As 2021 comes to a close, I have much for which to be thankful. The armadillo that took up residency under our house decided that we charged too much rent and moved out on its own before we had to call in an exterminator. Despite inflation pushing up the cost 25%, I still had the means to buy a 23 pound turkey for Thanksgiving at the supermarket, not necessitating my shooting one of the wild ones that wander our yard. And I am grateful that our close encounters of the wild kind have ended well for both us and the animals.
As Upstate New Yorkers, Larry and I rarely encountered threatening animals. Yes, we watched out for rattlesnakes while hiking the eponymous trail in Lake George. And, yes, our cats’ frequent skirmishes with skunks showed us the stinky scent of nature. But the closest I had come for most of my life to seeing “animals gone wild” was when we woke up to the sight of a herd of cows that had somehow escaped from a nearby farm grazing on the lawn of my parents’ cottage on Lake Champlain. When we opened the door to take a closer look, our Irish setter ran out and started barking at them, triggering a mini-stampede. At that very moment, our neighbor opened up her drapes to see a bunch of berserk bovines charging towards her sliding glass door. Local lore is that her screams still can be heard echoing throughout Willsboro Bay.
My first encounter with more dangerous beasts came in a 2012 trip to Florida. While Larry and I were waiting for the guided tour tram to take us through the Shark River section of the Everglades, I spotted a huge alligator less than 10 feet away. Naive—make that stupid!—me insisted Larry take my picture while I was kneeling near its tail. When I proudly showed the picture to one of the guides a short time later, she warned me against a repeat performance. “Alligators may look slow, but they can move quickly,” she said. “You were lucky you weren’t bitten.”
After that encounter combined with research and “alligators in the news” stories, I now have a much deeper appreciation of these ancient reptiles. We usually have at least one alligator in the pond in our backyard, either sunning itself on its bank or floating just below the surface. It is not unusual to see one crossing the road or even lounging in a doorway or an open garage. Just this morning, a neighbor posted on our Next “Please be careful. There is a large gator is crossing the road on its way to Glendora Lakes.” We have learned to live by side with them by maintaining a healthy distance when walking near water and encouraging our guests to do the same.
Ever since her move to Colorado in 2003, our daughter Julie has shared with us her frequent close encounters with Rocky Mountain wildlife. In her first month there, she had to detour to avoid a brown bear who was helping itself to an unlatched garbage bin. Stories of other unexpected meet-ups with more bears, as well as elk, moose, fox, and coyotes, have always been part of our conversations with our daughter, her husband Sam, and since she could talk, our granddaughter.
Julie and her Sam are both experienced backpackers and outdoors people. When they are hiking, they can recognize the presence of animals by their hoof prints as well as their scat (poop).They also know what to do when they encounter an animal, whether it be on the trail or in their backyard. Like alligators, the best approach is to distance oneself from any wild animal to avoid a confrontation. And they are sharing that knowledge with their daughter.
Despite all their experiences, Larry and I had only seen wildlife from a safe distance. That changed this summer. We hiked up a popular trail and made our usual left turn only to find a huge moose less than 25 feet away. We quickly and quietly turned around and headed down the same trail.
I shared the news with several friends on social media, many whose first question was, “Did you get a picture?”
“No,” I responded. “We just got the hell out of there!”
After waiting 18 years for our “Close Encounter of the Wild Kind,” I was not expecting to see another moose until 2039. However, less than three months later, on an early November before-the-snow-falls trip, my granddog Neva and I took a hike up to Rainbow Lake, my favorite spot in the world. On the way down, with only a slight pull on Neva’s leash as a warning, I caught sight of the back end of a moose in the trees about 10 yards in front of us. Now the seasoned moose-avoider, I quickly got us “the hell out of there.”
While winding our way down a longer but hopefully safer trail, Neva pulled hard on the leash, straining to run after something. “Oh no!” I thought. “not another moose!” No, it was just a squirrel, which our granddog obviously rated higher on the “wildlife-of-interest” scale than a unpredictable half ton mammal. So much for feeling safer when hiking with my granddog!
Moose sitings continued. Later that day, when Larry and I avoided stepping in the piles of moose scat that adorned awns and sidewalks in the neighborhood. We learned later that soon after trick or treaters had headed home with their junk food stash, the moose had moved in and devoured all the Halloween pumpkins.
The next morning, we were woken up to the sounds of our granddaughter clambering down the steps to the guest bedroom and her yelling, “Moose alert! Moose alert! A mommy and her two calves are in our front yard!”
Larry and I are now back in Florida, but we need to remain on the lookout. Oh well. At least alligators don’t leave scat.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.