I’m done believing all my near-death experiences are crazy coincidences. As the collection grew (grows?!), I was (am?!) forced to acknowledge that this is a pattern. And that said pattern probably reveals some uncomfortable truths about me.
But at the tender age of 18, I was an enthusiastic fool who saw herself as a bold, brave adventurer. I’d sweet-talked myself into a job as a rafting guide, despite having zero river experience. On my days off, I wrangled the other kids also working for Yellowstone National Park concessionaires to go on wilderness trips with me. Most of them were east-coast softies. I had a lot of pride about being a rough-and-tumble Wyoming kid, leading the charge into my home backcountry.
On this particular day, I’d chosen Wolf Lake as our destination, known for being less popular than surrounding lakes due to its relative isolation. I cheerfully drug David and Adam up and over dozens of trees in a massive burn area. After 3.5 very hard-won miles, we reached the pristine lake without ever encountering another soul. The boys were exhausted and declared the present moment nap time. Despite my cajoling, they had no interest in exploring the shoreline with me. Well, fine then. I don’t need you to adventure. I’ll just have a super-cool experience without you city-slicker softies. So there.
Every once in awhile I’d scan the shoreline – first behind and then across from me – to keep oriented to my companions. As I passed the halfway mark, my steps slowed. I wasn’t ready for the adventure to be over. At the lake’s outlet, I removed my shoes to cross the marshy swath. A few steps into the swamp, a frog hopped in front of me. My heart soared. I love amphibians. They’re so stinking cute! My favorite animal in the world is a rough-skinned newt.
A new adventure! I returned to the shore, dropped my shoes, and waded back in on a quest to hold cute, momentarily-captured frogs. I’d follow one hopping creature, quickly scoop it up, look at its cute little head and its cute little body and its cute little eyes for a little while, let it go, catch another frog, repeat.
As I stalked froggy #4 through the knee-deep water, I suddenly had a weird feeling. I stood up, looked around, and discovered I wasn’t the only one doing some stalking. I laid eyes on three wolves standing as far from me as fellow pedestrians on the other side of a crosswalk.
I gulped. I did a rapid-fire analysis that ended in one conclusion: I was a sitting duck. Barefoot. No gear. No rocks or sticks within reach or even remotely nearby. One against three. And if we’re going by strength, really one against six. My shoes were on the bank between me and the animals. The wolves stood watching me. I felt like I had to try something, attempt to level the playing field mentally, if nothing else. I calmly shouted out the corner of my mouth across the lake, knowing there was little chance my voice would reach the ears of the two east coast boys asleep on the shore. “Hey guys. There are some wolves over here. They’re, um, really cool. You should, uh, come check them out.” Gulp.
The wolves cocked their heads. Maybe it’s good I didn’t know then that eye contact with a predator can be seen as a threat. The message in my eyes was two parts adrenaline-fueled-curiosity about my impending death by razor sharp teeth and broken neck and one part disappointment mixed with fear. “Aw, man. Really? I’m going to die because my companions wanted to take a nap and I wanted to keep exploring?“
Then the alpha looked back at its underlings. Looked at me. Looked back at them. Looked at me again… and made the same decision I’d been making with the frogs. Let her go.
I watched the three powerful carnivores trot up the rise and disappear, then nervously eyed the horizon as I moved toward my shoes. “Please God don’t let them turn back,” I thought, as I snatched my Chaco sandals off the bank and beat a hasty retreat.
I arrived back at the nap spot breathless, adrenaline still coursing through my veins. No, the boys hadn’t heard me. No they didn’t see the wolves. Yes, they were sad they’d missed the action. Yes, they saw the error of their nap-taking ways. (Okay, I made up that last one.)
I’d like to say I never hiked alone in the wilderness ever again, but I’d be lying. I think I gained a sense of my smallness – my irrelevance in the grand scheme of things – that day. I felt a tiny bit less fearless, a small chip out of my enormous teenage ego that would be (is?!) years in the dissembling.
If you need a hiking buddy, you know where to find me. And I’ll try not to get you killed.
Happy Hiking! ♣