Two Biologists and a Boy: The Long Way Home

Original Post at Highline Online, September 24, 2012.

A couple of weeks ago, a young male elk ran us off the trail. It was the first time I’ve been threatened by an animal while hiking with my son Dylan, and the only time I’ve ever popped the safety off of my bear spray.

It happened when Dylan and I were hiking with a friend, Tracy, and her daughter, Linnaea. It had been a long hike, having tried twice already to descend the Pyramid Benchland back into town.

A mother black bear and her cub turned us around the first time. We were alerted to their presence by a sound like a log exploding in a bonfire. We scanned the trail from further up the hill, and quickly identified the noise as coming from mama bear, ripping into a dead tree while wooden shrapnel flew around her like confetti. Her cub sat off to the other side, munching on grass and learning from mom how to get carpenter ants out of a log, black-bear-style.

Tracy and I stood entranced, feeling a safe distance away and quite in awe of the raw power on display. Dylan and Linnaea were clearly less impressed, and felt even less safe. Finally their voices penetrated. “Let’s go,” they said for the fifth time, adding a couple of little foot stomps. Hearing the fear creep into their voices, and realizing the bears weren’t going anywhere soon, we agreed to find a new route home.

For the next half hour we picked plump strawberries and swatted mosquitoes as we made our way to another trail that connected to town. Finally, we rounded the height of land on the town’s Discovery Trail that looks out over the roofs and school fields of Jasper. But then, about five minutes from our destination, we encountered a large bull elk.

Not keen to turn around again, Tracy and I grabbed some large sticks, waved them in the air and began to shout at the bull in an attempt to move it off. After all, it was the beginning of August, and at least a month away from the rut. This seemed a reasonable thing to do, given our past success with the method. However, instead of leaving the trail, the bull simply started walking steadily toward us. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” said the look on the kids’ faces. Time to turn around. Again.

We didn’t know at the time that hidden from sight on the hill above us was a young male elk or “spiker.” It is likely the presence of this spiker was agitating the bull, and we got in between them. As the bull advanced toward us, the spiker moved down the other side of the hill, and right into the middle of the only trail we could retreat on.

The young elk was not happy to see us. His lips curled, and he tossed his head back repeatedly as he ran toward us. Tracy and I did not speak.  I grabbed the kids and forced them ahead of me down the steep mossy embankment below us, while Tracy ran along the trail to entice the elk away. With the kids down ten meters or so, I popped the safety off of my bear spray and turned around to make sure Tracy was okay. With the spiker almost upon her, she leapt off the trail and began to make her way down. The spiker danced around above us, stomping his hooves and doing the Billy Idol thing with its lips. But it didn’t follow.

We travelled for the next few minutes in silence, the kids fully aware that this was no time for a melt down. We focused on each mossy step, avoiding rocks and logs until we connected with a trail below us. In ten minutes we were on Pyramid Road, the street at the back of town that would lead us home.

Once on the road, Tracy and I tried to undo the kids fear by pointing out that we had done the right things, and that had resulted in our safe return. But Dylan was not buying it. We were scared, and he knew it. He was already nervous about elk before our hike, having for the entirety of his life watched his Dad chase them away from our front door. This encounter did him in.

Now, most days he tells us he wants to move. If not away from Jasper, at least across town and away from the woods surrounding our house. He won’t walk to the bike rack by himself. He worries elk might get in his second story bedroom window.

The irony is that Geoff and I have consciously made trade-offs so that Dylan can grow up in a place that is still wild. A place he can smell the trees, caw at the ravens and watch a fox move quietly by our back fence. Now we are convinced that the experience of growing up in Jasper could just as easily make him an investment banker living downtown in a big city, as far away from trees as he can get. We really have no idea how this is going to turn out.

In the meantime, I’ve taken to teaching him about elk-safe spots around our crescent: under Ray’s boat, between Brian and Alan’s cars. It’s an attempt at empowerment, but he is only seven years old. I don’t mind holding his hand to the bike rack, and anywhere, as long as he needs it.