From backpacking in the Alaskan wilderness to thru-hiking the Arizona Trail and with hundreds of other trails in-between, I have seen an abundance of wildlife and gained great campfire stories from extremely dangerous to safe and I would love nothing more than to share my experiences with you!
One of my personal favorites happened in the spring of 2009. This one has stuck with me the most because it was my first real experience that could have significantly gone wrong! I was nineteen at the time, “young and dumb,” coming from my hometown of Buffalo, New York to Denali National Park to work and live in the park. I wasn’t from the city of Buffalo, but close enough. I grew up in the state of New York where the largest wildlife present were white-tailed deer and black bear. Point is, there wasn’t a prevalence of danger, so I was not used to being aware of my surroundings.
So here I am, working and living in Denali National Park, completely naive to the environment around me. Walking to work one day at about 5am in the woods, I had both earbuds in, listening to music staring at my feet as I walked (what a disaster!). Eventually, I walked into something. Something big, tall, and brown, my head slowly starts to move up, higher and higher until finally, I’m staring into its eyes. A full grown bull moose had turned his head and was staring back at me with his curious looking eyes. We both stared at each other for what seemed to be an eternity, but was probably no more than a second. Quickly, I ran for a big thick tree behind me and the moose naturally ran at me! I knew as long as I had a big enough tree between him and I, I would be OK. Thankfully, I was able to get behind the tree before he caught up to me and I was saved! If there was not a large enough tree (yes, they run over trees too), he would have stomped right over me and I would not be here writing this article. Needless to say, I walked straight into a bull moose’s ass. This happened to be my big wake-up call for the wilderness and for the wildlife living in it. I made sure I did not make the same mistake twice, and I became much more vigilant for the great outdoors.
The next campfire story I want to share with you was a terrifying moment for me and with this encounter, unlike the last one, there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. Here I am, waking up in my tent early in the morning in the Alaskan wilderness. My tent was propped up on a ledge heading up a mountain, I have significant advantage of my surroundings. I can see for miles upon miles. I wake up early and crawl out of my tent to find a momma bear and her two cubs on the next mountain top over. Because they are on the neighboring mountain, I found it safe and beautiful so I grabbed the camera and started to film. Recording the three bears was magnificent while the moment lasted, until they decided to run down the mountain they were on, run across the fast glacier-fed stream, and now up the same mountain I am on.
Gratefully, I was with another person at the time, my co-worker, so I wasn’t alone. We quickly grabbed our bear spray and we stood our ground. The momma bear appeared with her two cubs behind her, no more than thirty feet away. The mom stood on her hind legs and slammed to the ground. Then stood back up and slammed onto ground over and over again. We spoke, “Hey bear, hey bear,” as if we were a broken record. She then walked toward us and we slowly began to walk backwards. Never turning our backs to her, walking at a steady pace backwards, saying “Hey bear,” in a calm manner, we all walked like this for quite some time. The three bears walking toward us, and us walking backwards at the same pace not getting any farther from the bears. Eventually, being on a mountain, it was getting steep and it was difficult to walk backwards, so we decided to walk sideways to see what would happen. The bears eventually kept walking straight and finally, we were starting to lose sight of the bears. It was such a scary experience and the whole encounter lasted 45 minutes. There were a couple times the cubs were being playful and got ahead of their mother and that’s when we thought we were going to die, or at the very least get mauled. After we lost complete sight of them and felt the adrenaline wearing off, we realized we still had not eaten breakfast. But, knowing the bears being so close, we still did not feel safe cooking, so we grabbed what we were going to have for lunch that day, peanut butter and jelly and just ate that. After that, we packed up and kept on as usual. Yes, the backpacking trip still went on.
I will say this. I had more significant experiences in the summer I spent in Denali than all of my backpacking trips put together in the lower 48. There is just something about Alaska and spending that much time in the back-country gave me these exuberant experiences that I will never forget. If it is wildlife you seek, Alaska is the place for you. One more Alaska story and I’ll move onto an experience I had in the Arizona desert.
Sitting Indian style on the tundra floor, soft and squishy, I was enjoying my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My surroundings were breath-taking, in the middle of a tundra valley with two huge mountain ranges to the right and to the left of me. Sitting in the middle of those two ranges, I was only facing at what was ahead of me and not to what was behind me. After some time, I saw something move in my peripheral vision. I had seen not one, not two, three, or four, they kept on coming, wolves. A whole wolf pack trotting one behind the other in a single file line with the babies at the back of the line. This is not a scary story but rather, a beautiful one. I had never seen anything so magnificent and wonderful in my life. The situation could have ended badly, but it did not. The wolves were so magical to see, trotting along side the mountain range. When I first saw these magnificent creatures in my peripherals, I was about to take a bite of my sandwich. My mouth ended up staying open in awe until they were gone. Time just stood still for a moment. I did not reach my phone for a picture or the camera to film it. This moment purely lies in my memory and in my memory forever they will be. To this day, I haven’t experienced anything like that. It was special.
The desert holds very little similarities to the Alaskan wilderness. Instead of wolves, bears, and moose, there are snakes, Gila monsters (one of only a handful of venomous lizards in the world,) javelinas, mountain lions, rattle-snakes and plants all over the place that want to kill you. After hundreds of miles walking in the desert, the worst that happened to me was constantly being at battle with the rattlesnakes. They were the worst! The rattlers loved taking up the trail, hanging out in the middle of the trail, and they would stand their ground. Raising their head about hip high, at least to me, I’m a shorty, I found them very intimidating. It was so hard to spot them in the desert, the ground being mostly brown, and how convenient, the snakes of course mostly brown as well, they blended right in. Most of the time you hear them rattling before you spot them. Instantly, when you do hear them, you freak out trying to spot them on the desert floor. There were times they struck right up in the middle of the trail and would not move. Stubborn little bastards they were. I had to then walk on the side of the trail, in the bush where it’s even harder to see the other snakes. Man, oh man did I hate those damn snakes!!!
Snake bites become a pretty big deal if bitten while you are in the wilderness, and for me, walking on the Arizona trail, most of the time I was in the middle of nowhere, miles away from any help with usually a mountain or two between the help and I. If I happened to get bit, it would have been very difficult to get to safety, especially because the number one rule is to not exercise if you get bit and yet, it requires exercise and a lot of it to get out of the wilderness. So a snake may not seem like a big deal, but if you are far away from help with mountains as your hurdles, then it quickly becomes a catastrophe and a life-threatening scenario. I had 18 of these encounters with six more Gila monsters. The desert may not have very large animals, but the animals that live there can be just as deadly. If you are serious about hiking the Arizona trail, I wrote a very detailed article on preparing for the trail.
I hope you were amused by these stories and better yet, learned something such as to not stare at your feet while in the wilderness! If you would like to share your stories, feel free to comment below! Thank you for reading and I hope you have a great day/night!