Because I’m a cyclist, I’ve had my share of animal encounters. I’ve been chased by enough dogs to fill a pound. I’ve been stung by enough bees—not all on the same ride—to send a good-sized deer into anaphylactic shock. A squirrel once darted between my wheels; that we both survived was luck of an order I’d like more of. And then there were the crunches. There was the dull bump of the snake I ran over. I’ll never forget the hugetastic beetle tacking across the road I was unable to avoid; it made the sound of stepping on dried leaves.
Then there was the horse standing in the middle of Colorado singletrack less than a mile from the road back into town. It wouldn’t budge. When I tried to hike around it, the great stallion got anxious and aggressive.
I rode back up the mountain on a trail that locals will tell you, “Oh, no, you only want to descend that one.”
So I’ve had my encounters, yes. However, only one animal encounter ever frightened me, frightens me to this day.
It was fall in New England. The race season was coming to an end and I’d been doing more easy rides as I tried to preserve what little fitness was left for the last of the ‘cross races. In the afternoons following work, I’d taken to doing mountain bike rides south of town where the terrain was flatter, exploring trails I’d never ridden.
It was the last Friday before the daylight saving change when I found a spur trail I’d never seen before; if I’d been going full speed, I’d have missed it for sure. As it was, it was barely visible for all the fallen leaves. I stopped, backed up, and began rolling down what sounded like a gallon of milk dumped on an entire box of Rice Krispies.
I cleared a couple of deadfall before encountering a great maple on its side, a tree that was probably a sapling during the Civil War. I had to climb up the side of the tree before picking my bike up and heaving it over. This was the one place in the forest where I could look up and see blue sky.
I rode on for perhaps another mile when I arrived at an unexpected clearing. I stopped because I couldn’t see where the trail went. It was as if the trail was a river emptying into a great sea and I stood at its mouth.
Here, I have to conjure Bugs Bunny. Yes, he of Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng and Tex Avery.
Hey Doc, you ever get the feelin’ you was bein’ watched?
Something wasn’t right. I looked left; I looked right. I looked over my shoulder. Nothing.
Then I looked up. Holy cow. There was an owl the as tall as a toddler but with the wingspan of a grown man standing in a nest. Tending young. Then my eyes followed the branch to the right, toward the few leaves left at its end. There was another owl, this one even bigger. And it was facing me.
Prey animals possess eyes that are spaced wide apart to give them as close to a 360-degree field of view as possible. Their depth perception suffers because they don’t enjoy the benefits of stereoscopic vision. No, stereoscopic vision is the province of predators. And the thing about a predator with stereo vision is that the prey can tell when the predator is looking right at them.
That damn owl was staring at me.
I stifled the chill that ran through me. One errant move was perhaps all the separated me from a very bad time. I lowered my head, but kept looking back. My internal database of animals that mate and then collectively care for young hadn’t previously included owls. I wasn’t sure if there were any textbooks or ornithologists who might tell me that it should. It didn’t matter. Based on the evidence at hand, I concluded that papa owl stands watch while mama owl cares for the babies. I had all the data I needed.
Another database entry knocking around in my gray matter included the little tidbit that owls have been known to carry off cats, raccoons and fair-sized dogs. These aren’t sightseeing trips.
I started doing math. Now, you might think that an equation might not be all that useful at a time like this. I disagree. A syllogism has helped me understand many situations. Consider: girls only kiss guys they like. Girl kisses me. For someone as short on catching social cues as I am, if a girl kisses me, I can fairly deduce that she likes me.
Clearly, math is handy in many situations.
I’ve had some ugly encounters with angry felines, cats that feared for their lives, and while a bathtub full of water isn’t necessarily fatal, Fluffy will employ every method at its disposal to avoid said tub. If a cat can give me that much trouble and if an owl can carry off a cat, then it is fair to conclude that an owl might not kill me, but the destruction to my person would be of an order requiring a trip to the hospital.
I can hear the doctor, “So what happened?”
Me, “An owl.”
What I don’t know is how long the laughter would last.
I began backing up, one step at a time, one very slow, deliberate step at a time. I continued to look at the owl, but I also continued to tip my head down in an attempt to say, “Hey mister owl, I’m not going to give you any trouble.”
Walking backward at that pace is almost like not moving at all, which is less helpful than you’d like at such a time. I have no trouble admitting that this was the most frightened I’d ever been by an animal. I knew that if that owl spread his wings the next thing that happened was going to be me getting filleted by six talons and a beak with the tensile strength of garden shears. This was going to be a bar fight without drunk people or beer bottles, but just as much blood. I was afraid to move any faster than I was, but desperate to play express train late for its next stop. When I finally turned around, I mounted my bike and sprinted with all the energy I’d hoped to save for the start of the next day’s race.
I never rode that trail again.
This piece first appeared in Bike Hugger Magazine.