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Dealing with Wild Animals While Running, in Three Easy Steps

Step 1: Avoid them.

(This is also steps 2 and 3.)

Most days, I run on an old crushed-gravel canal towpath that has been converted into a hiking and biking trail. It is relatively close to my house, and every mile is clearly marked, which comes in handy on the days that I forget to charge my GPS watch battery. The mile markers also have interesting tidbits about the canal; I came across one the other day that seemed like a taunt directly aimed at me: “Even a slow marathoner can run faster than a mule, but try doing it while carrying a canal boat and 100 tons of goods.” (Strangely, that is how I feel in the last few miles of a marathon.) It’s also a great way to get out into nature without wandering too far from home. I’m not exactly Mr. Nature. Early in our relationship, my lovely wife Jen asked me to go camping with her. “Like, in a tent?” I asked. “Oh brother,” she said. As Evan Dando sang in the Lemonheads’ “The Outdoor Type,” “God bless the great indoors.”

Just to be clear: I love nature. Some of my favorite things are from nature (the redbud tree, purple coneflowers, chocolate). It’s just that I also love a hotel bed. And television. And an Internet connection. And modern plumbing. But Jen has forced me outdoors many, many times over the years, so much so that I now enjoy, or at least tolerate, the vacations that we plan around the outdoors. (She has rubbed off on the kids: I asked my son where we should take our next trip, and he said, “Anywhere away from a city.” Well, that limits things.)

On the towpath, it is inevitable that I run into animals. I’m not talking about domestic pets; I can (and probably will) devote another whole blog post to the fun I have had with dogs while running. Let’s just focus on wild animals for now. On the towpath, I have seen squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, beavers, muskrats, minks, rabbits, opossums, foxes, coyotes, deer, snakes, turtles, frogs, and toads. And that’s not counting the birds: great blue herons, ducks, geese, turkeys, cardinals, bluejays, bluebirds, crows, red-winged blackbirds, and dozens of species I can’t identify.

Most of the wildlife is smallish, which is great, except when I come upon them rapidly and surprise them. My go-to move when noticing a small animal directly in my path is the high-kicking, one-legged leap over the animal, bounding about 3 feet in the air to avoid stepping on it. So far, it has worked, although I don’t recommend it 20 miles into a long run; that has a tendency to suck the energy out of you. In the last decade, I have had to leap over about a dozen snakes, usually in the spring and summer months, when they slither onto the towpath to lie in the sun. Honestly, I was so freaked out by them that I’m not sure how many of them were alive or dead. Some of them might have been sticks.

I used to run ridiculously early in the morning on the weekend to get my long runs in before my kids’ sporting events got started. As the summer turned to fall and the days got shorter, however, running in the dark on the towpath was probably not the smartest thing. There were early mornings when the sun wasn’t even close to being up and the only “light” I had was the white of the gravel on the path. Anything that was remotely dark was cause for concern because it could have been an animal or a leaf. Or poop. (Dang it, I promised myself I wouldn’t use poop jokes in my blog!) At 5 a.m. on one run, I was staring at the path when I saw something round like a dinner plate and about a foot in diameter moving almost imperceptibly across the path heading toward the canal water; I had about 3 seconds before I was on top of it, so I leapt high in the air to avoid it. It was a painted turtle; about an hour later when I returned and passed the same spot on the towpath when things were visible, it was on the edge of the water. The worst things to try to hop over are the toads and frogs. They do the hopping for a living. I attempted to leapfrog a toad once, and it hopped at the same time, striking me in the upper thigh. I twisted my ankle on the landing from that one.

Herein lies the problem with the animals on the towpath: they are not loud. About the only things that are loud are the “chip-chip” chipmunks and the squirrels, who are so quick to get to a tree that they don’t care about the noise they make scrunching through leaves to get there. As a general rule, if you are on the towpath and you hear something that sounds like a bear crashing through the trees, it’s probably a squirrel. (Unless it’s a bear. Sorry for the confusion.)

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The great blue heron, pretending you can’t see it. (Source: Kozarluha.)

Great blue herons like to play a game I call reverse freeze tag: when they hear you coming, they stand perfectly still on the edge of the canal, hoping that you don’t notice that 4-foot-tall bird with the 6-foot wingspan standing practically next to you. As soon as you get to within a yard of them, though, they take off with their awkward, gangly flight, skimming the surface of the water. The white-tailed deer are the same way. I once stumbled upon about 15 of them at the forest edge, and only when I coughed did they put into motion their tail-wagging zigzag escape strategy.

The time to worry, though, is when I encounter complete silence. That means that something threatening to the other animals is around. The late, underappreciated writer Vance Bourjaily put it this way: “The quietness of cows is not like that of foxes.” Foxes, for the most part, avoid humans and won’t be walking around in broad daylight. But get out early or late enough, and you will see them stalking prey. (Run, squirrels, run!) Foxes are only dangerous to humans if they feel cornered or if they are rabid, so it’s best not to approach them. I came upon a fox stalking something in the forest, and the look it gave me scared the heck out of me.

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I am a coyote, and I will eat you. (Source: Billie Cromwell/PGC.)

The worst is the coyote. When I see coyotes, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. One of the benefits of winter running is that there are few (usually no) other people on the towpath, so I get some alone time while running. Less humans means more coyotes, and they can be mean and nasty. (Google “coyote attacks on humans” if you don’t believe me.) One winter run, with snow on the towpath, my crunch-crunch footsteps attracted the attention of a coyote, who came out of the woods about a hundred yards ahead of me. Fortunately for me, he thought I was chasing him, so he started trotting. Every once in a while, he would stop, turn around to see if I was still there, and then trot on. I know you’re thinking, “Why didn’t you just turn around and leave him alone?” The problem was that I had run about 10 miles out from my house, and now I was working my way back. Eventually, by no fault of my own (I was going as slowly as I possibly could in hopes that he would pick up his pace), I closed the gap on him. He stopped for a longer period at one point, and I got to within about 20 yards of him. This whole episode lasted for about a mile. Finally, it ducked into the woods, staring at me as it went. I slowed down and tried to see where it was but could not find it. Nothing makes you pay attention to the world quite like knowing that a wild animal is watching you unseen.

Paying attention to the world is what I love about seeing wild animals while running on the towpath. If I ran on a treadmill or on city streets all the time, I never would see the 10 cardinals (five female and five brilliantly red male) congregated at the same spot along the path every time I pass. I never would have encountered literally thousands of Canada geese on the towpath over a half-mile stretch where the canal meets up with a large wetland area; every step I took caused dozens of them to honk and take off, darkening the sky above me. It’s much better than sitting in front of a TV or computer all day. Oh my gosh, maybe I am the outdoor type now. Quick, somebody call my wife and tell her to read my blog!

The Lemonheads “The Outdoor Type”