I carefully picked my way down the steep side trail and stepped over a mound of rotting driftwood. I stumbled down onto the rocky beach and dropped my pack. My feet and shoulders ached. After 3 days and 22 kilometers in the Alberta backcountry, I had about 4 km left until I would reach my car. I was tired. I could feel the blisters getting bigger by the second and I just wanted a good long rest.
My original plan had been to stop at the North Interlakes Day Use Area for a lunch break. It seemed like an appropriate place to do such a thing. But as I came across the dam that separates Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes, the only place I could see to stop was a park bench along the trail. There was a woman sitting in the middle of the bench and I considered asking if I could join her. But as I got closer, not only did I realize that she was sitting there listening to music blaring from her iphone, the look on her face said one of three things:
“don’t even think about sitting here”
“WTF happened to you?”
“I’m an angry, angry woman and if you sit beside me, I will tell you all my problems.”
Needless to say, I continued along the trail, choosing instead to take this tiny detour to the beach.
Which was okay, it was nicer anyway and I had it all to myself.
I dug through my pack and found a bag of trail mix to start munching on. I sat on a log, taking it all in. As I looked out over the shimmering blue water and snow-capped mountains, I began to relax more than I had at almost any other point on the trail.
You see, I had been a little BEAR-anoid during my time in the backcountry.
I don’t know if a human can feel much more vulnerable than when walking through Grizzly territory, entirely alone. I questioned if I would do the right thing in the case that I did come across something. If I’d stay calm and collected or if I’d run screaming.
I called out constantly. I talked to myself, to the bears, and to no one in particular. The park brochure recommended “occasional shouting” to warn wildlife you were in the area. I took “occasional” to mean “every third step I took.”
I’d yell out HELLO, HEY BEAR, GOOD MORNING (I like to be polite to the bears, maybe they don’t eat nice people). Or I’d narrate my day. THIS SURE IS A NICE FOREST! LOOK AT THAT TREE! MY LEGS ARE SORE! OH NO, NOT ANOTHER HILL!
I’d do all this in the most calm and manly voice I could muster as Mark often tells me that when I’m nervous or upset I sound like an injured animal – true love, amirite? – which is precisely what you DON’T want to sound like with predators around.
You can bet I was yelling some kind of nonsense while snapping this picture
All of this wildlife paranoia is pretty standard for trips like these but being alone definitely heightened my concern. My trip to the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park Visitor Center prior to heading out on the trail didn’t exactly help either.
I thought I’d stop to see if there were any last-minute warnings or advisories to know about. I also took advantage of the free wifi to send out my final “if I never see you again, I love you” messages to Mark and my mom (okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic but I did want to let them know I was leaving the Land of Cell Service soon).
I was wandering around the Visitor Center, waiting for mom’s reply to come through, when I came across their wildlife display. My memory may be blurry but I’m sure it was entitled “All the Things That are Capable of Tearing Your Head Off, Ripping Flesh from Bone, and Eating You Alive.”
Each animal was stuffed in various stages of attack. A Grizzly with jaws open; a cougar lunging, claws out; a wolf with teeth bared. I could feel my blood pressure rising with each step. According to the display, even the deer could be aggressive. This, plus my regular concern about wildlife in the backcountry, had meant I was on high alert for most of my time out on the trail.
Let’s play a game of “What’s Around That Corner?” – A Grizzly? Cougar? Blood-thirsty Wolf? In this case I think it was a cranky 4-year-old being bribed with jelly beans by her mom.
So, it was a nice break to be sitting on this log on the beach, eating snacks and feeling only moderate concern that some big animal would come up behind me. For the most part, my guard was down.
And that’s when it happened…that’s when it always happens.
I felt something touch my leg.
I looked down and my heart nearly exploded in my throat. I shot up off that log like my ass was on fire and nearly choked on my trail mix. I squealed and jumped up and down, doing that awkward little dance that one does when they have the heebie jeebies.
The culprit behind all this was not one of the menacing predators I had been worried about. Rather, it was a seemingly harmless little chipmunk.
He ran away when I had jumped up and I felt silly for having such a reaction to this cute little critter. I was surprised that he had gotten close enough to touch me but I didn’t think too much of it. I laughed at myself and hoped that this wasn’t an indication of how I’d handle any other type of animal encounter.
As I was getting over the shock of the event, the little guy came back, popping his head up over a nearby tree stump.
“Oh my god, how adorable?!” I thought while snapping some photos. I was hoping he’d stick around for a bit so I could have some entertainment while I rested.
But then, he came at me.
This cute little fluff ball morphed into something out of a twisted horror movie. He went from innocently observing me to full-on warrior mode. His body tensed up – reminding me of a tiny, fur-covered linebacker – before charging at me at full speed.
He was after my trail mix and would stop at nothing.
I didn’t really know what to do.
NO ONE HAD WARNED ME ABOUT THE CHIPMUNKS!
My instinctual form of self defense was to flail an arm or a leg in his direction while simultaneously shoving as much trail mix into my mouth as possible. Muffled screams escaped around the mouthful of cashews and yogurt chips.
That was my lunch, dammit, and I wasn’t giving it up easily.
My strategy seemed to work as each time I moved, he’d scurry back behind the driftwood.
But again and again he came back.
He’d disappear for a second and then pop up as if in some evil real-life version of whack-a-mole. He would sit and stare me down and then charge. Each time his beady little eyes would poke out from somewhere I’d jump and squeal and flail until he retreated once again.
He was relentless. I knew he wouldn’t be giving up anytime soon.
I shoved what was left of my lunch into my pocket and threw my pack on as quickly as I could. There would be no rest for my weary feet. I gave up on the much-needed break and beelined it back to the trail instead, thinking to myself on the way:
“I’d rather take my chances with the bears.”
While I make light of what I now refer to as the “chipmunk incident” and I’m sure it made for a hilarious scene if anyone happened to witness it, this is a perfect example of why YOU SHOULD NEVER EVER EVER FEED WILD ANIMALS! It turns them into psychotic little nut-junkies and that can be dangerous for both humans and animals alike. I haven’t yet googled “diseases that chipmunks can carry” because I’d really rather not know, but I bet there’s at least one thing in there that could result in a slow and painful death for me. At the same time, my instinctual reaction could have been to squish the poor little bugger instead of running and screaming – which obviously wouldn’t have ended well for him. And this was just a tiny little rodent. Imagine if that had been a coyote, bear, cougar, or fox who had come to associate humans with food. Not a good situation. So next time you’re out on the trail, in a campsite, or enjoying a picnic area – please keep your food to yourself!