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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tensions on the trails

Today, my mountain bike ride wasn't blissful and relaxing. Darker days on my bike are rare - I always think that a day with a bike ride is inevitably better than a day without a ride. My spine certainly agrees with that motto.

Things went awry from the start. While I ate breakfast, to my dismay, my neighbor's dog sprinted onto our property, galloping and happy, as he's done regularly since he was born six years ago. The problem is that he's in danger when he's running loose (he lives a half mile away, across a fast road), and I have a deep-seated inability to ignore a dog in danger. So, I phoned the family who said that they'd be "right over". Well, "right over" seemed to take a very long time for rambunctious R and K who wanted to go for a mountain bike ride "right now".

Finally, with our neighbor dog safely heading home in his SUV, the pups and I rolled out onto the trails. It was much later than usual, and we immediately ran into the 8-strong off-leash pack of dogs and their human who scare R out of his wits. Surprisingly, the usually timid K has reached a truce with them over the years and used her usual strategies of ignoring the small dogs and appeasing the huge shepherds today. As a puppy, R took one look at the pack and turned tail to sprint home. In recent months, his strategy has been to hover under my bike, trying to become invisible. As you see, I'm being literal when I say "under my bike".But, the insistent little dogs won't leave him peace so he often gets drawn out of hiding.The big dogs act as the enforcers, and if one of the 'Littles' becomes scared, a big dog appears out of nowhere to protect the little one.

We met them one day earlier this week, and R took a new strategy. He snarled and snapped at the little dogs which, of course, attracted the attention of the big dogs and made R even more scared. His defensive behavior isn't too surprising given how they swarm all over him while barking wildly - but it's not a strategy that I want him to espouse.

Today, I stopped at a distance and shouted a request that my neighbor control her rowdiest canines. While she did that, I placed my bike as a barrier for R and had him sit next to me. As they approached and while we humans chatted, I tried to give R treats to make him associate this pack with something, anything, good! At first, he refused the treats but I asked the woman to stay with me while I worked with him because the encounter was, unlike usual, under control. Eventually, he cautiously accepted a treat, and after five minutes, he was taking them with a modicum of enthusiasm. The pack departed without incident, much to my relief. I don't want R 'practicing' aggression as a solution to fear.

Shortly after the pack ran off, R got the 'zoomies' - tucking his rump and streaking in circles. I think that he was releasing his pent-up tension as we rode up to our favorite lookout point.
Then, as I rolled along with my pups and tried to chill out, I discovered that someone is attempting to shut down my favorite trail that I've ridden for ten years. I sighed deeply and felt deflated beyond words. Why can't we share the woods in peace?

After I dropped the pups off at home, I pedaled off, trying to reconfigure my planned route given the blockage of my favorite trail. I headed through a heavily used open space and found an abandoned party sight. Garbage was strewn everywhere, and worst of all, a campfire flamed. I couldn't stop the flames by myself, and my cell phone didn't work. So, I headed out to a 4WD road and flagged down some ATVers, asking if they had a working cell phone. Their phones didn't work either but they offered to try to put it out.

I led them through the forest to the fire, and indeed, these guys did a good job of drowning and suffocating the fire. However, as we worked, I became unnerved by their roving and lascivious eyes. I was being checked out and in an open and almost aggressive way. I always carry a large can of pepper spray on my Camelbak hip belt, and I noticed the instant when the most worrisome guy spotted the pepper spray. I was so glad that I had it with me. In the end, the guys politely said goodbye, and that was it. Perhaps I overreacted and saw danger where none lurked. But, something about their mannerisms, despite their caring act of putting out the fire, definitely unnerved me.

Moreover, although the campfire was doused, I had no drinking water for the rest of my ride because I'd used it all to douse the fire. It was not my day.

I always gravitate toward the more remote forest when I feel unsettled because its peacefulness permeates my soul. So, I climbed up a steep and very rarely traveled trail toward a meadow frequented by elk in the winter. Indeed, the meadow and forest threaten to reclaim the trail with each passing year because so few humans visit this quiet spot. I whooshed through golden grass taller than me and entered the forest on an off-camber trail paralleling a gulch and creek. It was tough riding - loose gravel, steep uphill, and a sideways slope tending to make me slide into the creek.

As I focused all my mental and physical energy on staying upright, I noticed a huge gray scat with obvious fur and bone pieces in it. I kept pedaling but reminded myself to be on the lookout for lions. But, to my astonishment, another equally impressive scat appeared on the trail in front of my tires almost immediately. In fact, within 30 yards, I saw four mountain lion scats - and two piles looked quite fresh.

I stopped my bike and scanned the forest that leaned over the trail and threatened to engulf it. I peered down into the gulch, and I thought that it looked like a beautiful moist oasis. I took a photo of the tall yellow cone flowers and a box elder sapling down in the gulch.I'd intended to take a photo of the lion scat. But, at just about that instant, I smelled rotting animal flesh, and my mind flashed to the possibility that a mountain lion kill was stashed down in the gulch, very nearby. If I'd been unnerved earlier by the ATVers, the only word for the surge of adrenaline that coursed like hot lava through my veins is 'unhinged'. I started backing away, walking my bike warily for a few minutes while constantly scanning every direction. But, I knew that I wouldn't be able to pick out a lion or even bigfoot from this forest - the foliage was too thick. Finally, I convinced myself that the lion wasn't actually following me, and I remounted my bike. Whew. This ride was definitely not relaxing.

After heading back down to more heavily traveled routes that were eerily devoid of people today, I found a humongous black bear scat - full of berry seeds - in almost exactly the spot where I saw a sow and yearling back in May. I would've enjoyed seeing a bear so I scanned the forests and meadows as I spun uphill with much higher spirits. As I rode, I realized what an oddball I am - black bear scat lifts my spirits!I decided to try a short detour, on trails that I don't know well, on my way home. I rode some sweet pine-needle cushioned trails that I haven't visited in years and started to feel as if my world was returning to an even camber. I even found a new route home - not a bad accomplishment for how many years I've spent roaming these forests.

Then, of course, the sweet and relaxed faces of my Labs met me at home. That never fails to cheer me!


  1. Sorry that your ride was a bit tense. I know how disappointing that can be when the point of the ride is to enjoy, relax, spend some time with your animals, take in the scenery, and work the kinks out of your mind and body. It's especially frustrating when other humans don't show nature the same appreciation and respect that you do. But as you say, the sight of your pups snoozing peacefully puts it all in perspective.

  2. simply beautifully captured shots...lovely!

  3. wow, you got my adrenaline going! i have learned to trust my intuition! like you! i'm still a little unnerved after reading your post.....
    little dogs can be a pain on walks if not controlled, they try to, and do act so tough....
    my heart is still thumpin...
    oh, i have been thinking about the thyroid, behavior issue...talked to a couple vets, they haven't really seen the behavior thing as much, or should i say hear about it from owners.....but, you are soooo in tune with yours that it has made me wonder about my hypothyroid guy benny....every now and then he eats weird things...a ponytail holder, part of a dog bed, a top to a water bottle..and yesterday someone ate the toilet paper roll right off the holder...had to be benny...and he is acting much more needy....anyway, i will get his thyroid levels tested this week, thanks to you!

  4. Yikes - sorry for all the tension on your ride! Is there any way that you can arrange something with your neighbor with the 8-pack to have R meet/make friends with her dogs one or two at a time?

    And about the creepy ATV guys... I have a book recommendation for you: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. It's a book everyone should read - about how it is so important to listen to your intuition. I'm probably not making it sounds very interesting, but it is one of the most riveting books I have ever read.

  5. Whew! Don't do that to me! I thought the guys would be the worst, but thinking a lion was in your vicinity gave me the shivers! Take Care, KB! One of the trails I've been using for 20 years has also been restricted by the owner who was actually sued by someone crossing his land. He apologized to me for doing it, but said his lawyer told him he needed to post it for his own protection. Can't believe people can't take responsibility for their own mistakes.

  6. Mary - I agree that it stinks when it's humans that make the woods less fun!

    Flyingstars: Thank you!

    KKS: I think that Jean Dodds is the authority on the thyroid-behavior link. When I first read her stuff, I thought that she was a little extreme but my vet agrees with her about a lot of things. I'll try to find a good web link for you.

    Dog_Geek: If only my mountain neighbors were so enlightened. I asked, years ago, if K could meet her dogs individually, and she basically laughed at me. However, she definitely has been somewhat persuaded about modern training methods by watching K and me (and sometimes asks for my training advice). Maybe I'll get my nerve up to ask again for R. Also, thanks for the book reco. I'll check it out.

    Barb: You guessed right about what's going on here. Except in our case, a real estate mogul bought several hundred acres, and doesn't even live here... and now has guards marching around on his land. How I wish that people like that wouldn't buy land up here! But, I think that I can reroute the trail to skirt his land so we'll still be able to use it. Funny that you've run into the same thing!

  7. We share your enthusiasm about seeing bear scat, so I guess we are equally weird.


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