Thursday, October 29, 2009

the walk in the woods

I was waiting in line yesterday for the H1N1 flu shot. It was a beautiful sunny day, the wind was brisk but the sky was blue and true behind the golden yellow trees.

"Did you hear about that girl that was attacked by the coyotes?" The man in front of me turned around to make conversation. It was, after all, 11 am and the clinic wouldn't open until 12. Not to mention there were sixty people ahead of us already.

I must have wrinkled my brow in confusion. I had definitely NOT heard about a girl being attacked by coyotes.

"Up in the highlands," he said. "On that Skyline trail. They flew her to Halifax, and apparently she passed away this morning."

Now, the Skyline trail is probably THE most well-travelled hiking trail in the Cape Breton Highlands. It's mostly flat, wheelchair accessible, and it takes you right out onto a gorgeous and dramatic ridge, where you look out over the highland plateau, the ocean and down the shore to Cheticamp. Also, there is a very good chance that you will see a moose up close - they are thick in those parts of the park. Because of its accessibility and popularity, until this moment, I had not really considered this hiking trail as actual WILDERNESS.

After all, I was there myself only a month ago. By myself, like this girl was. And on the hike in and back out again, I passed people every two minutes or so. Even in the fall, this is a well-travelled hike.

As we waited in line for the flu shot, the air cool but the sun shining on us, I asked the man about it. Nothing else was known, really. Just that the young woman had been hiking by herself, that some other hikers came across her and somehow got the coyotes away, and then later when the RCMP arrived, that one of the coyotes was shot. That the woman was airlifted to Halifax, and then passed away this morning.

"That's crazy," I kept saying, and thinking. "Coyotes don't attack people!"

I waited in the line. We chatted about other things. Eventually we got in the door and into the organized chaos of the vaccination clinic. Kids crying, nervous adults rolling up their own sleeves, the nurses holding the vials up in front of them as they extracted the vaccine into countless needles. I got my own shot done - the whole time still debating to myself whether I was doing the right thing or not - and then sat for 15 minutes to make sure there wouldn't be an adverse reaction.

I went back to work. I talked about the flu clinic and the coyote attack with my co-workers. We all shook our heads in wonder and shock. And then I finished my lunch and went back to my computer, where I looked up the latest on the story. I found out the woman's name, and that she was a young folk singer just starting her East Coast tour. She had wanted a short hike and some time to herself. How familiar does that sound? That was me, just a month ago. Exact same hiking trail. Not a whole lot older.

What happened up there? Did the coyotes have rabies? Why did they come close to a human and then actually attack her? I hope we find out. I love coyotes - to me they are the voice of the wilderness. When I hear them yipping and calling at night, my heart thrills. They are so intelligent, so resilient. The harder humans try to kill them, the more they survive, even thrive. So we need to know what happened in this freak accident, so that we don't live in fear of going into wild spaces. So that we can be better informed when we visit the wilderness. So that we don't act only out of fear, and do harm to other members of the species, when it was only two animals whose motivation we don't yet know.

This whole thing makes me sad. I'm sad for Taylor Mitchell's family and friends, for whom this has happened so suddenly. One day has made this awful difference, taking from them their lovely friend, who was just starting out her life, really. I'm sad for the Skyline trail, which will now forever have this mark on it. I'm sad for the coyotes, and for the wild predators in general - too long people have considered them only as vicious creatures that kill anything nearby, when in reality they are sophisticated, wise, generous and fascinating.

This whole thing continues to be jarring. Disarming. It doesn't make sense. After all, I have lived my whole life in Cape Breton, taking many hikes in the woods, in wild spaces. I walk on a dirt road through wilderness, nearly every day. I have seen moose, deer, raccoons, foxes, even the odd bear. I have only seen a coyote once in my whole life. And, when it sensed I was there, it took off, melting back into the trees.

How I wish those two coyotes had done so, two days ago.

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