A couple of weeks ago I had the scariest encounter I’ve ever had camping – and this time it wasn’t the bears.
I’d been moving around a bit before making my way to Yosemite National Park. Spent a few days hanging out in San Fran, just walking around and checking out the art in the mission area etc – was a nice change to spend some time in a city.
Also hung out in Santa Cruz for a few days doing some surfing, the waves were super fun, but a lot more crowded than further north. Didn’t stay for that long, but it seemed like an awesome town with plenty happening.
Then an inland detour into Yosemite. I almost didn’t go because I’d booked into some Spanish lessons down in Ensenada, Mexico, that weren’t that far off.
But I’m glad I did – it was beautiful, spectacular and grounding.. everything you’ve ever heard about it stands true I’d say. Being Autumn, it wasn’t crowded with tourists either.
Would’ve loved to have done some climbing or proper backcountry hikes – perhaps next time.
Instead I did a few day hikes, and spent the rest of the time just doing some timelapse photography.
At one point I headed up to Glacier Point, and the view there actually made my palms sweaty at times. It felt so vast and impressive that it was almost overwhelming – especially on the edge.
I started a timelapse and 8 hours later I couldn’t bring myself to turn the camera off - everything just kept getting better and better. From about an hour before sunset to looong into the night.
Sundown was beautiful. I didn’t enhance any colour in any of the shots below –it just did what it did.
I set up my tent in anticipation for the long night ahead..
..and kept shooting the stars for hours – one of the more memorable events I’ve ever timelapsed.
Eventually, with no cloud cover, and being so high up on an autumnal evening, it got so cold was steered into my tent. I’m sure it got well below zero that night.
Now I know you’re not supposed to camp there, but by the time I was ready for bed there wasn’t another soul around for miles, and it was too cold to ride the bike without heated gloves…
…plus I like stealth camping, especially in places you’re not supposed to…
But a few hours later I was seriously wishing I had chosen the campgrounds…
Very far from help.
Woke up at 2.30am to the distinct sound of rustling and woofing at my tent. Assumed it must be a bear again, and so popped the safety off the spray and undid the fly. I’d been through these motions many times by that point, and although I never liked it, felt ready to defend myself… here we go...
Knew i'd heard something, so got out of the tent and checked my surrounds. Walked around for a bit until behind me slinks a big wolf canine character standing about as tall as halfway up my thigh. He's not scared, just slinking behind me 10 metres or so away.
And he was definitely interested.
And it was him poking his nose under my tent - checking me out.
NB. After having spent 4.5 months camping in this part of the world I knew well enough to not have food, toothpaste etc in there with me.
I shone the torch in his eyes and he slunk away into the forest – but only slowly. I remember not being scared at that point – just thinking that it was cool to see a wolf again - think I was just relieved to not have to fight off a bear.
But clambering back inside, I started thinking it was a little strange that he’d been investigating my tent.
And then it all kicked off.
He waited for me to zip the fly closed before giving one massive howl - I didnt capture that first howl, but this is the minute or so afterwards…
Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Terrified. The video doesn’t show (or sound) how many there were, I didn’t have the camera properly set up (even the picture is the wrong shutter speed), and with no real mic on there was hard to capture what was going on.. but anyway I digress..
2.30am. Completely alone and surrounded. No help. Bike on the other side of the forest.
Wolves in said forest, surrounding the tent all of them between about 10 and 30 metres away i'd say.
Black, black night. One measly little can of bear spray and my tripod to fight off the pack.
Seriously thought they were howls for an attack - all so close. It reminded me of going on wild boar hunts in Mentawai - the Umma longhouse’s pack of dogs howling and psyching as poison arrows were slid into sheaths, bow’s strung and into the forest.
The thrill of the chase.
The howling continued for 3-5 mins, and then stopped all of a sudden.
For the next 2 hours I sat at my tent door, watching for anything, not moving. Too scared to go through the forest to the bike and get out of there, but also too scared to close the tent door. Battery on the torch running out conveniently, so sat there in the darkness of an already set, crescent moon. I’m guessing there was about 10 of them around me.
Twice that night I tore open the fly ready to fight.
In all my years of skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing I have never felt that same electric adrenaline flaring up my spine as in those moments. Perhaps an instinctual fight or die reaction…? In my mind it was that anyway..
Didn't really sleep again until the sun came up.
And oh my, was I happy to see sunrise.. best sunrise of my life.
I did some research afterwards, and apparently there aren't any wolves in Yosemite, just healthy mountain coyotes. And in hindsight, listening to the howls on the video, they are definitely coyotes, not wolves. A lot less intimidating..
There were probably three reasons I’d thought they were wolves:
The sheer size of the Alpha slinking behind me – he was at least double the size of any of the coyotes I’d seen in Canada and Alaska.
The first howl that he gave (not in vid) made me think wolf straight away – it was a proper howl with no yips. I had actually been listening to the coyotes the night before in the distance, and could easily tell the difference. This time it sounded different.
It was dark and scary and late at night, and in Australia we don’t have that sort of crazy shit. (Although I guess you wouldn’t want to be surrounded by a pack of dingoes either?)
Although it does seem that when you get coyotes in a pack, they can become dangerous. Not that long ago Canadian folk singer Taylor Mitchell was killed by 2 coyotes.
There’s a few videos like this floating around on the net too.
But I think in hindsight, the threat was probably never really that great, even though it freaked me out at the time.
I imagine that the Alpha was checking me out as a foreign and potential invader to his territory, and that was why he was woofing and nosing my tent while I slept. Then when I got out to investigate, he kept his distance and stayed behind me, to keep an eye on my movements. And most likely once I’d returned into my tent, he realised that I was no threat and gave that one massive howl in order to reunite with his pack.
Otherwise, why didn’t they attack??
Professor Gary Julian, from Penn State University talks about the howls:
"It has several functions. One is to call the pack—really a family group—back together again after a period of individual hunting. A second reason that coyotes howl is to advertise their presence to other packs, essentially warning those other family groups against trespassing across territorial boundaries."
So yeah, that’s probably it. Nothing to worry about really…
One thing I can say, was that looking back on it, it was a beautiful moment.
For that fleeting space of time I’d been reintroduced into the natural order things, beyond the every day of human existence.
A very simple and primal situation – but one that’s forever etched in my mind.