The Scariest Moment of My Solo Hike

Day 3, 10 am. Jct. New Army Pass/Rock Creek and PCT!!!! (Still Wednesday, August 19, 2015)

HO-OLY SHIT!  HOLY FUCKING SHIT!  I just had the living crap scared out of me!

I was earnestly hiking along the New Army Pass trail, excited to get my first real 10 mile day under my belt and reach the John Muir Trail.  It was about 9am and the air was cool and the sun’s beams were still aspiring to break through the morning air, hazy with smoke and mist.  At 10,800 feet I was still in the midst of rugged alpine forest and feeling anxious to get through it: the forest scares me a little. I don’t like not being able to see around me.  I have to work at suppressing my imagination which exaggerates every noise and shadow and tries to convince me something will jump out from behind a tree or around the next bend or that I’m being preyed upon by wild eyes. I feel much safer in the granite fields above the tree line! Rock Creek Crabtree sign

When I approached my first Rock Creek crossing, I knelt down and splashed cool water on my face while I did a quick scan up and down the creek to find my best crossing point. The water was low, spanning about 5 feet across and babbling gently.  I crossed easily.

As I stepped across the shallow creek I thought I saw a flash of red dart through the thick forest on the other side. People! I got excited, I hadn’t seen anyone yet that morning and having company in the gloomy forest would have been comforting.

I reached the other side and looked around for the person in the red jacket I thought I’d seen. Nothing. Hmm, I guess the shadows and the trees are playing tricks on me.

day 3 view of soldier lake
The view toward Soldier Lake and Miter Basin as I hiked out on Morning 3

I spotted a big rock with a couldn’t-pass-up natural bench cut out and decided it was the perfect spot to take a break and have a snack. Just as I unclipped the waist belt of my pack to sit back and relax I heard a loud muffled THUD behind me, like something very large hitting the forest floor. A bear!  I spun around and visually examined the trees and rocks for its source.  Nothing. Ok it must have just been a widow maker (a giant pine cone falling from the tree).  I leaned back against the rock, pack still on and tried to relax while never taking my eyes off the forest from which the THUD had come.

I sucked water from my Camelback drip tube, ate a handful of homemade gorp and popped another Orange Stinger Energy Chew into my mouth. A hollow rat-tat-tat echoed high up in the trees in front of me. It startled me a little before I realized it was just a woodpecker.  (Maybe it’s Woody! That would explain the red I saw – oh boy, my nerves are making me a little campy!!!)

And then: crunch, snap, crunch…  the undergrowth of the forest floor was being crushed under the weight of something behind a giant rock about 20 feet in front of me. What the hell? Then it stopped as suddenly as it started. I convinced myself it was just a deer or squirrel and carried on with my break. Then suddenly the finally-silent  forest came alive again —

YIIIP! YIP-YIP-YIP!

It was a high pitched bark – like from a little dog – just a few hundred feet to my left in the direction of the forested New Army Pass trail. Yay! Someone’s coming – and they have a dog!  (Oh I miss Capone) Maybe it’s the mystery person in red.

And just as I realized – Wait, dogs aren’t allowed out……
YELP. YEEEEELLLP! YEEEEEELP.
Wow, is the dog hurt?
YEEEELP. YIPYIPYIPYIP. HOOOOWWWLLL! HOW-HOW-HOWWWWL!

And then all hell broke loose.
Screeching, yelping, yipping, barking,  and the ugliest most awful blood curdling maniacal wild chorus of howling I’d ever heard.
Coyotes!?!  YES! – A whole freaking giant pack of them!?! What the hell?? This was nothing like any coyote howls I’d ever heard laying in my tent at night! HOLY SHIT!
I sat frozen on my rock bench, orange Stinger stuck in my throat. Listening. Is one hurt? Is it being killed? Are they hunting? — ME???  —Oh shit are they hunting ME???  OhShitWhatDoIDo? 

It sounded like some crazy eerie coyote sacrifice. Holy fuck – and they’re close! Too close.  I stood up and looked in the direction the sounds were coming from. My eyes strained to search the forested hill in front of me and the meadow on my left  – where I half expected to see a dozen rabid coyotes charging toward me – for signs of movement. It sounded like they were no more than a few hundred feet away.
YIPYIPYIP. YEEEELP. YIPP. YIPPP. YIP-YIP-YIP-YIP. HOW-WULLLLL!
I crammed my energy chews and gorp back into the side pockets of my pack, buckled up and got ready to walk briskly the hell out of there (I know not to run when being hunted by wild animals but walking fast is ok, right?).

Oh NO. No No No No No!  The horrible coyote hunt/kill/sacrifice was happening right in the direction of my trail. What do I do? Do I wait? (For them to come and eat me next…? No thank you!). Let them finish and then go? But what if that just gives them time to come for me?  I remind myself: Coyotes don’t hunt humans. But what if these coyotes DO?

COYOTES. DON’T. EAT. PEOPLE! I tried desperately to convince myself, which isn’t an easy thing to do when you’re alone in the wilderness and haven’t seen another human up close in over 18 hours.

YEEEELP. YEEEELP! YEEELLLLLP! YIPYIPYIP. YEEEELP. YIPP. YIPPP. YIP-YIP-YIP-YIP. HOWLLL-HOWLLL-HOW-WUL! soldier lake view with logo

Nothing out here wants to eat me… Nothing out here wants to hurt me I used my own familiar chant to combat my terror as I inched closer to the howling hillside while the eerie corybantic coyote chorus echoed through the trees like some beastly nightmarish hell-song. What if the trail leads straight up the hill toward them? What do I do then? I can’t just sit here and wait for them to discover me. I continued toward the hillside in the direction of the pack, obsessively scanning the hills for any signs of movement and scouting my trail, trying to see where it led.  Please lead me away from them. Please, please please.  (Yes, I was pleading with the trail gods.)

The frenzied death curdling barks and howls were slowing to an occasional YIP-YIP. YELP! HOW—WULLLLL!  I didn’t know whether to be relieved or more freaked out.

And then I saw it – thank you trail gods!  The trail veered off to the right, in the opposite direction of the blood-thirsty yippers.  I took the sharp right away from the now silent pack of (what my mortified imagination now made out to be) deadly human eating coyotes as quickly as possible. Their silence was no relief. Great, now they’re silently stalking me, closing in, and positioning themselves for the attack. Don’t run. Whatever you do, don’t run!  Oh my god, I wanted to run!

Rock Creek Lunch Break brandedIt took every ounce of self-control to walk and not break into a sprint. I never hiked a mile with 40lbs on my back so fast in my life. I was still obsessively turning around to make sure I wasn’t being followed and searching the woods around me looking for signs they were hunting me. I imagined a dozen barbarous coyote eyes on me at all times. I tried to reason with myself: I hear coyotes all the time when I’m out. They aren’t going to hurt me. Coyotes don’t eat humans. Coyotes don’t eat humans, coyotes don’t… but I’m alone, separated from my non-existent pack. I’m easy prey. Why the fuck did I decide to hike alone? I suddenly felt very vulnerable – and a little bit crazy.

My inner voices went into  full-on battle mode as I hiked: one wanting to comfort me, the other criticizing and keeping me in a state of fear.   Coyotes are afraid of humans. They were howling to warn others of my presence, that’s all. Yeah ok….nice try! Just keep walking.  All I wanted was to get to the Rock Creek junction. There’s something about a junction – I don’t know if it’s the human-made marker or what – but junctions give me a sense of safety and of not being quite so alone. My critical inner voice is relentless in trying to keep me in a freaked out state. Taunting me:  like a single wood post is going to protect you from a pack of ravenous human eating coyotes! Face it, you’re going to die out here...  My optimistic voice: maybe there will be other hikers there resting and waiting for others to catch up.  And there’s a ranger station there. Just go!

I was racing along the trail at record-breaking speed (for a backpacker) still frenetically scanning the woods around me for signs of beady coyote eyes or any movement.  I was still out of breath from my near death encounter (ok, maybe not really that close to death, but when you’re in it, try convincing yourself of that!) when about a mile down the trail something darted across the path a few yards in front of me. I gasped and stopped dead in my tracks. Oh shit, they’re surrounding me. This is it. I’m gonna to die. I braced myself for my end…

I think I literally laughed out loud when I realized it was  just a mama doe and her two adorable fawns. One of the baby deer, obviously as surprised to see me as I it, stopped dead in my path to observe me.  We both stood frozen on the trail, 10 feet apart curiously studying each other and luxuriating in the relief that the other wasn’t a coyote. I couldn’t help but appreciate how beautifully fragile it was. Awesome! Real coyote food!  I’m safe (I wonder if baby fawn thought the same of me!). As if reading my mind she took off into the forest.Have fun little fawn and watch out for the coyotes!”  I yelled as I hiked on toward Rock Creek Station at a  more relaxed and comfortable pace, feeling safer knowing there is real coyote food nearby.

It’s about 10:30 now. I’m at the junction of the PCT and the New Army Pass Trail relaxing on the grassy shore of Rock Creek.  I’m just sitting here soaking up the sun and enjoying not being coyote breakfast. I’ve soaked my feet and splashed fresh icy-cold creek water on my face and arms to wash the sweat and fear off my skin.   Now I’m trying to enjoy my lunch of Justin’s peanut butter and honey on Ener-G Foods wheat free, gluten free, flax crackers  that taste like cardboard. I brought them because they don’t crumble in my bear can – that should have been my first clue about taste! At least the peanut butter somewhat masks it.

I can’t believe it’s only 10:30 and I’ve already hiked 4 ½ miles!  Just 6 1/2 to go to get to Crabtree

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For more info about Coyote callings check out this interesting article from Adirondack Almanac : Coyotes: Decoding Their Yips, Barks, and Howls.

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24 comments on “The Scariest Moment of My Solo Hike”

  1. Carolyn, I was right there with you on the trail and I was so scared! My heart was even racing Steve I said “Coyotes don’t eat people” Great detailed descriptions, it makes me want.to read more!

  2. Carolyn, I was right there with you on the trail and I was so scared! My heart was even racing Steve I said “Coyotes don’t eat people” Great detailed descriptions, it makes me want.to read more!

  3. It’s been a fun progression of getting to know you and your adventures, first through your YouTube videos, in person in the AZ desert, and now onward to your travelogue! I’ve done four backpacking trips in my early 30’s in PA and NY and I want to revisit that one day, hopefully, sooner than later! I love your writing! I can see it all in my head! I was on the edge of my van bed sweating wondering how you were getting through this one!

  4. Hi Carolyn, love your JMT experience (and fun to read writing). Question: I’m doing NOBO in September, curious why you chose to go down to Soldier lake versus going straight from Chicken Spring lake?

    1. Hi Lee,

      I had 30 days to complete the trail and was taking my time to get to Mt. Whitney to acclimate. As you know, most people do the JMT SOBO so they’re used to the elevation by the time they reach Whitney at the end. Even on day 4 it was a challenge! 0 Good luck on your hike! Have a great trip. – Carolyn

    1. Bob, I am thrilled to hear that! I am so glad you’re enjoying it. Thank you for taking a moment to let me know! Just to warn you, it’s a work in progress and stops at day 12.. day 13 is in the works! – Carolyn

      1. I lived in Davis, California for 30 years and spent many weekends and vacations in the Sierras. They have so many beautiful places it puzzles me why people travel all the way to Europe or Canada for an outdoor experience. One of my favorite forest service campgrounds is at Wright’s Lake north of Kyburz off of highway 50 east of Sacramento. There are two driving routes to get to it. Best to check with the forest service for driving conditions for your RV. The campground is below the tree line, but only a short hike into the granite above the tree line. The lake is shallow and good for swiming and canoeing. The crystal clear lakes at the higher levels are easy to get to compared to your Mt. Whitney climb. Camping is permitted or was at the higher lakes at 8,000ft elevation. I believe they border the Desolation Wilderness Area.

        1. Bob,

          I know the area very well. My ex husband and I camped up there for several weeks every year – we stayed at Camino Cove, a primitive campground on Union Valley Reservoir. I’ve also backpacked all over Desolation Wilderness. That and Crystal Basin is one of my favorite places on the planet! Lots of gorgeous places to camp. Thank you very much for the note! -Carolyn

  5. Hi! Fun blog. But your coyote link is broken… tho I guess I could do a search. FYI
    Besides that, I had to laugh. We get packs that run through the bottom of our property and they can be scary weird when they start making a big kerfuffle! I feel safe because I’m at home, but I think I’d be a little freaked out if I heard that in the wilderness. And now that you are home safely writing about your trip, I’ve seen coyotes attack a lone snowshoer. There are videos on Youtube you can watch. You know, in case you want a nice scare.

    1. Skye, thank you for letting me know, I fixed the link. A friend of mine who has a lot of experience living around coyotes has witnessed them attack people and pets – if you get in the way of a they’re prey, they will come after you. And that’s what scared me – I couldn’t see them so had no idea if I’d stumble across them or what. It was pretty scary! Thanks for the tip on the videos- not sure I can’ handle it thought. 🙂 Also thank you for reading and leaving your comment!

  6. Carolyn, I think your past and present are in business marketing but your future is definitely in writing. Your blog is fascinating..

    1. Brian, I certainly hope you’re right! I’ve wanted to write since I was a little girl. I would certainly be ok with my life turning in that direction! Thank you so much for your comment. You made my day! 🙂

        1. Yes. Writing has been a dream all my life and now I get to share it! How awesome is that! :-). I’ve read some of your blog. I enjoy reading of your adventures! Thank you for sharing the.

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