sidebar: It has been noted before that I am a very quiet hiker (not on purpose) and have startled many a human and wild animal before. One would logically think that I would have taken preventative measures years before. However, that would require me to be logical. Last year one of my dear friends, while expressing admiration for my adventurous spirit, gifted me with a bear bell in a gesture of genuine concern for my well being after I regaled her with the tale of my first surprise moose encounter. This fantastic gift has sat in my day-pack with the jingle-preventing magnetic storage bag firmly attached.
I was suddenly feeling very very alone in a very big and scary forest full of unpredictable and silent wild animals. I figured that sounding a bit like Santa coming to town was worth missing out on some bird sightings or chipmunk encounters. (Ugh, chipmunks.) And while the likelihood of disturbing any other terrifying wild animals on this Sunday morning seemed statistically unlikely, a girl can’t be too safe.
The rest of the hike was completely uneventful. I saw rocks and trees and hills and lakes and streams and waterfalls and all the nature things. About one more mile up the trail, I ran into another hiker which did reassure me that there were other people in the world.
Lessons learned on this trip? Sometimes scary movie stereotypes are true. Sometimes you will be surprised and impressed by how quickly you can throw yourself off a trail and behind a tree. Sometimes, no matter how much you feel experienced and like a solo outdoor bad ass, nature will remind you of your scale.
I also learned that I would make a terrible wildlife photographer. There was not a single moment in that whole moose encounter that I even vaguely thought about reaching for my phone to take a picture. Not one. I was really focused on not being threatening and getting out of the whole situation in one piece. Didn’t think about my camera until I was safely further up the trail.
And you know what? I’m okay with that. The thing to remember, to always remember, is that this is wild and life. It is an unpredictable individual organism that reacts and responds to its own incomprehensible rules and elements. Encounters such as this remind me of our humanity and of the absolute terrifying beauty of the natural world. It gives prospect and a shot of adrenaline. And sometimes it gives us a good story.