Lions and Tigers and…Birds???

Big horned sheep

A rare view of a big horned sheep in Southern California

Before Optimist and I even stepped foot on the trail, I was scared as hell of the animals that we could possibly encounter on the trail. My fear actually prevented me from even reading the guide book about what animals we might see on the trail, as it simply made me even more fearful and paranoid about living outside for three to four months.

The few pages I did read of the guidebook before heading out to the trail pretty much stuck with me. There was a special section on mountain lions, and what to do if I see one or if one were to approach me. It made it known to stand your ground, act big, and most importantly, not to run, as the mountain lion, a.k.a. Cougar (a much scarier name to me) thinks you are prey and will definitely hunt you down and most likely kill you. To quote the book, “If you flee, you will die.” That statement echoed in my mind any time I heard a rustle in the bushes or saw paw tracks along the trail. Talk about getting your heart rate going!

Much to my surprise, my fear of animals and things lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce on me, almost completely went away within the first few days. By that point, I was realizing the magnitude of miles that I’d signed myself up for, and was so tired from walking with a pack on my back, that I just didn’t want to waste more energy on worrying about what could happen. I left it to chance and knew I’d figure it out if the situation ever arose that I was faced with a bear, mountain lion, rattle snake, or a bird (really!)…In the first few weeks of the hike, I actually thought to myself, “It might not be such a bad thing if I get injured by an animal, because maybe then I can get off the trail without flat-out quitting”!!!

As for the animal encounters we did have, they were few in number, and some pretty close calls. Our first rattlesnake experience was a few hundred miles in while going down Mt. Williamson in Southern California. We were both running down the hill, as the trail was pretty smooth, and I was in front, so as I sped by, I heard a rustle in the bushes that I assumed was a lizard running off the trail. About 3 seconds later I heard Optimist yell, “Oh, shit!” and turned around to see him slam on his breaks and quickly back up. There was a rattle snake, completed camouflaged, coiled up with his head cocked back, right on the side of the trail. It was the first time I’d heard a rattlesnake, and it’s one of the most eerie, hair on the back of your neck-raising sounds I’ve ever heard. Once we were both out of striking distance, we both threw rocks and sticks at the snake to get it to move off the trail, but it wouldn’t budge, much less flinch at our attempts. It was so well camouflaged that Optimist took his eye off the snake to get his camera out and then couldn’t find the snake again to take its picture, and it hadn’t even moved an inch! Once he found the snake and took a shot, we gave in on moving it and he ended up walking way up and over the trail while I kept an eye on the snake. We continued to try and move it by throwing rocks at it, as the next unlucky person that would come down the trail would surely bear the brunt of our rock throwing, but we gave up after a half hour and just kept heading down the trail. It was definitely a memorable first rattlesnake experience.

We went for quite a while without any other animal encounters, until the high Sierras, where our biggest concern was a bird! The grouse, to be exact. It looks like a really big pigeon, and at the time we were going through the Sierras, their eggs were just hatching, so the mother grouses were extremely protective. One had made its next right on the side of the trail, so as we were walking by, it flew right at our heads as we stepped back in surprise. I actually yelled to Optimist, “It’s flying right at you,” as he was in front and had turned around to find a branch to defend himself. He got a branch in time and actually took a swing at the bird while it was flying at him, and he hit it! It was merely knocked down and uninjured, but definitely shaken up. We just sprinted on the trail at that point to get out of the nest gauntlet while we could. We had a few more nest-on-the-trail encounters for a few weeks until the chicks were older and the mothers weren’t as protective, but man, those birds were a pain in the butt, and were one of the most prevalent animals on the trail, and I mean ON the trail, as they always seemed to be walking on it or in groups right along side of it. It’s a bit comical that our biggest worries were actually about birds!

We were for quite a while again without any animal encounters from the Sierras all the way until far into Northern California, where we had our closest rattlesnake scare. We had sat down for lunch while in a section that was much like the desert of Southern California. This part of the trail was between mountain chains, so it was low in elevation, hot and dry, so in other words, great for snakes. Well, we’d been sitting in our lunch spot for about a half hour, just about to eat our pasta, when we hear the unforgettable sound of a rattle. We both looked at each other with the look of, “Is that what I think it is?” After a moment of silence we continued eating and sure enough, the rattle really started to go. It sounded so close to us that we jumped up to look for it, and there it was, curled up in a bush just 3 feet behind Optimist. Waaayyyy to close for comfort. After we spotted it, it actually started moving closer to us, and curled up under Optimist’s pack, and stayed there for about 15 minutes before moving on. It was another story for the books, and shell-shocked us for the rest of the day, because we were in such disbelief that 1. We were in our lunch spot for a half hour before he realized we were there and started rattling, 2. That he was so close once we actually saw him, and 3. That he actually came towards us once we backed off! Quite a story…

Along the entire trail, most everyone we ran into asked us if we’d seen any wildlife, especially bears. And for the first 103 days, I gloated that I’d yet to see a bear (I’d seen tracks and heard stories of bears in the area, which scared me enough). But on day 104, as Optimist and I were heading up to Reds Pass in Northern Washington, I saw my first bear, a black cub, eating in a meadow about 100 feet below. I was more scared of the possibility of mama bear being around than I was off the cub, and thankfully it bolted down the hill the moment it saw me, and my first sighting was short and sweet. When it rains, it pours, and in the next 5 days I saw 2 more bears, one black cub which again ran when it saw me, and a large black bear that was sitting just a few feet off the trail, enjoying the season’s ripened berries (as I’d been enjoying as well). The bear was as startled as we were coming up on it, and it ran about 10 feet off the trail, watched us walk by, and then made its way back to the berries, as that was its real focus.

All in all, I was pretty happy with all of our animal experiences, as none of them turned out bad. And I never had to employ to adage, “If you flee, you will die.”

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