Coyote in the Pennsylvania Wilds
With a string of gorgeous, sunny days on tap, my husband convinced me to take a few unplanned vacation days so we could go on what would be my first backpacking trip of the year, into the Hammersley Wild Area. We got our gear ready Tuesday evening so we could leave first thing Wednesday morning and spend as much of the day as possible in the woods.
Wednesday morning dawned clear and beautiful, with blue skies and cool temperatures. After a quick hot breakfast at McDonald's, we were on our way. Shortly before noon, we were packed up and hiking into the Hammersley Wild Area, with our packs on our backs and our water shoes on our feet, as the very first thing we had to do was a stream crossing.
Well, we may never have been to the Hammersley this time of year, so we weren't prepared for what we found, which was water, water everywhere. The creek was running extremely high, and with my 40-pound backpack on, it was one of the most challenging stream crossings of my life. I had had the good sense to put shorts on before the crossing (rather than simply rolling up my pants), and it was a good decision, as the water grew deeper and deeper.
I was about two-thirds of the way across, with water swirling around my legs and soaking the crotch of my shorts. It soaked the front of my fanny pack, which I was wearing on the front of my waist. Much to my horror, it lapped and swirled around my camera bag, which I always carry on my left shoulder. The current was swift and intense, and I felt it pulling at me. I turned and felt myself begin to slide. My foot gave way. The water swam before me. I was going down. I knew it. Me and all my gear. And my camera, oh no, not the camera!
I suddenly thought to myself, "I can't do this!" But in another second, I took a step forward with the other foot and regained my balance. The pack steadied itself. My foot step was firm on the next rock. In another few seconds, I was at the bank, grabbing for a tree, pulling myself out and up onto solid ground again, my knees shaking. Terra firma, hooray!
All along the way in, the water was unbelievable. What was merely a very difficult trek in the fall now was turned nearly impossible by the water, which ran through places that used to be roads. Not anymore! The Wild Area is growing increasingly wild and cut off from anything but foot traffic, which is in my opinion a good thing. But it makes for some tough hiking!
We saw some wildlife on our way in. Maybe a half-dozen white-tailed deer, our first garter snake of the season (cute as a button! and no bigger than about a foot long). And I heard the raucous laughter of not just one but TWO blue kingfishers that chased each other up and down the waterway. Kingfishers are a sign of a healthy stream, and I was glad to hear their hooting cries.
We walked further than we did last time. I'm not even sure we could have crossed the creek at the campsite where we stayed in October. So we took a trail up the hill and picked a different campsite, one on a shelf overlooking a sunny, golden meadow by the creek. I took my camera and walked down by the creek, taking pictures of all of the water, watching for the amphibian life which is so abundant this time of year.
And then, just after 3 pm, we had a major wildlife sighting! I was standing along the creek, taking pictures, and my husband was up at our campsite, when I heard something crashing through the brush behind me. I turned around in time to see a rather large animal emerge from the brush, take one look at me, and turn around and high-tail it back in the direction from whence it came!
My first thought was WOLF! But we do not have wolves in Pennsylvania. It was as big as a German shepherd dog, and that was my second thought, except that it wasn't one. I heard my husband holler, "COYOTE!!!" And I turned and watched it run, pointing my camera in the direction of its trajectory. It had crossed the creek to get to us, and it went right back across. That's why its fur looks kind of damp: from the stream crossing. (And yes, the stream was shallow enough to cross there. Smart coyote!)
I was standing by the creek watching, as the creature headed back for the wilder woods upstream. But for just one second, as I zoomed right in, it turned and looked directly at me. And so this was our one priceless moment: I got to go eyeball to eyeball (or mano a mano, as I said to my husband) with a wild coyote, with nothing more than a camera in my hands! I have seen one once or twice while hiking, and I have heard coyotes howling at nights when we have camped out. However, this is my first-ever photo of a coyote in the Pennsylvania wilds! And then it was gone. The whole encounter took 10 to 15 seconds only.
I walked back over to the campsite and we excitedly compared notes. My husband had had a bird's-eye view of the whole encounter from up on the shelf where our campsite was. He said he had seen me by the creek, he had seen the coyote, he had seen the coyote spot me, and then he had wondered what would happen next. He was too far away to have had any impact on the situation, but clearly the coyote wanted even less to do with us than we did with it. When it was flanked by the two of us (my husband up on the shelf and me down by the creek), it used its good sense and took off.
The coyote was the top moment of my day. The water crossing was the hardest. I sat in our campsite that night, fretting over the stream crossing, reliving it, knowing I'd have to cross it again tomorrow, remembering the moment when I knew - just KNEW - I was a goner. "For what it's worth, that was my hardest, worst hike into the Hammersley, ever," my husband said. "Thanks," I said; "No. Really. Thanks for telling me. That's me, the girl with the worst of everything." (This is not actually true, but it sounded good at the time!)
And then, with the half moon overhead to give us light for much of the night, we set up our tents and populated them with our gear. For me: my own tent, atop a groundsheet. Inside the tent: three sleeping pads, a sleeping bag, and the rest of my gear (yes, my backpack even fits inside my tent, and I brought it in overnight). It was cozy inside my tent, and the temperature dropped quickly once the sun left. There were no sounds but the water, nothing else, and in the darkness, with the moon above, I was asleep the minute my head hit the pillow.
The song to accompany this image - my first ever of a wild coyote - is the Talking Heads, with Wild, Wild Life. :-)