Early morning cobwebs were stretched across the narrow path, these grabbed at my face and neck as I pushed through the bushes. My feet crunched on the loose stone of the path. My noise disturbed a large stag grazing in the bushes and I held my breath as the sudden movement of antlers turning caught my eye on the path ahead. His head high and alert. His body poised and ready. We stood, eye to eye for several seconds and I became acutely aware of how loud my breathing was in the demanding silence. His short, visible breaths marked the seconds between us before he stepped, with a flash of taut muscle and quivering head, quickly to the side, moving with the grace of a dancer, repositioning on our stage, then pausing, watching intently to read my next move.
The ridges and trees stretched to a distant horizon. It was hard to estimate but it seemed as if I could see for a hundred miles in the clear morning air. The sun was already strong but I felt good to do another long day. Seeing the stag had been exhilarating and I was feeling like I’d found my rhythm again, comfortable moving through the woods and hills alone. Windfarms punctuated the horizon and I could trace a feint outline of my path far into the distance where it appeared to meet the clear blue sky. Sharp shrubs reached and jabbed at my legs, fine red scratches appearing to record my progress like contours on a map. My steps kicked up a fine dust, yellow that morning unlike the desert reds of last night. Ground squirrels chirped angrily and darted away from the path as I passed by. Deep green waxy bush leaves appeared to unfold in the sunlight, turning their pale undersides away from the strong morning sunlight. As I climbed higher the views appeared to unfold gradually, the sun penetrating the valleys and hidden places.
By late morning I was seeking out Deer Creek Spring. As I approached the area I found myself holding my breath, listening hard for the trickle of water with anticipation. On occasion creeks would be dry and the consequent dry miles would be hard. On this occasion however the magical sound of trickling water was like a small celebration of the life-sustaining power that it brings and I could drink readily, as much as I could take.
Four o’clock came around quickly and I was up, packed and on the track. I am not normally one to leap out of bed, full of joy, in the early hours of the morning as Lisa will attest. However the thrill of moving swiftly through the darkness in remote and wild country was energising and I found myself breaking from a quickstep into a jog over the four miles downhill to the river. I crossed it quickly by an old wooden bridge and I recall wondering whether there was any risk that my speed could trigger the predatory instincts of a bear in the vicinity. I knew that there was one. A fellow brit hiker who I’d run into a number of times over the course of the hike, had messaged two days before to let me know she’d run into a bear at this spot. She’d been resting and eating lunch with her hiking partner when this bear had boldly strolled in and over the bridge to check them out.
Quickly dismissing the thought. I continued ahead and commenced the long climb over the last big ridge I faced before I would reach the trailhead.
It was barely 6am when I rounded a corner, the early sun was just starting to stream through the trees. I stopped suddenly as ahead of me on the track was something I had not expected to see on this trip, a North American badger. It looked at me for moment, seemingly unconcerned, then turned to head off up the track. Surprised and enthralled I grappled for my camera while following it, keeping pace as best I could. As I pursued this badger along the track it paused twice turning back to look at me.
I should have taken this as a sign and noted that it was opting to leave, not fleeing afraid. After a thirty yards or so it stepped off the track and into the scrub on the right of the path. However with two crossed fallen logs blocking it’s path it suddenly and unexpectedly found itself cornered. Or rather, in my keeness to secure a good photo I had unwittingly cornered it and reduced its fight or flight options to one. I knew immediately this was the wrong thing to have done. Somewhere in my sub-concious mind I knew this was a dangerous animal. Sometimes baited by unscrupulous hunters, badgers were capable of taking on the most vicious of fighting dogs and winning, but here I was not two metres from a fully grown, beautiful North American badger, surely one more photo wouldn’t hurt, so I carefully raised my camera..
The speed and ferocity with which it launched its attack was simultaneously both shocking and awe-inspiring. It let out a petrifying snarl, snapped out two inch claws like a scene from Edward Scissorhands and launched itself at me. Despite my thirty pound pack I erupted upwards and backwards, somehow tuning in midair and literally landed already running. I did not turn or slow for over one hundred yards, but I had the distinct sense that in that first yard or two it narrowly missed my heels. Now I can hear half of you out there already reminding me that when faced with a dangerous animal we’re supposed to not make eye-contact, keep calm and back away slowly. Well, I can now speak from experience: all of that goes out of the window. Fear takes over and I can assure you, the only way to go is to run like hell, screaming like a schoolgirl on a ghost train! OK, so that’s how I remember it anyway. Knowing I had no choice but to go back up the track to continue my hike I decided I had a sudden interest in the unusual looking trees high on the ridge, and took a wide detour to examine them.
The excitement for the morning didn’t end there. As I summited the ridge, now firmly back on track and breathing normally again, I became aware of noise ahead. It was barely seven in the morning but it appeared that loggers were already hard at work just off the trail to the right. Diesel smoke and the roar of big machinery filled the air. I didn’t worry about this as I’d passed through logging operations close to the trail several times. There was always clear signage and a safe working distance in operation. I was confident I’d not seen any sign so I continued. I was concentrating on calculating the distance to the trailhead when suddenly a deafening crashing sound erupted just ahead around the corner. I cautiously rounded some rocks to find the dust barely settling around a huge spruce tree freshly downed.. directly across the trail! I said a little thank you in my mind to that badger for delaying me on the trail. Had I been just a little earlier I may not have been writing this.
It was all downhill from there onward to the trailhead. I buzzing from all the excitement of the morning and with my ipod blasting Iron Maiden into my ears, and ignoring the pain in my feet, I ran down that hill feeling more alive than I had in a long time. I reached the road by ten thirty, completing my self-imposed eighty-five mile challenge in just two and a quarter days. My feet would take at least a week to forgive me but what the hell, I’d had a couple of days I wouldn’t forget in a long while.