Top 10 Most Memorable Wildlife Encounters

I absolutely love nature, and some of my favorite times in nature are when I actually come in contact with wildlife.  Here is a list of my top 10 most memorable wildlife encounters, sort of in descending order.

1.  A few years ago I had some interest in “high points,” the highest points of elevation in a defined area like a county, state or country.  There are some people who make it their goal to hike to the high point in all 50 states, easy to do in the east but not so easy in the western mountains.  After a bit of research I found there are three places in Shelby County, TN, the county in which I live, that all have an elevation of 410′, the high point for this county.  Just for kicks I decided to set foot on each of them.  One was in a person’s front yard on the northern boundary of the county, so I drove by and called that a success.  The second was in an area in the far southeastern corner of the county that was being excavated for a new highway.  That was an easy achievement.  The last was in the middle of a farmer’s field where Macon Road meets the Fayette county line.  It was a cool November morning and I was meeting some friends for a hike around Herb Parsons Lake nearby the high point so I set out a little early.  I drove as close as I could get and set out through some woods towards the field.  As I emerged from the woods, I saw the field rise ahead of me to a slight mound in the middle, my target point.  To my amazement, standing at precisely that point was a good-sized 8 or 10 point buck staring right at me.  It was almost mystical, like he was there to welcome me to my destination.  We watched each other as I walked closer, until I got within 50 yards of him and he trotted off into the woods beyond the field.  As he ran off through the woods I could hear his rack banging against branches.  A very cool experience.

2.  I have always been drawn to bears.  It is a strange attraction: I am deathly scared of them.  A few years back I had a recurring dream that the family and I were hiking somewhere and we ran up on a bear who quickly killed me with a swipe of a claw.  Still, they are so big and strong.  I would love to sit and watch a bear in the wild for hours.  Two summers ago, the family took a trip to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and I hoped against hope that this would be my opportunity to finally see a bear in the wild.  We were in the park for four days, and on the second day it happened.  We were driving up to the Mammoth Hot Springs area, when we rounded a corner to see close to a hundred cars stopped all along the road.  In Yellowstone this means something interesting has been sighted so you stop and ask someone nearby what they see.  Three grizzlies, two adults and a cub, up near some trees on a hillside was the answer.  We had to use binoculars (a must if you ever visit YNP, and a scope is even better if you can afford it) to see them, but there they were.  Then we sighted a female elk nearby watching the bears as if alarmed.  She would walk around in wide circles as if she did not want to leave the area.  Someone nearby proposed that maybe the bears had come upon the mother’s newly born calf and were now preying upon it.  Naturally, the mother would not be quick to leave.  It was a good reminder that nature is truly wild.

3.  Later that same day in Yellowstone as we had circled south and were driving through the Tower area in the center of the park, we found another parking lot of cars on the side of the road.  There, 50 yards off the road was a young black bear plain as day.  It was foraging at the edge of the woods.  I know everyone says stay in your car when you come up to wildlife, but this was too much.  My youngest son and I were out quickly cameras in hand, but so were 100 other people.  We watched the bear for 5 minutes, taking a million pictures, then it turned right towards the cars and bounded towards the crowd.  Of course, people scattered, then the bear galloped between the cars crossing the road and ran off across a field.  It was as if we were nothing more than nuisance to that bear.

4.  On that same trip two summers ago, on our way to Yellowstone, we stopped at Rocky Mountain National Park outside of Denver.  Here you can drive high up into the mountains, such a stark contrast from the plains of Kansas, the state before.  This was the first point on our trip that we saw elk, though elk and bison are all over Yellowstone.  They are so massive and their rack of antlers are downright intimidating.  Literally, there was a small herd of female elk right inside the park gate.  About 500 yards further on there was a much larger mixed herd grazing near a small brook.  We snuck up to a crest right above them and watched them for several minutes.  It was another great experience, especially to watch how their muscles rippled as they walked.  Then, as we returned to the car we saw a coyote dart out from a bush on the other side of the road and go behind a tree.  As I started the car, another coyote ran across the area we had just been crouched watching the elk.  They were as interested in this herd as we were.

5.  The first time I realized that there is wildlife right in our own neighborhoods was around the age of 10 when I lived in a suburb of Toronto, Canada.  I was walking home from school one day when I spied a snowy owl sitting on the roof of the house at the top of the street on which I lived.  Neighborhood kids were congregating and cameras were out.  I ran home to get my mother’s camera and quickly clicked through the remainder of the roll.  I think my fascination with wildlife kicked into high gear that day.  Since then I have seen deer in the front yard of the house on Bainbridge Island near Seattle where I stayed during a summer in college while doing a ministry internship.  The school at which I teach is in the heart of Memphis, but we have a red-tailed hawk that lives in a large tree just south of our football field.  I have seen that same hawk swoop down into the courtyard of our school looking for chipmunks.  A year ago we had a mother fox who made a den near the creek that runs in front of our school and she had two pups.  They have since pressed on.  A month ago I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Little Rock when I looked out my side window to see a darkly colored hawk, maybe a Coopers Hawk, sitting twenty feet away on the wrought iron fence.  These encounters remind me that they were here before we were.

6.  When I was in my middle teen years, my father allowed me to join him an a group of his friends for a week-long canoe trip in the Moon River/Parry Sound area of Ontario.  We did that for three summers and my memories from those trips remain cherished ones.  The very first day we rowed out to a small island on one of the innumerable lakes we canoed through on those trips.  As we lay there that night in our tent trying to get to sleep we began to hear a pack of wolves howling at the moon that was large and bright that night.  I began to wonder whether wolves could swim, and where exactly my Dad had decided to bring me to die.  But a day of canoeing makes one tired, so sleep came easily nonetheless.  The next day, as we paddled into a new, small lake we came upon a moose body deep in the water feeding.  It was well across the lake and quickly walked up the bank and into the woods at our arrival.  As we came to the far side of the lake where the moose had been I was able to tell how amazingly huge moose truly are.  This one has been easily as big as a horse.  On the last of those three trips, I had an up-close-and-personal visit with a mouse.  I had left a bag of trail mix (“gorp,” my Dad called it) in my backpack in the tent, a huge no-no in the northern woods where mice and chipmunks are as plentiful as the blackflies.  It did not help that our tent snapped shut instead of having a zipper.  I remember waking to the feeling of something small in my sleeping bag scurrying across my legs.  I was up and out of that tent faster than any sixteen year old normally moves.  All of my tents since have had zippers.

7.  A few years ago I had been in eastern Tennessee speaking at a church camp and had half of a day to spend in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (one of my favorite places of all time) before heading home to Memphis.  I decided to hike into beautiful Abrams Falls from the back side of the park, not from Cades Cove like most people do.  That was a wonderful 11-mile hike up and down ridges and deep in the laurel thicketed valley where Abrams Creek runs.  This is bear country and I was hiking alone, so my senses were on high alert.  As the trail took me close to the bank of the creek, I heard something big coming fast towards me from my left down towards the creek.  I figured I was about to die in the jaws of black bear.  Instead out from the trees into the middle of the tail jumped a doe.  She seemed to be as surprised to see me as I was to see her.  She bounded three more times to the center of the shallow creek and turned to give me a hard stare.  We stood like that for several minutes.

8.  Back to Yellowstone.  We had been in the park for four days, in all parts of the park.  We decided to leave through Lamar Valley, the wildest part of the park and my favorite.  The two valleys in the park — Hayden and Lamar — are the best spots for wildlife spotting, so we had arisen early that morning hoping to see more wildlife as we drove out of the park.  We were about 20 miles from the park exit and, though we had seen an incredible number of animals including grizzlies, black bears, mule deer, elk, antelope, bison, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, coyotes, an otter, a bald eagle, and a badger, we had yet to see a wolf, moose or beaver.  Then off to the right about a quarter-mile off in a clearing we saw a female moose grazing.  After taking a few pictures we moved on.  Not a mile later we came upon a car-load of people taking pictures of a beaver feasting on willow branches not 10 feet from the road.  If wildlife is what you are after, Yellowstone in the summer will not disappoint.

9.  During our three-year stint in north Florida I had heard rumor of bald eagles along the St. John’s River but I had never seen one.  Osprey were well-known in the area, but I had been in the States now for eight years so it only seemed right to see the nation’s symbol.  One day at church a friend who lived on the river said a pair of bald eagles had taken up residence in one of his trees.  That afternoon I drove to the far extremities of Jacksonville and there they were.  I watched them for an hour as they made their nest.  Majestic!

10.  During the time my wife and I lived in Knoxville, TN my father and high-school aged brothers visited us on vacation.  One day, while my wife was at school, the group of us guys headed to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for the traditional motor tour of Clingsman Dome and Cades Cove.  While in the Cove, we stretched our legs for a few miles on the Rich Mountain Trail.  About a half-mile into the woods we came upon two bucks locked in battle pushing each other all over the forest floor.  It was late fall, so maybe they were in rut, vying for the right to mate with the does in the area.  It was such a violent sight.  They would drive away at each other, quite willing to stab the other with their antlers if necessary.  Fortunately that did not happen here, but it was quite a sight I will not soon forget.