Wild Encounters

Wild Encounters

When I younger, I was more interested in hiking to my destination rather than enjoying my time along the way. Times have changed and I now realize that there is more fulfillment to my trips when I take my time and observe nature.

Some of my more memorable outings occurred when I’ve come across various animals, like the time I was hiking the Needle Peak Trail. I was in the woods when I heard an animal crashing through the bush heading in my direction. Thinking it could possibly be a bear, I quickly got my bear spray out and several seconds later a couple of mountain goats emerged from the bush, passed by me and headed up the trail leaving me far behind.

The following are some of my encounters with animals in the wild that really add to my outdoor experience. I’m sure many readers will have their own memorable experience.

Black Bears

Some people will hike for years and hardly encounter any bears whereas others may be causal hikers and will come across bears more frequently. I tend to fall in the former category. I’ve been hiking for 42 years and have come across bears now and then; not too frequently considering the amount of time I have spent outdoors.

When I started hiking solo years ago, I took precautions and wore bear bells because it seemed like a great warning device for bears but now I realize it provides a false sense of security. I now use my voice to shout out a warning when near noisy creeks and dense bush. For the most part though, I hike in silence especially in open environments where I can see my surroundings. I’ve seen more wildlife this way and I like to observe nature.

All of my encounters with black bears have been without incident and they have ranged from bears unaware of my presence to docile ones and those which run away as soon as they get a whiff of me or see me approach. For the unaware bear, I remember the time I was backpacking up Jack’s trail in Strathcona Park when I stopped for a break at a creek which drained down into a small canyon; the last water break before the final push up to the ridge.  The creek flowed down a small gully and the trail crossed it at a point before the water dropped into the canyon. I saw a black bear walk along the canyon rim coming my way and with two small cubs tagging along.

Seeing the gravity of the situation, I hastily grabbed my bear spray, left my pack where is was and headed up and along the bank trying to gain some distance and waiting to see where the bear would go. I thought it would walk away in the opposite direction but instead the bear walked along the bank on the opposite side of the creek so I froze; for some reason, it did not see or smell me even though I was standing there out in the open. When the mother bear turned around to check on its cubs, I made my move and dashed for cover behind a bush.

I observed the bears continuing on their way uphill completely oblivious of my presence. They disappeared but I had a feeling they were headed up towards the ridge so I kept a wary eye out for them but I never did see them again. As long as the bear hadn’t seen me, I made the right decision of not trying to scare the bear away and attract attention.

Another time, while taking the short trail down to Myra Falls, I encountered a bear standing on the trail not more than 15 feet away. It appeared very docile and unconcerned about my presence. I got my bear spray out and we just had a stare down for several minutes before it finally moved off into the bush. Although the bear displayed no signs of aggression, I’m more cautious about bears which has lost its fear of people.

On another occasion, I hiked the Ripple Rock trail and wandered over to Stephenson Point; a rocky projection at the northern end of Menzies Bay which is accessible when the water recedes. I have seen evidence of bears here before from their footprints in the sand during low tide. On this particular day, the tide was outgoing but there wasn’t much room between the ocean and the shoreline where I was situated.

As I was eating lunch, a bear approached along the shoreline over a rise but stopped when it saw me. I had my bear spray ready as both of us engaged in a stare down for a couple of minutes. Although the bear could see me, I wasn’t sure if it could smell me and I can’t recall the direction of the wind at that time.

I had a feeling that the bear may have wanted to pass by me but there wasn’t much room and I had no intentions of moving from my resting spot. It suddenly made an about face and retreated back in the direction where it had come.

I had one surprise encounter when I backpacked the Elk River trail on the Island. Most people visit Landslide Lake but don’t make the effort to hike the short distance to Foster Lake at the base of Mt. Colonel Foster. Sometimes, when conditions are right, huge snow caves form allowing one to walk through. There is a rough path which runs along the eastern forested slopes of Landslide Lake then it heads up a creek bed for a short distance before rising up a steep terminal moraine which contains the small lake.

I wasn’t in particularly good shape for this hike and I had got an early start in the dark from Butterwort Creek camp. As I hiked up the moraine, I had my head down concentrating on my effort when all of a sudden I saw a flash of black fur out the corner of my eye. By the time I looked up, the bear was gone. I didn’t see it until several seconds later when a bear popped out from behind a boulder situated across the creek and scrambled up the bank into the bush.

I surmised that the bear had been resting due to the matted grass in a small cleared depression just off to the side. What surprised me was how fast the bear moved. The  distance from where it was resting to the boulder must have been 25 feet or so and it had moved so fast that I had just caught a glimpse of black fur on the move with no discernible form.

Grouse

I’ve had my share of encounters with grouse. Most of the time, they are so well camouflaged that I don’t see them until there is an explosion of wings when they take flight. This really gets my heart rate going.

I’ve also had several incidence of grouse attacks which occurred when they were protecting their young. One occurrence happened in Manning Park and the other two in Strathcona Park. In a couple of instances, the attacks caught me off guard since they were similar in nature to a planned ambushed. The charging grouse would emerge from the bush with feathers ruffled and beak open; quite a formidable sight.

The only sensible solution was to give it wide berth because I tried scaring it away but to no avail. During a grouse attack in Strathcona Park, I was coming down the trail when I saw a couple of grouse chicks scatter and I knew the mother would show up and soon press an attack. Because of the topography of where the trail lay, there was no other way to take a detour so I stood my ground to see what the grouse would do.

It ran towards me with ruffled feathers making noises and I expected it to make contact but it made a wide circle around me as I stood still. It was more of a bluff charge and lucky for that since I felt vulnerable wearing shorts. Once the grouse had calmed down enough, I slowly passed by it about 10 feet away. We both eyed each other as I slowly made my way down the trail.

One time I came across a headless grouse on the trail; dead of course. I suspected it was a kill from a bear which saw me approach then took off. When I hiked back, the grouse was eaten and all that remained was a pile of feathers.

Eagle

There are lots of bald eagles along the ocean front on Vancouver Island. When I was living in Comox, I would head to Seal Bay Park and walk the kilometer long beach. Often times, I would see a couple of eagles but when the tide was out there would be up to five scrounging around the tide pools.

I rarely see eagles fly around in Strathcona Park but on one particular occasion I witnessed an unusual event. I was camped out lower down on Jack’s (Augerpoint) Trail just above the notorious scree slope and on an eroding bluff which occasionally shed rocks off its face. While I relaxed near my tent, I heard a strange sound below but could not associate the vocalization with the type of animal. The sound would emanate from the lightly forested area of the scree slope whenever two eagles swooped down.

I couldn’t see what they were attacking. After this went on for a bit, I saw a deer break cover from the forest and make a run up the slope. The eagles eventually flew off. I’ve never heard such a strange sound made by a deer nor seen eagles aggressive to deers until now. I’ve seen videos of how powerful eagles can be by flying off with a small mountain goat. Which brings me to the time I was wandering around on Comox Bluffs above the lake.

I was crouched down examining some flowers when I looked up and saw an eagle approaching with legs and talons forward just like it was ready to snatch a prey. When it saw my face, it ‘retracted’ its legs and flew off. I suspect it mistook me for a small prey of some kind and was ready to grab me. Not the way I would have liked to do paragliding.

Deer

There are deers everywhere but I hardly see them; instead I come across their footprints and like people, they take the path of least resistance by using hiking trails. In some places, like Haida Gwaii, the abundance of deer has caused overgrazing of vegetation. When I use to hike Strathcona Park frequently, most of the deer sightings was in the subalpine area. I would spot deer along the high ridges rather than down in the valley. This always puzzled me as to why deer like to wander high in the mountains where vegetation is scarce.

Years ago, while doing the Frosty Mountain Loop in Manning Park and being the sole person tenting at Windy Joe Camp, I heard pounding footsteps at night near my tent. I didn’t suspect a bear since their feet is padded so when I unzipped the tent door my flashlight lit up a curious Mule deer. Seeing the deer made me feel quite relaxed; just like having a friend drop by. When I got up in the morning, the deer dropped by again to ‘say’ hello.

On a trip to the Valhallas, I came across a deer wandering around the parking area/trail-head to Drinnon Lake. It was friendly enough that I could approach about 10 feet for a good shot. I camped out at Wicca Lake and appeared to be the only person around. When night came and I lay in the sleeping bag, the deer dropped by and I scared it away a few times because it was stomping around making too much noise. During the night I had to get up and relieve myself but this only worsened the problem because the deer would come around and be sniffing where I had peed.

Each time I scared it away, it would come back. Contrary to what people say, urinating around the area you are camping to ‘mark’ your territory does not deter bears. And in this case, deer. It only attracts animals to your site. Better to have a pee bottle in your tent.

On a day hike along the Ripple Rock Trail near Campbell River, I came across a mother deer and fawn on the trail. When I stopped, the fawn took several steps towards me at what appeared to be a friendly gesture. However, the mother abandoned the fawn and left the trail which surprised me. I would have thought that it would protect its young. Maybe deers don’t look upon humans as being a predator.

The defenseless fawn lay down on the ground and I could see it shaking out of fear. I left it alone and further down the trail waited a while to see if the mother would return. I got tired of waiting but on my hike back along the trail, the fawn was gone. I hoped it reunited with its mom.

Ptarmigans 

I’ve come across ptarmigans on the Needle Peak Trail, Jack’s Trail, Flower Ridge and up in the Yukon on White Mountain near Whitehorse. Some ptarmigans are easily approachable without being too scared while others runoff when I’ve approached slowly from a distance.

Several years ago, while on a backpack in Strathcona Park, I camped out on a high point above Shark Lake and with views of Augerpoint Mountain. I was camped near a small rock bluff which rose 15 feet above and had to position my tent only a few feet from the edge of a cliff on a grassy area which just fit the width of my tent.

As I was relaxing, I heard vocalizations of what appeared to be ptarmigans; easily identified from my previous encounters. I went to investigate and hiked up the bluff from the trail which ran south then east. From my position, I got commanding views of the mountains, part of Buttle Lake and my tent directly below. I saw one adult ptarmigan with one chick and got fairly close without spooking them.

I observed the two feeding on vegetation once they got use to my presence. They hung around for a while then left the area but in the afternoon I heard them again and even though they were well camouflaged I managed to spot them walking down the rocky slope from a higher point of the bluff. By evening, they were gone.

Next morning, I got up early to photograph sunrise and when I walked back to my tent, I saw them scurry away as I didn’t see them initially; they were so well camouflaged. They went up the same rock bluff and stayed there while I packed up and started my hike down. They kept observing me until I was out of sight. I found them to be quite curious; visiting around the area I camped (which was mostly boulders) while I was gone and sitting perched above me on the bluff while I was around.

One year later, I camped around the same area and saw one adult with brown plumage; a male bird with a red comb over eye. The ptarmigan was resting in the shade of a boulder during a hot breezy summer afternoon. It wasn’t particularly frightened as I took a seat nearby and observed it.

My tent was above and to the right and sometime during the early morning hours it must have come around as I heard it pecking away at the tent. I always sleep with the tent door flap half open and with the mosquito netting in place for ventilation so when I lifted my head from the sleeping bag I scared it and it flew away making loud cries. I’m beginning to think some ptarmigans are social towards humans (at least myself) since they tend to visit my camp.

Ron (solo75) has enjoyed the outdoors for the past 42 years; most of those years are solo trips where he likes to observe nature and take photographs.

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