Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Recent Wildlife Encounters

One of the lures of the trail, of course, always has been the potential to encounter wildlife.  We all enjoy the regular sight of deer and elk quietly grazing trailside.  Who hasn't had, and in retrospect enjoyed, the tingling sensation up the back that comes when you see mountain lion tracks, or just think about how many catamounts have seen you on all those dawn/dusk runs, even though you've never seen them?  ...or, maybe the startling and loud chittering of an unseen squirrel as you race by her tree.  ...or the distant "screeee" of a red-tailed hawk wheeling somewhere overhead.

These are the sights and sounds that warm the heart, and sometimes make the heart race, all contributing to the sensory treat that is trail running.

The last couple of days have brought two of my most memorable wildlife encounters, one with an elk and another with three bears.


First, on Sunday, I was just wrapping up an 8-mile loop in Elk Meadow Open Space, a route I call the Upper Loop.  The run starts at the park's lower lot and heads up and down Bergen Peak, leaving out the one-mile out-and-back jaunt to the summit.

At the trailhead, I noticed a couple of newly-posted, bright red signs warning of aggressive elk.  There had been a lot of elk in the meadow lately, enjoying the ample crop of tasty and tall grass, but no elk were in sight today, though, so I didn't give the signs another thought, until I was wrapping up my run, that is.

I was about a half-mile from finishing up the run and decided to end with some hard running. On the relatively flat/downhill section of Painter's Pause, I started getting after it, running at a 5:20-5:30 pace. I was feeling fluid and in the flow, just looking ahead and cruising. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I picked up some movement. A young, but big elk was running straight at me, effortlessly, but menacingly.

My first thought was, "Where did this guy come from?"  This part of Elk Meadow is a wide-open grassland. How did I not see an elk? My next thought was, "Is he going to stop?" It didn't appear that he was. He was looking right at me and running directly at me.  So, my instincts kicked in. I stopped abruptly and made an aggressive feint in the elk's direction. He stopped about 10 yards from me.  Whew.

I looked at him and noted that he had a misaligned jaw, maybe the result of getting hit by a car, or an injury from a tussle with another frisky elk. Who knows? Anyway, I started jogging again, repeatedly looking over my shoulder.  As soon as I moved, he ran at me again. I stopped and swung my arm as if I was throwing something. He stopped. I removed my sunglasses and glared at  him (the ol' stink eye trick). Didn't work.  He came at me again. I lunged in his direction. He stopped. I started side-galloping (so I could keep an eye on the elk) to a spot where I knew there were some loose rocks I could pick up and hurl in the elk's direction. He must have read my mind, because as soon as I got to the rocks, he stopped and began grazing. He was done.

Elk Meadow Open Space is amazingly green right now. Witness while you still can.
I jogged the last quarter mile back to the car, noting again the helpful red signs warning about aggressive elk.


On Monday, I pulled into the upper parking lot at Elk Meadow, initially with plans to just get in the usual six or so miles. My motivation this day was low and I wasn't looking forward much to the spin on the trails. As I jogged past the trail kiosk, I decided I needed a change. I needed to get back to just enjoying the outing and not worrying about mileage or speed.

So, instead of following the usual dirt path, I just marched straight up the hill, with plans to eventually pick up a social trail that runs along the southeast side of the park and climbs to the second southernly lookout on the Bergen Peak Trail.

As I made my way up the hill, I was skirting some private property. The peak of a garage roof was just in view, so I was being quiet until I was out of sight of the structures and any people that might be nearby.

Since I was off trail on a relatively steep side slope, I mostly had my head down watching my foot placement. At one point, I lifted my head to look around and caught movement just ahead. I froze next to tree thinking it was a dog from the nearby house. As I stood silently, I quickly realized it wasn't a dog heading toward me, it was a black bear.

I was downwind from the bear, so it didn't smell me and was walking right toward me, maybe five feet higher on the hillside.  I silently watched as the bear continued meandering in my direction. When he got about 15 yards from me, I made a gentle "haaaarummmmpf" sound to warn him that I was near. He froze.

After 2-3 minutes of both of us standing absolutely still, he headed a bit uphill and continued moving east until he was behind some low-slung evergreen trees. I figured the show was over, so I looked up again to plan my route on up the hill. Yikes, more bears!

Just up the hill were two more bears, a big momma bear and a small, cinnamon-colored cub. They hadn't yet seen or smelled me, so I stood there watching them, occasionally glancing back to make sure Bear #1 wasn't heading back toward me. I figured Bear #1 must have been a cub from last year, still hanging around momma.

I watched for a bit the momma bear and cub wander around and dig into a log before I headed quietly downhill a ways and continued on my hike up the hill.

I finished the hike/run by climbing up to the high point on the ridge below the summit of Bergen Peak and then plunging/bushwhacking straight down the middle of the mountain to complete the day's off-trail adventure.

Good times, and a welcome change-up from the usual routes.


  1. Dang dude. Side galloping and harumpfs I guess are the ticket. Quite a collection of wildlife in a short window.

  2. Wow. That was a fun read. Glad it all ended well. Being downwind can be one of the most awesome and bad things all at the same time! WA has been in 'bear sighting mode' lately with no luck, sounds like he needs to tag along with you.

  3. Wow. Never seen a bear up there, great to see as long as nobody gets hurt! The elk encounter was freaky.

  4. JP! It's great seeing you getting out there on some adventures. I hope the foot is treating you kindly. I so wanted to be you in this story of the bear encounters. I'm still waiting for my first sighting in the wild.

    I couldn't agree more with your sentiments in the first to paragraphs. I came upon a porcupine last week. Kinda fun, but not as exhilarating as an angry elk (way to go whipping out the ol' stink eye) or meandering bear!