I’ve had three encounters with the Wild Kingdom over the past few weeks and – considering the mayhem around our region this summer – I’m fortunate that none of them involved grizzly bears.
No, our encounters involved one moose, one noisy elk and one semihysterical coyote.
The first two took place high up the West Fork of the Bitterroot River in Montana. We were staying at our favorite rental cabin and enjoying four days of peace and tranquility.
Tranquility, however, does not exactly describe the scene one morning as we were fishing the river. My wife, Carol, and I were standing on the bank when suddenly our daughter, Kate, emerged from the streamside willows a little farther downstream.
She was waving her arms excitedly.
“She must have caught something,” I told Carol.
But then, inexplicably, she stepped right into the river – and not in a particularly slow or shallow part – and practically Olympic- race-walked straight through to the other bank. She stood, dripping, on the other side and pointed to the opposite bank.
A floppy-eared moose was standing there, watching her with an expression that said, “Stay over there and nobody gets hurt.”
A night or two later, we were sitting in our cabin, doing crossword puzzles (it’s a never- ending thrillfest when the Kershners go on vacation), when we heard an eerie, otherworldly moan from the meadow below our porch.
What was that?
“Just a squeaky barn door or something,” I said, authoritatively.
Yet the noise repeated, and then repeated again, closer. We went out on the porch and heard something crashing through the brush no more than 50 yards away. We could see nothing in the pitch-black meadow, but then I heard the noise again.
A bull elk was bugling in full September mode. Occasionally, another bull elk answered from a distant ridge. I don’t know how long they kept this up, but when I awoke briefly at 3:30 a.m., that elk was still bugling away.
(Nature note: “Bugling” is a dignified term for what actually sounds like a cross between a sumo wrestler’s grunt and a pig giving birth to a donkey).
My other Wild Kingdom encounter occurred right here, a mile or so from home, and it was undoubtedly the weirdest.
I was walking my dog Jack over the High Drive bluff, down toward the Creek at Qualchan Golf Course, when a coyote crossed the trail no more than 20 yards in front of us.
Nothing strange about that. We’ve seen coyotes down there before. But this coyote was different.
It didn’t skedaddle. This coyote just strolled nonchalantly into a clearing on the other side of the trail, and then stood there and watched us as we went past.
Jack ignored the coyote and we continued down the trail – until something made me look back. The coyote was following us. It was trotting down the trail, about 25 yards back.
“Say, Jack,” I said. “How about we get a move on?”
And then the coyote began barking. Then yipping. And then emitting a high-pitched coyote screech which made the hairs stand up on my neck. Jack looked at me inquiringly.
“Beats me,” I said.
That coyote followed us for 15 minutes. Occasionally, it would let loose with another yip-yip-yip SCREEEECH. At one point, I looked back and noticed with satisfaction that it was no longer on the trail behind us. Then I saw movement, and realized it had fanned out into the woods to our left. It was paralleling our route.
Only when we reached the end of a trail loop and changed direction did that coyote stand up on a ridge, give us one final caterwauling message and melt into the woods.
What was that message? Get outta my yard? Stay away from my pack? May I please eat your dog?
I have no idea. I’m just grateful that, considering our region’s record this summer, my Wild Kingdom encounters all proved to be Mild Kingdom.