On a starless night just after Christmas, my husband and I walked our dogs along the Bow River in Canmore, our adopted mountain town. The river snapped with shifting ice. The trees closed in and the path got dark–ambush territory. Our German Shepherd Spira alerted. Rigid, head high with radar ears, she hated on a stand of forest just ahead. Finally she moved and we followed, our King Charles Cavalier Bendel lagging behind happily sniffing.
Moments later Spira exploded. She whirled, demonically leaping, lunging and snarling in ancient battle. A large coyote stood five feet behind Bendel. The lap dog was frozen. For a few heartbeats the coyote stood its ground while Spira stormed and we stood transfixed. Then melted it into the forest Spira had marked. Presumably the rest of the pack waited there for dinner.
For ten years my nightly Canmore ritual has included walking our dogs on leash along the river into a secluded area, and then letting them off leash to run. The house is on the river near stunning trails, isolated meadows and stretches of braided riverbank channels safe for swimming. Elk Island, a snip of land across a creek, is a few minutes away and Spira’s favorite place on Earth.
Canmore has its share of wild animal tragedies because of its location in a wildlife corridor. In 2001, a cougar killed a Canmore woman cross-country skiing in broad daylight. In 2013, two cougars who had hunted, killed and eaten two pet dogs were killed by a Fish and Wildlife officer because they had become habituated to living among people. A few years ago a female moose on town recreation land was ordered killed after she and her calf were attacked by a dog whose owner had sic’ed it on them; the cow had become “hostile”.
I have been aware of the wild animals of course. Coyote tracks crisscross the snow in our yard. Once I heard a cougar scream just behind the house. Six years ago while running I came within a few feet of a black bear eating berries by the powerplant. He was so engrossed I almost missed him. The owner of a nearby house told me the bear hung out on his property most of the summer. The man had taken to drinking his morning coffee on the deck keeping company with the bear.
Bears eating spilled grain regularly die on the railroad tracks hit by trains. For the most part they roam at night when people are scarce, but bear sightings are common and bear attacks do happen. In 2005, a woman was killed by a grizzly. Mountain guide Barry Blanchard and his client were treed by an aggressive bear who forced them to the very top of the tree, shook the tree and climbed up after them until it gave up. They were in the tree for hours. Recently two dogs were attacked by a bear in front of Safeway.
Over dinner with guide and wildlife biologist friends we have heard numerous tales of near misses with predators by humans and dogs. I have been instructed to take bear spray after dark, but I never did. My closest call was on Elk Island last summer. I threw a ball for Spira while walking ahead of her. She came tearing up to me just as I rounded a bend in the trail amidst high bushes—there were a dozen elk with calves, twenty feet ahead. I managed to grab Spira’s tail as she zoomed past, and we beat a hasty retreat. I don’t know what she would have done had she been in front: turned tail and run, or charged them.
The night before Bendel was hunted we were having dinner with mountain guide Dave Stark, Director of Operations at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. I mentioned my dogs’ nightly off-leash revels. He quietly replied that I was risking their lives. Cougars are nocturnal.
The night we almost lost Bendel was the second night in ten years I have leashed my dogs for their nighttime walk. It was a peaceful, ordinary night. The snow glowed dimly. A few Christmas lights sparkled in the magic of the season.
But The Wild was all around us. Unfelt.
There’s a reason the Town of Canmore requires dogs be leashed everywhere except in specific dog parks. It’s for their own safety. And ours.