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Opening the Trap

There are things to fear at the edge of the forest. A man on the road told RK to carry a pistol on dog walks in case of coyotes, bobcats, and cougars. A woman screamed when Mack startled her on the trail, she said she thought he was a bear. And, I’ve been told, you have to watch out for unsavory characters.

Our neighbors, usually reticent at best, have been all a-buzz about a recent cougar sighting just down the block. The state wildlife officers were called, there are reports of tracks and deer carcasses. Mack and Emma have been scavenging dead deer since we moved in, so that’s not new, and none of them have been buried, so I suspect coyotes. I know cougars are out there whether we see them or not, this guy was just lucky to get a glimpse.

Mack on the trail
Not finding cougars.

Not that I wasn’t a little nervous on the trail. I scanned the trees for lounging cats ready to pounce and kept Mack close. Really, though, nothing felt different. He was not spooked, I didn’t get any tingles or shivers. We investigated some small coyote tracks, concentrated on not slipping on lightly dusted glare ice, appreciated the extra minutes of daylight, did our run without wild animal sitings. I imagine a cougar prefers her solitude and makes her rounds in the dark before the dogs and mountain bikes show up.

Since then a storm dropped three feet of snow that quickly set into a crotch-deep mash. Rather than post-holing on the trail, I went for a run on a nearby dirt road that goes into the woods. Trucks had been through, packing down two runable parallel tracks. McDonald’s wrappers, empty motor oil bottles, and other trash had been tossed out into the snow. There were a couple of cars parked where the plow turned around, but the road was otherwise quiet.

About a half mile in, a super-sized pickup was stopped on the road, filling the width between snowbanks, and it took me a second to realize it was loaded with men and boys out for some redneck sledding. Two tweener boys (who didn’t look that happy, honestly) were being towed behind the rear wheels on plastic storage container lids (making the tracks nice and wide for running — thanks guys!). I waded around them, and ran on.

Snow on junipersI ran past trailheads and trail crossings, only recognizable by the tops of fiberglass markers and slight dips in the height of the snow. There were deer tracks and some spots where drivers had trudged a few feet to grab branches off ponderosas to use as traction on the road. The packed wheel tracks narrowed and became uneven and unpredictable. Soon I was following the track of a fat bike that had been on the road recently. My ankles were brushing snow into my shoes. I stopped and listened.

Birds, that was all. No shooting on the buttes, no engine noise from trucks, no voices. I stopped again. Still nothing… and yet. I started to push on (“just a half mile more”) and as I approached the crest of the hill, not even waiting to reach it, I turned around. Snow running is hard work, truly, with uneven and unpredictable surfaces, sliding, stabilizing, and moving in low-contrast light. It was a hard effort, but as I looked out across the heavy blanket of snow all around, and the dwindling trail ahead, the truth was I felt trapped on that road.

After a couple of minutes, I saw the truck again, pulling the boys back up the track. The crew was spilling out into the slightly wide spot where I realized they must have turned around before. I live in Central Oregon, weed is legal, Carhartt’s are standard clothing, trucks are the vehicles of choice. Probably these weren’t unsavory characters, but they were a truckload of dudes filling the narrow space between snowbanks. We said hello again. I stepped quickly through them and ran too fast the remaining mile or so to the pavement, punching through the crust and rolling my ankles.

The beautiful woods in winter.
The beautiful woods in winter.

I slowed just before the pavement and noticed the connector trail behind the neighborhood had been traveled by snowshoers. The trouble with snowshoes is they float over the snow and don’t really pack it enough for running. Still, punching through snow on a trail is better than icy pavement.

Soon, the snowshoe tracks stopped and I was following deep boot prints. I stopped again to listen and survey the waist-high blanket of snow. Birds singing, the snow as untracked and immovable as the rest of the forest. I pushed on, post-holing and trudging and the trail felt like home.

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