Planning for our next vacation usually begins in the travel aisle of Barnes and Noble. On those days, the world is our oyster. We peruse travel guides to discover what activities, points of interest, natural beauty, culture and, inevitably, costs are associated with a particular locale. Many dream destinations don’t make the cut beyond this aisle. One thing we’ve never considered when planning a vacation is the local wildlife we might encounter while traveling.
Having grown up in the Northeast I am accustomed to free roaming small woodland creatures: squirrels, raccoons, rabbits and the ugly possum. A fox and a coyote have occasionally strolled through my yard, but the largest “wild” animal I encounter on a regular basis is a deer. While these animals are a menace to my landscaping and my car if they happen to leap unexpectedly into the road, I do not fear for my life when I see them. Perhaps since I’ve spent my life sharing a habitat with relatively docile animals I don’t take the local fauna into account when selecting a vacation destination.
My first experience with this animal oversight occurred a few years ago on a trip to Crested Butte, Colorado. We were there in July during the annual wildflower festival when the mountainsides and alpine meadows were covered in flowers of every conceivable color. On our first night in town I asked our waitress if she could recommend a particular hike for viewing the wildflowers. Happily, she gave us the name of a trail, then hesitated a moment and said, “Oh, wait. That path has been closed for the last week because there’s been a mountain lion prowling around on it. I think they haven’t spotted him for a few days so he may be gone. It has probably reopened.” She stated this information in a very matter of fact tone as if I had asked where the nearest ATM was located. I had a million questions. How do they know the mountain lion has left the area? What do you do when you see a mountain lion? Are the flowers really that spectacular that I am willing to risk my life? After my fourth question the waitress sensed my concern and suggested that we stop by the Chamber of Commerce in the morning for up to the minute news on the mountain lion’s whereabouts.
Walking back to our hotel that evening, past bear proof garbage cans, I began to realize that this might just be a little more nature than I had bargained for on my vacation. Maybe the great outdoors wasn’t so great for a girl from New Jersey unfamiliar with the feeding habits of carnivores. The next morning we headed to the Chamber of Commerce to see what advice they had regarding the wildflowers and the mountain lion. The friendly attendant offered us a map of trails with the best flower viewing and some “helpful” advice regarding the mountain lion. He told us that there hadn’t been any fresh kills on the trail in a week so they were “fairly certain” that the cat had moved on. Fairly certain was a few levels of certainty below what I needed to feel reassured. He reviewed the steps we should take in the event that we encounter the cat and concluded by telling us that we wouldn’t need to be able to outrun the mountain lion, we’d just have to be able to outrun the slowest person in our group. Since we were a group of two, this posed a logistical problem. Which one of us would be the sacrificial snack? Our jocular informant suggested we take someone slower than us on our hike. I guess that’s mountain humor. While I appreciated his attempts at levity, it did nothing to allay my fears of being mauled by a large cat while stooping to identify a blooming wildflower.
Accepting this as part of a mountain vacation experience, my husband suggested we head out to the trail. I was more inclined to enjoy the beautiful scenery from the height and safety of our second floor balcony, but I reluctantly agreed to go. Seeing the warning posted at the entrance to the trail did not help my situation. I’m not sure what was more shocking to me; my possible close proximity to a mountain lion, or the casual manner in which the warning was posted. At the entrance to the trail there was not a large, brightly lit sign warning of possible danger. No rangers were roaming around with tranquilizer guns. The only hint of imminent, mortal danger was an orange traffic cone with a broomstick protruding from the center hole. Stapled to it was a flier with a photocopied picture of a mountain lion, information about the recent sightings and helpful safety suggestions: don’t make eye contact, make yourself seem bigger, but non-threatening, don’t turn your back on the cat and don’t run because you’ll be chased for the sport of it. The likelihood of me being able to bear in mind any of that information was slim in the event of an actual encounter.
Trying to put my mounting fears aside I grabbed my wildflower identification book, marched past the warning sign and focused my thoughts on the natural beauty around me. The myriad of colors from the wildflowers against the backdrop of aspen and fir trees was causing nature inspired euphoria. Too bad it only lasted for 10 minutes. Every snap of a branch or crunch of a leaf made me jump. This was not the way I had envisioned spending an afternoon in a flower filled alpine meadow. Trying to be brave, I pressed on while repeating mountain lion safety tips over and over in my head as if it was a mantra. The flowers were spectacular and I was beginning to calm down until I spied a gigantic pile of very fresh poop on the trail in front of me. It was the largest pile I had ever seen and I was not interested in any surprise encounters with its creator. That did it! I made a hasty retreat while my husband jogged behind me explaining all the other possible depositors of those droppings. Back in the relative safety of the car, we laughed at my cowardice.
Having survived our Colorado experience unscathed, we planned a trip to the Canadian Rockies. The overwhelming natural beauty of images of Banff National Park has dulled the memory of my prior mountain lion experience. Upon entering the park I was given a handy dandy visual guide for identifying animals I should expect to see. The hoary marmot, pine marten and golden-mantled ground squirrel looked non-threatening and downright cute. On the other hand, the moose, elk, big horn sheep, two varieties of bears, wolves and cougar did look threatening. Once again I was inundated with instructions of what to do if I encounter wildlife. Each animal has its own particular set of safety rules I must bear in mind. For example, moose are foul tempered and aggressive. If I happen to cross paths with a moose the guide book recommends running in a zigzag manner and hiding between narrow set trees. Apparently, the zigzag motion confuses them and their large antlers won’t be able to pass between the trees. Moose have poor vision and wide heads. Maybe that’s why they are so irritable. To frighten off the ever present bears, I am supposed to walk through the woods singing and clapping. While I’m certain my singing voice is offensive to any creature with hearing, I find it hard to believe that my voice alone will be enough to protect me. I was told that the bears are more afraid of me than I am of them. That is unlikely. If my horrendous singing doesn’t shoo the bears, I’m supposed to hold my backpack over my head and look intimidating. I’m not even 5 feet tall. I won’t look intimidating to a bear; I’ll look like a chewy snack. I wonder if they rent cymbals to crash as I walk through the woods.
At the front desk of our hotel I noticed a photo of two bears frolicking in the grass in front of the hotel’s sign. I tried to convince myself that this was a publicity shot with trained bears, but during dinner our server told us that the photo was taken 3 weeks prior and that there have been “quite a few” bears on the property this year. He went on to say that there are numerous bear sightings in the park, but there hasn’t been a bear attack in years. I suppose that ratio should have offered me comfort, but it didn’t. While the prospect of seeing these wild animals is thrilling, in actuality, the unpredictability of their behavior and the unreliability of my reflexes when I am panicking is cause for concern. After all, the animals have the home field advantage. I have a lot of wilderness safety advice to bear in mind, but what I’ve come to realize is that I mind bears.