Cougar Bait: Green Eyes on the Goat Creek Trail

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Each winter, in deep, dark January, my friend Amy and I plan a full moon cross-country ski trip from Canmore to Banff via the Goat Creek Trail. The trail, roughly 20 kilometres of easy skiing, runs behind the Rundle range and connects the two towns. It’s a popular trail on sunny Rocky Mountain winter days, but we had never encountered another soul on it in the years we’d been skiing it by night.

The first year we attempted this adventure we timed it perfectly with the moonrise. The full moon rose above Mt. Rundle just as the last of the sun’s light was fading. It glowed so brightly that we were able to ski the entire distance without headlamps. The air felt like breathing pure moonlight. We felt humbly privileged to be on a journey amongst such simple, natural wonders. We vowed to make this trip an annual occurrence.

Later attempts, however, never seemed to work out quite as well as they did on that first ski. One year, Amy managed to scratch her eyeball on the handle of her ski pole in a particularly spectacular crash. She skied the rest of that trip with one eye open. For a few years, the cloud cover prevented a full moonlight experience. Our expectations may have been a little too lofty considering the triumphs of that first year’s five-star tour.

And then there was the year that the moon didn’t rise at all. That was the year when this particular story took place; a dark time in our history on the Goat Creek Trail.

Our tradition is to leave work a little early so we can set out from the trailhead around 4:30 p.m., just as the light of the shortest days of the year is fading away. The biggest threat on the route is one steep, sharp corner leading down to the first bridge near the beginning of the trail, and it is always preferable for hacks like us to sacrifice ourselves to that icy slope while we still have a bit of light to work with.

We set out on this clear, brisk late afternoon, smiles on our faces, our packs brimming with extra layers, dark chocolate bars, thermoses of Bengal Spice tea, beef jerky and a few coins for celebratory brews from the Banff Springs liquor store at journey’s end.

The snow was pristine: a good grip on the uphills, but smooth enough to provide plenty of giddy speed on the downhill sections. We were making good time, chatting about life and hooting and hollering our way down the switchbacks that lead to the approximate halfway point at the Spray River bridge.

By the time we reached the Spray, the sun was long gone. Our eyes were continually adjusting to the deepening darkness so we decided to keep skiing a bit further without pulling out our headlamps, hoping against hope that the moon would rise above the wall of mountains, once again lighting our way.

But it never did.

Before we knew it, any light that had been lingering in the spruce trees had completely vanished. We could barely see the ends of our skis and were moving forward into the darkness by instinct and the feel of our feet in the subtle tracks grooved by other skiers.

Reluctantly accepting that we would not be graced by moonlight once again, we pulled up beside each other and flopped our packs on the snow. We’d have a quick tea and a snack and then strap on our headlamps for the remainder of the route to Banff.

We were enjoying some beef jerky when we heard a heavy crunching sound in the snow to the right of the track from where we stood. The sound came from just 20 metres away. Moments later, there was another footstep. And another. Moving. Slowly.

We froze.

“Oh, shit. Did you hear that?” I whispered without moving a muscle.

“Yeah. That was big.”  Amy confirmed.

We were blind, 10 kilometres from Banff and roughly the same distance from Canmore. The smart thing would have been to take a second to pull out our lamps, but it seems the instinctive flight response trumped good judgment. We threw our packs on and skied frantically into the darkness in the opposite direction of the sinister sounds.

That plan lasted about two minutes because we had to stop and deal with our light situation: we couldn’t even tell if we were skiing the right direction, towards Banff, on the track. So we dropped our bags and groped for our headlamps, snapping them on. A sign-post along the track caught in the small beam of light, giving us our bearings. At least we were headed in the right direction!

The ice cracked and moaned at the river’s edge, echoing footfalls of something heavy and wild. Whatever was out there was following us.

“Let’s go!” we yelped simultaneously.

This is it, I said to myself. This is the way I’m going to die. The worst possible scenario that I have been imagining for the last hour is actually about to unfold. Screaming suddenly felt futile.

We didn’t say a word as we skied into the dark. The narrative running through my mind for the next hour, however, as I constantly scanned the forest for eyes, involved a complex feat of engineering in which I would construct a rescue sled from our skis and backpack straps, so that I could strap Amy’s mangled body to it and drag her to Banff after the beast had had its way with her. In my mind, the design of this sled was pure genius: smooth and strong, something an Inuit hunter would be proud of. Roomy enough for two large seals. Needless to say, an hour is a long time to be trapped inside your imagination in the deep, dark woods.

Thankfully, as we skied with what was left of our energy towards what we hoped was safety, we began to recognize some of the turns as the final kilometre or so of the trail. Maybe we weren’t going to be lost to the forest after all.

As we came closer and closer to the end of the trail, the tension and focus slowly began to melt away. We broke the silence: I admitted, “Oh, man. I have been freaking out. Were you scared? I was scared.”

“I wasn’t that scared,” Amy lied.

I told her about the part of my plan that involved popping our skis off as quickly as possible so that we could use them as pitiful, awkward weapons should a death struggle ensue. We started to laugh, and she told me how the fact that I kept pointing my light into the woods was really freaking her out, but she was too out of breath to say anything.

We were mid-laugh when we saw the eyes.

Caught in the light of our lamps, right in the middle of the trail, not 40 metres ahead of us, gleamed a pair of bright green eyes. Unblinking eyes two feet off the ground; they were slowly, but brazenly creeping towards us.

We stopped in our tracks, completely paralyzed. Instead of popping our skis off for a fight to the death as per my brilliant plan, we instead began screaming like we had never screamed before. These screams — the sounds falling somewhere on the spectrum between mother grizzly and the screech of a golden eagle — welled up from the very depths of our animal souls.

Still, the eyes moved closer, fearless, wild, unaffected by our shrieking.

This is it, I said to myself. This is the way I’m going to die. The worst possible scenario that I have been imagining for the last hour is actually about to unfold. Screaming suddenly felt futile.

As the wild thing continued to approach — our attempts at scaring the creature clearly futile — we stopped our yelling, frozen and unsure of what to do next. Then, a small, confused voice cut through the dark: “Uh…hello?”

The thing was close enough now to emerge into the cone of dim light shining from our headlamps: we had almost been eaten by an appallingly cute, annoyingly friendly golden retriever out for a late night walk with its favourite human.

A mix of utter shock, relief, and then embarrassment struck me; the pitiful echoes of the angry grizzly bear I’d been impersonating only moments before still hanging awkwardly in the darkness. Clearly confused, a woman continued uncertainly towards us then shuffled by with a meek “Hi” as she and “the beast” continued on their way.

Five minutes more and we were there, at the end of the trail, laughing nervously under a streetlight with the warm lights of the Banff Springs Hotel welcoming us back to civilization.

That was the last time Amy and I have skied the Goat Creek trail together. She says that fact has more to do with her fear of being strapped down to a makeshift sled than it does with her fear of being eaten. Sure, whatever you say, Amy.

This story will also be appearing in Imagine This Valley, a collection of short stories based in the Bow Valley, edited by Stephen Legault and published by Rocky Mountain Books. The book is set to hit stands late 2016.

Kristy Davison

Kristy Davison

Kristy founded Highline Magazine in 2008, motivated by the pursuit of stories that both inspire and make us laugh at our wild ways. Her background in fine arts and design, love for reading and research, and a life spent wandering in the Rockies combine to lead the vision for the magazine. She lives for hut trips, live music, walks in the woods, and kicking back with friends in the summertime.

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