Prologue – Peru, September 2005, Jon Slade ‘blog e-mail’ to home…
Firstly, an overlooked incident from the time of my last missive, whilst on mountaineering “manoeuvres” (no Jon, you are not and never have been in the army, Cub Scouts yes) in the Peruvian Andes. We’d been warned about thefts in our particular valley (Ishinca) and on the basis that we made up the only two tents in the whole area had become particularly vigilant, or so we thought.
The last night, knackered after 4 days of climbing, as we plunged into the sanctuary of our sleeping bags the tent, suddenly but briefly, almost collapsed on top of us under some great weight…followed by the sound of the outer tent being unzipped…what the %$&*!?
Anthony (the Belgian, connoisseur of fine food and wine), head torch on, bravely opened his side of the inner tent, where the “incident” had occurred only to be confronted by the demonic glow of 2 orange eyes peering back at him – a Bull!. WHAT THE &%$*! Astonishingly it had opened the outer tent with ITS HORN! The beast, with a young apprentice in tow then grabbed in its mouth the rubbish bag from the tent’s lobby and marched away at speed. Urgently, we gathered up any food that we had in the tent and tossed it out – this consisted of 2 oranges, thrown as far as we could muster (in our state, about 5 feet). However these ‘decoy’ oranges then became a source of worry – what if the animals thought we were trying to feed them? they might come back for more…!
Time passed, and to our huge relief they seemed to move off into the darkness (the animals, not the oranges). Phew. We (who am I in this story again? am I an orange?) then made some vague attempts at sleep, now feeling guilty for the way we had, the day before, mocked the local bulls from afar as they charged one-another and locked horns. Quite an escape, goodness knows how much the big one weighed! And those horns!
But…BANG! %&$* they were back! But we have no food! Unless…they’re after…US! Right this is serious (it wasn’t before?) ice axes ready. C’mon! I’ll ‘ave the lot of you! Ok Steven Seagall, calm down – would I actually do it? Would I?
You may be either pleased or disappointed (shame on you!) to know I didn’t need to, they sloped off after rummaging through the fire pit and rejecting one of the oranges. We both slept with our axes at our sides for the rest of the night though!
Incidentally, together these bovine-raiders ate the entire rubbish bag, plastic included – we didn’t find a trace! Our local guide and friend in the other tent found the whole thing quite hysterical, especially, for some reason, the oranges. Was it a bull or a very big cow? We’ll never now. I am, however, kind of glad I didn’t have to explain to the local police why some poor farmers pride and joy had an ice axe wedged between those spooky eyes…would I have?
Eve of American Independence Day, 3rd July 2009
‘Blue Peter’ has a lot to answer for…
Northway Junction, Alaska, USA. Population maybe 70 people. 50 miles from the Canadian border. After a good, but hot morning’s ride (around 60 miles) I stopped to stay the night at an RV park, which seemed to have mostly semi-permanent residents, although on that particular day looked fairly unoccupied, owing I presumed to it being the occasion in question. I was asked to pitch my tent right at bottom of site next to the forest.
I had a ‘cook your own’ steak at a bar a mile or so’s walk down the road and was ready for bed. Back in the tent, after maybe 10 mins asleep and “what was that?” I thought, startled, as something RAN INTO THE SIDE OF THE TENT making a ‘huffing’ sound, which bears are known to do…OMG….
…I summoned up the courage to lean close and look out (to help air-flow into the tent on hot nights I sleep with the bottom half of the porch open)… only to see…4 long, muscled, blonde furry legs with huge paws run past, right outside!…and to make matters worse, above the noise of the nearby quarry I heard a guttural, growling, purring sound…there and then I convinced myself that I had not a bear but a MOUNTAIN LION stalking my tent!!!!!
So many many things went through my mind. “Was I right in thinking that the especially harsh winter meant it was desperate and turning to – rare – human prey?”, “Would anyone come?”, “If I shouted would it aggravate my tormentor into a frenzy?” and “Would I make it through the night?”….????
After what seemed like a hopeless eternity I decided, almost impossibly, I’d wait until morning and hope that some people might arrive – even though there was a small wooden ‘outhouse’ (with a door) 20 metres away, at close range I thought the animal would be too quick for me to (bear) spray it, plus, I didn’t even know if the spray would work on cats! Did ursine and feline genetics both react the same way to the highly pressurised ‘expulsion’? Would I jet myself in the face in a panic?
(nonetheless, I removed the safety catch from the spray, held it to my chest and tried to stay more quiet and more still than I think I have ever before…for…HOURS)
Time seemed to stand still. The digits on my watch seemed held, as if in treacle. At about 2.30am after 3.5 hours of trying to not move and maintain, agonisingly, some sense of calm, the noise of the quarry finally stopped and I figured, horrifyingly that the breathing and the purring were coming from 2 SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS…there were 2 OF THEM!
(a mother teaching a cub…HOW TO HUNT!!!!???)
At that point I certainly thought there’s NO WAY I could make it to the outhouse. My mobile phone was in the tent’s porch, behind a zipped-up mosquito net and I contemplated a 911 call but worried that opening the zip might aggravate them and if that didn’t, speaking on the phone might (I’d also had no coverage on my phone for weeks). Dead-end.
I then remembered (only then?) my GPS-tracking device (SPOT) – which was also behind the zipped-up net – has an ’emergency beacon’ button (which sends my location to a 24 hour call centre in Texas who then co-ordinate with local rescue services anywhere in the world to evacuate the holder of the device).
No time to be a hero I decided – I didn’t fancy getting mauled or…worse.
I slowly and gently opened the mosquito net, got the device and pressed the button and as quietly and quickly as I could, pushed it out of the already half open front of the tent, hoping that my hands wouldn’t get eaten in the process, and that the batteries would last as I tried desperately to remember if I’d pitched the tent under a tree (which could block the line of sight to the satellite)…please work!
I waited another 2 hours, hoping that every car in the distance would come to me and be the local police, alerted by the call centre. Nothing came. Maybe there were trees in the way so no signal had been received. Maybe, on a night like 4th July eve and bearing in mind that the nearest major police station was 50 miles away, no officers were available.
So, after nearly 6 hours, I decided I was on my own. I listened, again. I didn’t think I could hear the breathing. I grabbed the clothes at hand (it gets chilly before 9am), the GPS device, took a deep breath and popped my head out the front of the tent and then back in. Nothing. Then, bear spray in hand I made it to the outhouse.
Again I listened. I could still hear something like the growling / purring but from the (pungent) wooden hut could see nothing.
Was it / they in the trees of the forest…or…could I… actually…have been…mistaken?
Then, from behind the half ajar door of the outhouse I saw a woman arriving at the trailer next to me. She didn’t get pounced-on and didn’t seem alarmed…
At the back of my mind I remembered seeing a dog by one of the trailers at the top of the site before I went to bed. Why hadn’t it smelt or heard something and raised the alarm?
I cancelled the rescue message on the device (SPOT) and walked over to the woman and asked had she been here last night – she had but I’d not heard her arrive over the noise of the quarry. Had she noticed any ‘strange animals’ around camp last night? Well, she said, there’s the big, blonde dog that hangs around sometimes…
I made the connection. Oh, the, shame!
(of course I didn’t have to tell anyone this story…and if I hadn’t no one would ever have known…)
I’d only seen the animal’s legs. After listening again the growling / purring turned out to be…a BIRD CALL! Then, 10 minutes later after a walk to find a payphone I met, by my tent ‘Goldie’, a huge blonde wolf of a dog, sneezing from all the pollen spores in the air, with legs that looked like…a lion. He was lovely.
Now we’re buddies and he even joined me later as I went for a wee by the edge of the woods, cocking his leg to scent the same tree as me.
Suffice to say the GPS unit worked and the call centre had spoken to my ’emergency contacts’ and were just about to get some State Troopers (police) to drive to the campsite when they received the ‘cancel’ message, thinking and telling my mum and dad that I’d probably pressed the button by mistake and on realising had cancelled it.
So I spent over 6 hours seriously, seriously (seriously!) fearing for my life to be followed by a not an insubstantial amount of embarrassment.
Duped by a big hairy sneezing dog and a bird.
To make me feel a bit better one of the locals said later that day that with all the pieces added together (as above) he’d have thought exactly the same. I also met a big burly Harley Davidson motor biker afterwards who said he’d spent a terrifying night, on his ride to Alaska, in his tent, convinced a bear was outside. It turned out to be an oversize Alsatian (a brown German Shepherd).
On an even more serious note, I found out a day or so later that there really WAS a Mountain Lion spotted in the same valley recently. Alaska is hardcore. Still feel embarrassed though. Whats that Bryan Ferry song? “Imagination…”, well, it seems mine was running wiiiii-ld!
And of course, I made it across Alaska! Into Canada! Yukon! I passed the settlement of Snag (the coldest place in North America at -63°C, where Vostok, Antarctica holds the record at -89.2°C!), was allowed to take my bear-spray over the border (was previously told it would not be possible) and 2 days ago, after a month of cycling in a vacuum in terms of other touring cyclists going my way I met 4, together, Ward, Jacky, Adam and Tim and we’ve been cycling together for the last few days which has been great 🙂 I even met Ward and Jacky as I left the Dalton last month, when they were cycling to the Artic Circle! Small world.
Whitehorse is nice, if a little surreal after having had much smaller towns for a few weeks. The campsite we’re on is chilled and the mosquitoes (which have recently been awful) are so so. I plan to head with Ward and Jacky (From the Benches of the World) for a while but we’ll keep in touch with Adam and Tim as they continue their ride to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina in support of Autism awareness (Adventure for Autism).
(I’m camping at a mixture of RV Parks, campgrounds, lay-bys / pull-outs and in Dot Lake the back garden of the Postmaster!)
Oh, and I get wound up on a regular basis whenever there is a dog nearby: “Jon, watch out for that Mountain Lion!”. Seriously, I continue to be careful and am happy to be here 🙂 Onwards. I hope you’re all doing well.
(Postscript: in my childhood of the 1980s Blue Peter had a dog, called…’Goldie’)