A Peculiar Predator

Gail Gwinup 


Copyright 2004 by Gail Gwinup

Photo of a canoe beached on a rocky shore.

My husband and I like to think we’re pretty savvy campers, having taken countless backpacking trips. But on our trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I had a close encounter of the “furry” kind that I will never forget.

“Hey, Gail, look at this bear track,” Martin hollers out behind me.

“A what track?” I say, turning around with as much grace as a three-legged giraffe wearing high heels. I have a sixteen foot, fiberglass canoe, turned upside down and balanced on my shoulders. Maneuverability is tricky at best. I lumber back up the trail to my husband, who points to a muddy imprint crosswise on our footpath. Apparently, I’m too engrossed in staying upright under our canoe to notice a large paw print.

“I have to get a shot of this,” he says. Shrugging off his cumbersome Duluth pack, he unbuckles its leather closures, folds the water-proof flap back, and begins rummaging for his camera.

We’re on day four of our fifty-mile, backpacking trip deep within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northeastern Minnesota. Located right next door to Ontario, Canada, the B.W.C.A. covers a million acres, dotted by hundreds of pristine streams and lakes. In the warmer months, most of them are only accessible by canoe, since motors are banned on nearly all lakes.

Each year over 200,000 outdoor enthusiasts visit the B.W.C.A.; but with over 1200 miles of canoe routes inside this vast wilderness, you can travel for several days without seeing another human being. No electricity, plumbing, telephone lines, or any roads to the inner lakes make for an unparalleled experience not found in most parts of the country. In fact, National Geographic names the B.W.C.A. as one of “fifty destinations of a lifetime,” and we’re there to see why.

Our bear track is on a hiking trail (or portage) connecting two small lakes called Annie and Jenny. As I stare at the track, a crisp September wind swirls early fallen leaves around my feet. “It’s getting late,” I say to Martin. “We should be finding a campsite and setting up before dark.”

“This won’t take but a minute.” His muffled voice comes from inside his pack.

The yoke on the canoe I am hefting digs into my shoulders. I glance around for a resting place, but the dense woods crowding the trail make it too narrow for me to set the canoe down and still be able to hoist it back up on my body. Comfort quickly wins out over common sense.

“I’m going on,” I say, “so I can get this thing off my back.”

“Go ahead,” Martin replies. “According to the map, we should be getting close to the end of this portage anyway.”

I pivot myself back around, as graceful as before, and start down the trail alone. Getting lost is the least of my concerns. After a summer’s worth of foot traffic, the trail is well worn. “Don’t be long” are my parting words to my companion.

Before we began this journey, our outfitter had circled a two-mile area on our yellow Fisher map where black bears had come into camps looking for food. “If you see a bear,” the outfitter said, “bang pots and pans together and that’ll scare him off.”

“What if the bear doesn’t know this trick?” I asked. The outfitter chuckled at my joke. Little did he know I wasn’t joking.

Hiking down the path, I think about the map’s circled “bear” area. I know we haven’t traveled far enough to be in that region, but what is to keep the bears from moving out of that little ol’ circle and on to greener pastures (or in this case, tastier campsites)? And now that I’ve actually seen a fresh bear track, my mind begins to obsess over it.

I continue down the narrow trail fearful of every twig snap and rustle. The late afternoon sunlight, filtering through the thick canopy of pines and maples, creates strange-shaped shadows resembling dark, furry critters. I walk along side a short run of rapids. Great, I think, the ideal fishing spot for a bear.

About twenty yards ahead of me, the trail drops down into a sharp S curve. Dense undergrowth limits my view of the path beyond the curve, but I sense movement. At first, my brain won’t believe my eyes – Oh, no, you’re just freaking yourself out, I think. Shut your eyes and when you open them again, the thing you believe you see will be gone. So I shut my eyes. But when I open them and focus between the thick shrubs, I definitely catch sight of a large, four-legged something slowly heading up my trail.

My mind’s rolodex rifles through a list of North American wild animals: too thin for a bear, too blond for a wolf, too big for a beaver. Then a light bulb pops on somewhere in my head . . . cougar. The size seems right and the color seems right. Ding, ding, ding - yes, we have a match!

I watch in morbid fascination as the animal makes its way closer to the curve in the trail. From its movement, I get the impression that it’s not yet seen or smelled me. My first thought is ditch the boat. Slowly, I lift the canoe from my aching shoulders and swing it down next to me. Ka-wang! The fiberglass hull hits a nearby tree trunk; its trumpeting reverberations surround me. I give myself a mental thump on the forehead and glance back down the trail, but I can no longer see any sign of the animal.

The adrenaline, pulsing through my veins, kicks into overtime disconnecting all reasonable thought I have left in my brain. I look around for an escape route, knowing full well I can’t possibly outrun a cougar. I search for a stick, a rock, something to throw, but all I see are twigs and pebbles. The outfitter’s advice about banging pots and pans together comes to mind, but I nix that idea since the cougar would probably eat them as appetizers. And where would I get pots and pans anyway? Martin has all our supplies in his backpack.

I think of my husband, back on the trail, taking his nature shots, oblivious to the drama unfolding not more than fifty yards from him. Will the cougar spare him if I’m its lunch?

Fear grips my throat so much that I can’t make a sound. Helpless, I stand frozen in place, looking down the trail. Suddenly, I catch sight of the animal again. It’s still strolling up the same course as before, taking its own sweet time as if taunting me. I take a deep breath, thinking it may be my last, as the animal creeps around the bend. Directly ahead in my path is my deadly stalker . . . a golden retriever.

Seeing me, the dog yelps and runs back down the path. I expel a small hysterical laugh, and forcing my shaky knees to operate, follow the dog down the trail to the shore of Lake Jenny.

A forest ranger is unloading his canoe, preparing to hike the portage I just finished. My canine cougar is standing next to him watching me with a wary eye. The man and I politely exchange greetings as I plop down on a boulder next to the water a few yards from them.

“Are there any cougars around here?” I ask the expert. I know my mind won’t rest until that one nagging question is answered.

The ranger looks at his dog and then at me and smiles. “No, why?”

“Oh, no reason.” I try to sound cool, but the tremor in my voice says otherwise.

The ranger nods, then with full pack and no effort at all, swings his canoe up on his shoulders and whistles to his dog. They leave me there staring after them as they march up the portage.

A short time later, Martin appears humming the theme from “Gilligan’s Island.” He’s dragging our canoe behind him, as if my leaving our only means of transportation in the middle of the woods is commonplace. He spots me, waves, and rambles over to my rock perch.

“Did you see the dog?” he asks me.

“Yeah,” I reply, “a real, sweet animal.”

We load up the canoe and paddle a short half-mile across Lake Jenny to our next campsite, a lovely setting overlooking the lake to the east. I relish the thought of the morning sun warming our tent tomorrow, which will make waking up from a near-frosty night that much better. In fact, after my belly is full of the delicious vegetable stew supper that Martin and I prepare together, I can feel my jittery nerves begin to unwind. That evening, we lounge by our campfire listening to the peaceful call of the loons echoing across the lake.

Later, safe and snug inside my warm sleeping bag, I finally tell Martin about the mountain lion mix up. He is quiet while I regale my story about how I had flipped out over a skittish, yellow dog. And to his credit, Martin remains the kind, caring gentleman I know him to be . . . he only laughs uncontrollably a couple of times.

Gail Gwinup writes from Minnesota where she, husband Martin, and their ten-year-old son camp as often as busy schedules allow. This past summer, they made a 3600 mile camping trek (along with their dog and cat) to the Grand Canyon, giving Gail plenty of additional story ideas.

A stay-at-home-mom, Gail enjoys writing about their travels as well as writing short fiction. She hopes that someday soon, an editor will give one of her stories the nod.

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