I’ve seen a grizzly sow and two cubs from 30 yards away in Glacier National Park. That got my heart pumping, to be sure. I once encountered a mountain lion on a Northern California trail, and I still shudder to think of what it could have done with those huge claws had it been hungry. But neither experience prepared me for the terror of waking up in the middle of the night with a skunk’s butt in my face.
I was in California’s Trinity Alps, leading teens on a weeklong trek during which they learned backpacking skills. All 12 of us—10 kids and two guides—had laid our bags out under the stars. It was a mild night, without a hint of clouds, and we had no problem conking out after a big day on the trail. But a small scratching noise woke me after midnight; I opened my eyes and there was a skunk tail, unmistakable in the moonlight, waving slowly up and down about six inches away. The skunk inspected every square inch of the ground around my head, searching for any crumbs we might have dropped. It sniffed at the dirt by my left ear, its tail still bobbing slightly. I knew we were in no real danger, of course, but the thought of taking a direct hit to the face was enough to cause panic to rise in my chest, and the vision of every kid under my watch getting sprayed was not pleasant either. I was not about to startle that skunk.
Until that moment, I thought I knew how to be quiet around wildlife. But there’s a difference between not talking and being utterly, truly silent. I willed myself to breathe slowly, through my nose. I relaxed my body, starting at my feet and consciously willing every muscle and bone to go dormant. I watched the skunk move to the nearest prone body and start its search again, but I only moved my eyes to track its progress, keeping my head still. I remained that way, mesmerized and motionless, as the skunk investigated the rest of our camp. It left before anyone else woke up—thankfully, I had learned to be quiet. Really quiet. Follow these tips, and you will, too:
» Breathe through your nose (unless you’re congested or moving fast, and need more air).
» Stalk wildlife early or late, when the ground is wet with dew, or after a rain; moisture softens leaves and twigs so they’re less noisy underfoot.
» Step slowly, knees bent, rolling forward from heel to toe. Slip large wool socks over your boots to muffle footsteps.
» Wear close-fitting clothes that won’t rub and swish. Make sure nothing is loose and hanging, even the ends of shoe laces.
» Avoid strong-scented lotions, sunscreen, and bug repellent.
» Mimic the way small animals move, in short, irregular bursts, not in a steady pattern.
» Practice walking quietly at home, around your pets. If you can sneak up on a dog or cat, you’re doing well. —Dennis Lewon