Monday, January 20, 2014

Coyote kill on the C&O towpath?

Early one recent Sunday morning,  I pulled into Riley's Lock, my usual start for long runs on the C&O towpath.   There were no other cars in the normally busy lot, which didn't surprise me.  It was still early, the sun just up, and with the so-called "polar vortex" settling in over our mid-Atlantic world, the temperature remained stuck in the single digits.   

I headed north. 
There were several inches of almost fresh snow covering the path. Mine were the only human tracks among the overnight skitterings of animals.

As I ran, the sun flashed through the bare trees and across the ice and the snow.  Thirty minutes in, I was warming up more quickly than expected and felt loose-limbed and relaxed.  I even stripped off a layer or two.

I felt a little frisson of excitement.  Putting words to a wordless sensation, it was the pleasure of a felt contrast between the icy woods around me and the warmth I was generating within--like sidling up to a campfire on a cold night.  I picked up the pace and grew warmer still.

Tracks in the snow

An hour or so into the run, I was joined a set of human tracks, moving in the same direction as my own.  Another runner, I guessed, and accompanied by a dog.   Sure enough, after about ten minutes, I saw a figure approaching down the path.   As we passed each other, I nodded in greeting to the other runner. There was no dog.

Another fifteen minutes went by and I reached the other runner's turnaround.  From that point on, the only human tracks were my own.

The dog tracks continued on.  Then more dog tracks appeared, several animals running in a pack.  Mile after mile the tracks continued in a straight, disturbingly disciplined line.  The domestic dogs I know are not notable for coordinated purpose.  They zigzag about in the woods, distracted by every sound and scent.

These animals--I thought of them as dogs no more--were in earnest.

Coyote kill on the C&O?

Seeing blood on the snow, I stopped, walked around and around, snapping photos as if it were a crime scene.   I will spare you the most gruesome photos of what remained of the deer.   Frozen pieces of the animal were scattered for about twenty yards on and off the towpath.

Coyote tracks--so I now called them, though I do not know my tracks--were all over the place.   There were signs of a struggle.    A series of grooves marked where the lower half of the deer's body, now missing, had been dragged across the towpath and down into the ravine.  I stifled a sudden mad impulse to leave the path and hunt the perps to their lair.  

Unexpected Wildness

The C&O National Park would seem to offer up the woods at their tamest and most organized.  All straight lines.   A river on one side, a canal on the left, and a flat path marked every mile.   Porta-potties and campgrounds every eight or nine miles.   The towpath begins in Georgetown, for goodness sake.

It is a grand illusion.  The C & O is a weird and unexpectedly wild place.  Its 12000 acres comprise a long, thin strip of land, stretched out over 180 miles along the Potomac.    It is a kind of superhighway for flora and fauna.   Species wander well north or south of their usual habitat.   The trees arching over the path are not benign: this can be an unpredictable and dangerous place to be in high winds.

Squint a little and you can see it: we live, even now, like Hansel and Gretel's starving and dysfunctional family, "at the edge of a great wood."

Wilhelm's two birds

Another half hour or so on past the gruesome scene, I reached my own turnaround point.

My return trip was an inversion of Hansel and Gretel's experience.   My going out was like their going in.   Dreamlike, the woods expand and contract around the children.   At the outset of the story, having lost their way, they struggle on for over three days and nights, the woods extending seemingly without bound.  Coming home, the witch safely incinerated and their pockets bulging with her treasure (where does she get it?), they seem to fly through the trees.

On my way back to Riley's Lock, approaching again the scene of the crime, I was greeted by the croak of a turkey buzzard, keeping guard over its meal.  I caught him mid-flight as he flew up into the trees.  We regarded each other warily for a few moments.

Unlike the two birds in Hansel and Gretel--the beautiful white bird and the plain but helpful duck--my bird was neither deceptive nor friendly to man.   Its look said nothing I could know.   Perhaps I was competition for the deer carcass--or perhaps I was potential food myself (unfortunately still alive).

Knocked off its perch, my mind wandered trackless for the remainder of the run.  What if, let's say, I sprained an ankle or knee?  What if I were stuck out there, unable to walk?  Would anyone else come by?  How long would it take to freeze?  If I encountered coyotes, would they sense my injury?  Would I fare better than that deer?

And a question right out of fairy tales: would I prefer to freeze, starve, or be torn to bits by animals?

Was I at home or not at home out here?  The woods had no answer.  In all of this familiar but utterly strange strip of protected land, with its displaced and immigrant plants and animals, here I was, an upright primate and long-ago immigrant from the savanna.  The strangest and most displaced creature of all.


  1. Oh Matthew - stuff of nightmares - start carrying a big stick - ?lashed to your back.

    1. And now I read DNA evidence confirms that the eastern coyote has hybridized with wolves. Some people are using the (silly) term "coywolf" to describe them.

      I could brush up on my tree-climbing skills!

  2. Some have possibly found their way to Rock Creek Park as well...

  3. Wow - hard not to feel one is being watched out there sometimes.