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What's the wildest encounter you've had with an animal in the outdoors?

When I was just getting into backpacking, a couple other leaders of our youth group and I took a group of teenagers on their first trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, in Oregon (highly recommend!). It was a very hot and dry day of significant mileage and uphill, so we were all very sweaty when we rolled into our first camp of the trip. Because it was summer and we didn’t know any better, we were all wearing cotton and were understandably soaked with sweat from the grueling hike.

After getting the tents pitched and camp set, we had all changed into dry clothes and were wondering what the best way to dry out our clothes from the day. There was a huge downed pine tree by our campsite that had branches with no needles going every which way. It made for a super convenient place to hang all of our sweaty clothes to dry in the sun. I don’t remember if we forgot they were there or intentionally left them out to continue drying, but we left the clothes hanging from the tree and went to bed.

At about 2am, on a moonless night, we were awakened by the sounds of what seemed like hundreds of branches snapping and breaking. It sounded like every animal in a 1000 mile radius was outside our tents and destroying the forest. As someone who is irrationally afraid of animals in the dark, I was barely able to get out of my sleeping bag and tent armed with a headlamp, a half full water bottle, and whatever minimal courage I could muster in my exhausted brain.

I switched on my headlamp and mistakenly hit the ‘flood’ option instead of ‘beam’, which only provided enough light to see beyond the tents for about 10 feet. Everything beyond that was dark save for 30 pairs of eyes that reflected back to me from outside the light radius. My tired brain immediately thought we had been invaded by the loudest and least stealthy pack of cougars of all time. It was the only time I ever swore out loud in front my youth group.

Fortunately, before I tried to fight off a massive pack of cougars with a Nalgene bottle, another adult had gotten their flashlight going and shined the beam to reveal a herd of elk that had come into our campsite. Drawn by our sweaty clothes, which were now dangling from their mouths, they stared at us incredulously for interrupting their enjoyment of their salt-soaked treats. We hollered at them and they dropped our clothes and thundered off into the night.

My heartrate didn’t allow me to sleep for the rest of the night, but the kids had a great trip and really enjoyed showing off their chewed up clothes to their friends and parents!

What is the wildest encounter you’ve had with an animal in the backcountry? Tell us about it in the comments!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.
15 Replies

Photos are over rated Rob6.  As Annie Dillard wrote, "Beauty and Grace are performed whether we will or sense them. The best we can do is try to be there."  You were there.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Very good point @TomIrvine !  Thank you!

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Bears. I've had several encounters.  The first was way back in the early 1960's.  My parents, brother and tiny little sister loaded up an old Shasta trailer.  (An Airstream knockoff, I think).  Ended up in Yellowstone, and met my maternal grandmother and grandfather, who'd flown down from Alaska (!) to meet us.  We had a wonderful time there.  Stayed at one of the park campgrounds, not sure which one.  No hookups, so we used the bathhouses.  They were had for us little kids to get into.  Had lots of bear scares.  Every night, several times a night, someone would yell "Bear, bear, bear!".  We never saw one, and soon came to ignore the hollering. 

Not that there weren't bears around.  A little guy came by each night after we were all crammed into the little trailer, to try and open the trash bins.  They were underground then, with heavy iron lids latched down.  My grandmother and dad stayed up late one night to get a picture of him.  They heard the clanking, opened the door, and Dad stepped out with the camera.  NOT the little bear!  And he was stunned at what was happening, so he stood up on his hind legs to see what was happening.  Dad's trying to back up into the trailer, Grandma's pushing him back out yelling "get the picture!!", and the bear is wondering "wtf??"!  No one got hurt or even really threatened.  Oh, and no picture was taken.  😀

Mentioned the bathhouses.  No hookups, so we used them a lot.  My brother and I had the duty of escorting Grandma to and fro;  that was our time.  I think I was seven, my brother 18 months younger.  One of the reasons we couldn't get the doors open easily.  Took both of us to open it.  Being young boys, we finished much sooner than she did, so we just waited outside until she finished.  One night, we heard the "bear, bear, bear!" hollering again.  Shrugged it off, since we hadn't seen one in the campground.  (Slept through the Dad and grandma encounter!)

Suddenly, out of the gloom and ambling into the light, directly toward us was a BEAR.  A real one.  A BIG real one!  We briefly discussed what to do.  I thing a close approximation was "Ahh, er, uh, GO" as we ran back into the bathhouse.  That heavy door didn't present a problem, for some reason.

We were leaning back against the door, trying to remember how to breath, when suddenly,


We hit it with everything we had.  There was a thump, and a man's voice using the same sort of words Dad used working on the car, the ones we pretended not to know.  Looked out, and there was some fella lying on the ground.  Turns out he'd seen everything that happened, including the bear taking off back into the woods, and wanted to let us know everything was all right.

Another adventure.  Section hiking the Appalachian Trail, from Woody Gap to Unicoi Gap, back in 1998.  Drove up from Florida, packed up, and started hiking in.  An hour or so in, heard a loud crashing of underbrush just in front of me.  Took a second to identify the big brown thing crashing through the brush off the trail.  South end of a fast moving Northbound black bear.  I was shocked;  didn't realize at that time that bears were common enough to be something of a nuisance.  Too stunned to even be scared, until it was too late and it was ridiculous to be so.  Huh.  Stood for a second, and marched on.  Again, no picture. 

Should mention we were in a serious drought.  Drought of record, in fact.  One of my jobs back then was monitoring the federal drought reports and correlating them with Florida's records.  That's how I know it was the worst drought on record.  I earned my trail name, which I use here, on that trip, since the remnants of a tropical storm slowly crossed over where I was hiking.  Rained almost day and night the whole time I was out there.  Naturally.

The second night, since it was pouring and I was soaked, I decided to stay at Whitney Gap Shelter. It had a reliable spring as well as a place out of the rain.  Only water I'd seen all day came out of the sky. The shelter is 1.2 miles off the trail, over a mountain, after a steep climb, at the end of the day.  I was beat!  Finally got there, shortly before dark.  Thick, heavy fog closed in.  I was reading by headlight, and could see fog tendrils floating between the light and book.  Couldn't see anything.  The shelter log mentioned a problem bear.  Fearless, he'd come into the shelter to steal food.  Did I mention I was the only one silly enough to go that far off the trail for water and shelter.  Fretted for quite a while until I figured out no bear in it's right mind would be out on such a nasty night.  Only idiot humans like me.  So, one of the scariest bear encounters was the bear that wasn't there.

Retired medical technologist and engineer
REI member since 1978
Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
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These are some great tales! At least the fella lying on the ground was trying to tell you everything was all clear and not urgently needing to use the facilities! Thanks for sharing!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

I was co-leading some teenagers on a multi-day canoe trip on the Delaware River through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area back in 1983. My co leader Margaret and I were in the same canoe one day. As we paddled down stream we noticed a bird flapping its wings mid air over the water a few yards from shore but going no where. As we got closer, we realized the Cooper's Hawk had become entangled on a fishing hook suspended from a fishing line hanging from a tree branch out over the river.

Margaret steadied the canoe as I stood up in it. I reached up as high as I could and pulled the line down as low as I could before cutting it about a foot above the hawk. Margaret then paddled over to shore where we climbed out onto the bank with the hawk, still hanging by its wing.

While I held the hawk by the line, Margaret emptied a small stuff sack and put the sack over the hawk's head. She then firmly cradled the bird in her hands and softly sang to it as I used my Swiss Army knife to carefully cut the three barbed hook and line from out of the crook of the Hawk's wing.

After I removed the hook, Margaret sat the hawk down on the bank and removed the stuff sack. The Hawk then stood up straight, puffed out its chest, and pulled back its wings as if enjoying its freedom. I don't remember how long it all took, but it seemed like a half hour or so.

We had no idea how long the hawk had been suspended mid-air over the river by its wing, nor do we know what eventually happened to this beautiful creature, but we both felt intense satisfaction for having freed it from its predicament. Thirty-seven years later, I still recall it as one of the most intense, transcendental wilderness encounters I have ever experienced.

aka "Boonerelli"

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Wow. Just wow! Thank you for sharing!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.