The leaves are changing and this weekend proved to be one of the best autumn-esque weekends to run. The temperatures were PERFECT, sunny and warm yet the air is crisp and brings a sense of impending snowfall. I explored both National Park trails and middle-of-the-city pavement that were both teeming with burnt orange leaves crunching under my feet and yellow trees creating tunnels to run through. It was magical… well, except for that one dude who hogged the trail, wouldn’t let me pass, and began to chase after me. That one dude was a bison.
Before I tell you about one of the most terrifying experiences ever, I was happy to get in not one but two double digit runs this weekend. I got in 10.5 miles at Elk Island National Park on Saturday and then 10.2 miles in the city on Sunday. It was nice to have a weekend at home and I was super productive in getting my life back in order during the lazy coffee-in-bed kind of mornings that you crave every once in a while. My current apartment dilemma is how to store my slow accumulation of outdoor gear. I literally have a 10ft kayak sitting behind my couch in my living room and then backpacks, first aid kits, running gear, and gym equipment haphazardly spewed around my apartment with no ‘home.’ Any ideas?
With 20 miles under my belt this weekend, I feel ‘back at it’ after the slow recovery from the Canmore Triple Crown. I have been working on the exercises for my calves, feet, and hamstrings that my physiotherapist gave me and my calves seem to be a bit better after each run. Stretching, who knew? So back to the bison…
My original intention on Saturday was to run at least one lap of the Shirley Lake Trail which is 13km long and is one of the prettiest trails in Elk Island National Park. Particularly at this time of year, this trail is gorgeous. It’s long enough that you feel like you’re getting a good run in, but not too long that you feel like you’re in an endless forest. You get to pass the Oster Lake backcountry campsites which have picnic tables and outhouses at the mid-point of the loop. It’s a great trail and one of my first recommendations when people ask which one to choose in the Park. On this day however, I made it less than 2 miles in, before I ran into a bison.
I am fully aware that this is bison territory, by the way. I have seen them almost every time I’ve run on these trails. The Park is known for it’s bison and had almost 300 calves this year! Once, when I was hiking a trail, there was one just eating beside the trail, about 30ft away, and I calmly walked by while he ate away. They are HUGE yet appear very docile and calm. I’ve always carried bear spray, more for my peace of mind than to actually use it, but I felt like I was preparing a bit. It was a really good thing on Saturday too because there was actually a sign on the Shirley Lake trailhead that said ‘bear in area.’
I came around a corner, and BOOM. There he was. On a double track trail, he spanned the entire thing. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one so close but holy shit, you guys, they are BIG. I immediately stopped. Unsure what to do, I took a step back. He took two steps forward. I stopped and just stayed put, calmly talking to him to let him know I was there and I was going to leave him alone. He did a bit of a pawing the ground, which terrified me because I know the general signs of when I bison is looking to charge, and started to walk towards me. I took a few steps back and he picked up his pace. I stopped. He stopped.
I took short steps around the corner until I could no longer see him, then I picked up my pace. He followed me and did the same. I stopped. He stopped. I scanned the bushes, unsure of what he would do if I darted off the trail into the thick brush but I had a feeling he would have an easier time of powering through the bushes that I would. I tried to think of what he would find more threatening – me stopping or me trying to leave him alone.
I continued to take tiny steps around another big corner, and I couldn’t hear him or see him anymore, so I sprinted to the next corner. I stopped and listened. I could barely hear him but I knew he was continuing to walk towards me, and quickly, so I walked backwards and continued to make sure he wasn’t catching up to me. I had recently passed a group of four hikers so I knew that I at least would have people to cross paths with soon. Either I would get to warn them about this big guy or they would find my body. I would later learn, through some thorough research on the Parks Canada website, that if you get super close to a bison when their escape routes are limited they are more likely to charge. Parks Canada recommends at least 100m (330ft) between you and a bison… so, like, not 20ft?
Once it had been a minute (or hours, I’m not really sure at this point, I think my adrenaline was pumping so hard at this point that it made seconds feel like hours) and I hadn’t heard or seen him, I sprinted as hard as I could away and back towards the trailhead. I did pass the group of four fairly soon after I sprinted away so I made sure to warn them, and everyone else, that there was a bison on this trail, and last I saw he was walking in the direction of the trailhead.
Evidently one of the scariest experiences of my life. While bison are pretty docile animals and will generally just wander the Park eating and sleeping, I definitely put him in a situation in which both of our survival instincts kicked in. He had some crazy trail runner storming around the corner towards him, with no escape route, thick foliage on either side of the trail, and run up super close to him. His instinct was to threaten me with his aggression, back me off the trail, and if I made a wrong move or continued to threaten him in any way – charge me. I encountered a large animal, scaring me, and my instinct was to calmly diffuse the situation, and get away back towards the trailhead when possible. Nature.
The funny thing is, I knew that I shouldn’t be at the Park alone this weekend. I actually went there with my brother because I didn’t want to be on the trails alone and while my brother decided to take photographs and wander the shorter trails, I decided to take off and run… but whenever possible, I highly recommend being with someone else out there. I ran back to the trailhead and ended up running a couple of small, more popular loops, to get in my 10.5 miles. Bears, bison, and all. It definitely gave my autonomic nervous system a test run for my fear response and it led me to brush up on my wildlife safety tips. What would an adventurous weekend be without a little excitement?
Have you ever run into wildlife on the trails?
What is the scariest brush with wildlife you’ve ever had?
What was the most exciting part of YOUR weekend?