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!
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.
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 —
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!
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!
It 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
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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