As a runner, I once believed cars were my biggest predator. After tonight I’m not so sure.
The trail-head for tonight’s run is a scant three kilometres from my front door in Westwood Hills, a peaceful wooded subdivision on Halifax’s western edge.
I figured I was in good shape. I wore a reflective vest and a head lamp that cut a bright beam through the night. As cars approached on the main road, I stepped off onto the gravel verge.
The further back you venture into Westwood Hills, the quieter it becomes. The lots are larger, more spread out and the area opens onto a mix of woods and grassy areas. The pavement rolls and on a clear, cold evening it’s easy to fall into a reverie running along the back road.
My breath puffed small clouds in the night air and the spray of my sweat flew into the light of my head lamp and for a brief second looked like dust molecules swirling in the sun. I was lost between the steady tap of my foot falls and the anticipation of the trail run ahead. I savoured the solitude of running alone in the close night and let it lull me into a state of peace.
Just as I came to the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Wright Lake Run, a rustling sound drew my attention. Looking up, I saw – ahead of the sound almost – a silvery gray dog rushing at me. “Hey!” I yelled instinctively. The coyote veered off toward an open field of long grass, looking back at me as it plunged into the bushes beyond.
The incident took less than 30 seconds. Completely unnerved, I kept running, shining my head light into the bush. “You won’t get me,” I yelled. “You’re not going to get me.”
I said whatever came to mind just to make noise. Beyond my shouting, it was completely quiet on the road. And dark. And lonely. Houses were set back and spread out here and the side of the road offered scrubby wilderness more than any sort of suburban refuge.
I’ve seen plenty of wildlife on runs before. One time running rails to trails outside of Bridgewater, three deer burst across in front of me. Another time, on the same trail, but further out, I nearly stepped on a huge snapping turtle.
And I’ve encountered coyotes before as well, mostly out west, back when I used to mountain bike. They didn’t make me so nervous then.
This was different.
This one was nearly as large as me and headed straight for me. If I hadn’t made a sound, it might have tried its luck, although generally it’s unusual for a single coyote to try and take down a large animal; normally, they work in packs for that.
Coyotes are smart and, no pun intended, wily. They possess a keen sense of smell and sharp hearing. They arrived in the Maritimes in the 1970s, restlessly expanding their territory.
They are incredible runners. They can easily maintain 40 kilometres an hour, but can push that to 64 kilometres an hour, according to the Hinterland Who’s Who. The one I saw was motoring, effortlessly. After my start from the sight of the beast, that was my second reaction: awe at how fast and easily it was moving. I was a little jealous.
On that dark, isolated road I tried to recall how to repel a sudden animal attack. That’s not so easy when you’re startled. I made noise and shone my light into the bushes, hoping to intimidate the coyote. And kept running.
“If you encounter a coyote, slowly back away while remaining calm. Do not turn and run as this actually increases the likelihood that the animal may become aggressive.”
That’s what the Nova Scotia Government advises in the event of a coyote encounter. But then I did yell at it and tried to make my five-foot, three-inch frame look as large as possible.
Good luck with that.
The fact is, coyotes aren’t scared of us any more. Our garbage, small pets and even ourselves are a source of food for them. What’s really fascinating about this is researchers believe that coyotes learn from each respective generation, so they’re actually teaching their off-spring that humans aren’t to be feared.
The death of Taylor Luciow, 19, in October 2009 is a remarkable story. Two coyotes attacked the Toronto folk singer while she hiked the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton. What’s astonishing about this tragedy is that wildlife biologists report that since her death the coyotes are even more aggressive.
Now, according to a recent story in Halifax Chronicle Herald, biologists are looking at reintroducing a fear of humans to coyotes. Apparently, the plan is to capture some of the older animals and through touch and noise give them reason to skirt humans, a trait they’ll pass down to the younger generations.
Derek Quann, Parks Canada’s resource conservation manager at Cape Breton Highlands National Park, doesn’t advocate killing the animals off, according to the Chronicle-Herald’s story (http://bit.ly/RYGSy6).
“They should coexist peacefully with us,” he said. “They should be present but elusive, leave their droppings, paw prints, perhaps scratches on a tree, and we should be able to hear them yelp and howl in the distance while we sit around the campfire.”
I love wildlife, just not so much when they stalk me. But then I guess it’s like the classic quote: ” Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
At the end of the day, the coyote didn’t take me down. Likely we both had a thrill. I love wildlife and hope to see it thrive. In this case, it’s hard to tell who’s encroaching on whom. Our subdivisions are spreading, but coyotes are a recent addition to Nova Scotia’s landscape.
Let’s call it even: we were both running.