Evidence of a kill.
At the end of a side trail, not heavily used. I might have been the first person standing there in days, weeks – maybe even months or years.
Scattered bones – bleached white. A deer ripped apart, the spinal cord severed, a piece of a jawbone, a smattering of teeth.
An awful death. Perhaps, mercifully, a quick one.
A vivid reminder that our forests and trails, so near to our homes, are a different world.
I’d hadn’t gone this deep into the woods for weeks. Since I’d seen a bear just minutes from our home. That was six weeks ago. On a well used trail at the junction of two paths. If I left my home right now, I could be there in five minutes. Or less. My bear encounter happened at midday. A warm day. The perfect day for a quick workout. Hill repeats. Up and down, up and down. Strengthen the legs, stress the lungs, tune out the world. Music blasting in my earbuds. I stopped tuning out when, on the last downhill, I glanced to my right and saw a black bear ambling up towards me. Maybe 30 or 40 feet away. A scenario I’d imagined a thousand times. I stopped running, pivoted, walked backwards down the hill. Slowly. Yanked out my bear spray. Pulled the cord on the noisemaker clipped to my chest. Knew in my head that black bears rarely attacked people. Feared in my gut that this one would. Kept retreating. Got to the bottom. Saw the bear at the top. It looked at me, curious and calm. And kept on going, towards the woods, away from me.
A few days later, I ran again on the same hill. Head on a swivel. No music in my ears. A little scared, but knowing the longer I waited to go back, the less likely I would be to do so. Still, that was close to home. Close meant comfort. At the junction where I’d seen the bear, I could see dozens of houses and cars passing below. It was practically my backyard.
The side trail with the dead deer was not my backyard. I’d planned this run for days, and then talked myself out of it the night before. Because I was scared. Scared to venture far from home. Far from houses and cars and a pretty subdivision. Into the land of cougars and bears. I talked myself into a safer run. Along well traveled roads, to a public park filled with hikers and mountain bikers.
Then I woke up. And talked myself out of the talking out.
Maybe it was because an article from a trail running magazine popped up on my Twitter feed with an article about the rarity of bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray.
Maybe because I thought of my daughter. The fears of a five-year old can be overwhelming – unfamiliar situations, unexpected change, a bug on our trampoline – overwhelming and every bit as real and powerful as the primal fears of an adult. When my daughter is scared, my wife and I encourage her to face those things that frighten her. To gain strength, incrementally, by winning small battles against little terrors.
Or maybe it was just because I love to run on hard packed dirt, baked dry by a month of heat, in the midst of towering, never-ending evergreens.
So, I went for that run. I added a knife to my arsenal. Razor sharp, encased in a multi-tool which I carried with me for the entire run. The multi-tool in one hand, a rock in the other. I banged them together frequently. “Make noise,” the experts say. Scare the bears off before they see you.
I made noise all right. No earbuds on this run. Blue Rodeo blaring from my cell phone. My rock smashing into my multi-tool whenever I approached a blind corner.
I made noise, and scared a lot of birds, who flew off as I approached.
I don’t know if I scared any bears, or cougars. I certainly didn’t see any.
But I smelled death. The unmistakeable odour of decomposing flesh hit me hard. Twice. The rotting carcasses must have been just meters off the main path that took me further and further out.
Further and further out to the side trail, which ended with scattered bones and an awful death.
An awful death and a necessary run.
A run that replaced fear with confidence.
A run that reminded me of why I was scared in the first place.