Part of the allure of getting outside is to be away from the world we humans have manufactured for ourselves.
Our homes, workplaces, public spaces – they’re all built in ways to cater to our comforts. This is where all of our interactions with people occur, and even where most of our encounters with animals take place.
Seeing that most of those creatures are our pets, well, you get the idea. Very little occurs in our lives that haven’t been skewed by civilization.
That’s why people feel that urge to get away and unplug. They head to the hills, to the woods, to the ocean, to see, smell and hear the world sans civilization.
But those wild places are also home to a lot of creatures we never see close to home. Encounters with them make for some of the most memorable experiences of any adventure.
I spent some time thinking about just that. Several memories come to mind.
In the middle of the summer of 2004, a group of nine friends and me had the hare-brained idea of backpacking to Missouri Gulch in the Collegiate Peaks region of central Colorado. We had a whole range of people with varying degrees of fitness, outdoor experience and age. One thing we had in common: We all knew how to have a good time.
Get a group of guys around a campfire and good times will abound. Memories of the previous day’s ascent of Mount Belford were retold, each time with a little more drama. Jokes were told. Farts were never funnier.
But as time passed, discussions grew more introspective, thoughtful and serious. The clamor that dominated earlier in the night gave way to calm.
It was about that time a healthy doe ambled into camp. We were right at treeline, but still inside the trees. So none of us saw her coming until she was right in our midst. She showed no fear, only curiosity. Perhaps she thought there might be some easy food to score, I’m not sure. But I like to think that once our group had settled down a bit, she thought it would be safer to join in. Given how skittish deer tend to be, I was amazed at how at ease she was in our presence. There were 10 of us gathered around the fire ring, but she was not bothered. She was with us for a few minutes, and then as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone, melting into the darkness of the surrounding woods.
The feeling I got out of that was not unlike being the dork at the party when the prettiest girl in the room pops in, approaches you, and then spends some time talking to you. Suddenly you’re the luckiest guy in town.
Breakfast with the Bighorn
A few years after that Belford backpacking trip, I went with another group to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in northern New Mexico’s Kit Carson National Forest. We were backpacking to Lost Lake to camp before looking to hit Wheeler Peak’s summit the next day.
No one slept too well that night, and everyone was slow to get up in the morning. I got up first to start boiling water for breakfast when I had some unexpected friends come to join me.
We’d seen bighorn sheep from a distance on the hike up, but on that morning I got a much closer look. While everyone else was snoozing, a spied a mother bighorn and her lamb walking down the slope toward our camp.
They approached within 20 feet of me, calmly inspecting the scene, giving me a glance, then heading down the hill. It was a quiet moment which I alone enjoyed that morning. I was struck by how unconcerned they appeared to be by my presence, more curious than anything else.
Not long after they’d gone, everyone else started crawling out of their tents. They just missed it.
I was alone in the middle of a heavy rainstorm in southwestern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, tromping through a thickly wooded stretch of trail. A lot of my plans that day had been derailed by the rain and intermittent lightning, but I was determined to stay out there for the day and make the most of it.
One of the things about the Wichitas is that is crawling with wildlife, probably more here than just about anywhere else in the state. I’ve seen all kinds of creatures here – elk, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs and more.
But the king of the Wichitas is the buffalo. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to the Wichitas and not seen them. But I usually spot buffalo from a distance, and approach them to no less than 50 feet away. They are, after all, wild animals. And they’re big. With horns. Getting gored or trampled by a buffalo does not sound like a good time, and they will charge someone when they feel threatened.
They also seem to be masters of concealment, at least for me.
The woods where I was hiking were thick. So was the underbrush. It was early June and the spring rains had lavished the state with abundance, meaning that the Wichitas were about as green as I’d ever seen them. Unless you were looking down the trail, you wouldn’t see anything more than 10 feet away.
Ahead of me I saw a creekbed that was a landmark of a place where I’d turn toward my next destination. Too bad I didn’t see the big guy in the thicket to my right.
The thickness of the foliage provided some cover from the rain, and I’d used it myself when the downpour was getting particularly hard. While the rainfall had let up some, it was still coming down, creating a soft din of noise that masked the sounds of my approach.
I must have surprised the buffalo that had expertly concealed itself in the underbrush to my right. I didn’t see it at first. I heard it. A miffed snort, and then a dark flash. And a near miss. I jumped to my left to avoid getting hit, turned, and then saw the buffalo down the trail about 50 feet away, facing me.
Fortunately, the big guy wasn’t blocking my path. Only seconds later did my heart begin to race a little, once my mind caught up with the fact that I just missed being run over by a beast nearly eight times my size.
That’s as close as I’d ever been to a wild animal of that sort of size. I felt fortunate to have been spared. I walked away with an appreciation for the risks of hiking solo and a respect for an animal, in its own environment, that was much more powerful than me.
What sort of wildlife experiences have you had that stick with you? Feel free to share!
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