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Louisa: The season of Out Alive is brought to you by Stillhouse, the official spirit of adventure. Stillhouse makes award-winning bourbon, vodka, and whiskeys that come in unbreakable 100% stainless steel cans because the good times go where glass can’t follow. When you’re kicking back around the campfire after a long day in the wild, there’s nothing like toasting to the survival scenarios that you managed to avoid. And because Stillhouse comes in a metal can, you never have to worry about dropping your booze or about how you pack it. It’s not going to break or leak in your bag. Stillhouse makes black bourbon, original whiskey, spiced, cherry peach tea, and apple crisp whiskeys, and classic vodka.
Coming up later in this episode, we’re gonna tell you how to use Stillhouse spirits to make one of our favorite camping cocktail recipes, because the good times really do go where glass can’t follow. Learn more about all of Stillhouse’s delicious offerings at Stillhouse.com. Please drink responsibly.
We, the producers who make this podcast, have learned a lot since we first started Out Alive, and the lessons have surprised us. Certainly we’ve been indoctrinated to always tell someone where we’re going and when to expect us. And as editors of Backpacker, we know all about the 10 Essentials, but the lesson we keep coming back to is that storytelling is healing. The tales we share are wraught with trauma, and we’ve heard time and again from our guests that there is relief in the retelling. It’s part of why we do what we do. So, when a listener emailed us to share her own healing journey, we were touched. Dr. Alison Roy is a licensed clinical psychologist and trauma expert. She knows a thing or two about long-term mental recovery from a professional standpoint. But after she and her family encountered a traumatic event while on a hike, they got a whole new perspective on healing.
Trailer: I made a decision to survive. You’re in that survival mode, the, the idea of dying wasn’t in my head, I knew immediately it was the worst-case scenario. I was in a fight-for-my-life situation. Whenever you walk out on these trails, you’re in their house. I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable. I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring and
I couldn’t do anything. Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you. There is no way we would find anybody alive.
My name’s Allison [Roy], and I’m a psychologist, and I’m also a mom. And I’m a New Hampshire native born in the state. Absolutely love it there.
Ian: My name’s Ian O’Reilly. I have had the luxury of being around the world a few times and right back to New Hampshire. It’s hard to leave once you’re there.
Alison: We’re a hiking family. We have three kids. At the time of the incident, which was January 20th, 2020. They were 5, 3, and 2. It was Martin Luther King Day or Civil Rights Day. And so we took the opportunity as a family to go for a hike, and we decided to keep it local. So we were actually not far from home, maybe 5 miles from our house, and we’ve done this trail a bunch.
We started walking in, and as young kids do, they’re exploring and not always the most cooperative hiking, but we were chugging along as a family. And we were probably about a mile into the trail. And Ian was up ahead with the two older kiddos. And I was further behind with my youngest, my 2-year-old, and kind of something caught out of the corner of my eye.
And I thought it was honestly a dog that had come up behind us. It’s not unusual in New Hampshire to have dogs off leash on trails. I thankfully was holding his hand, but at that moment, the animal came up from behind us, and grabbed the hood of his snowsuit and pulled him backwards. And I just picked him up and turned around and realized pretty quickly that we were not in fact dealing with a dog, that it was a coyote.
And that’s when it became very clear that this animal was interested in engaging with us. And wasn’t interested in going away.
Ian: I was up ahead with the two older children and heard a commotion, but didn’t necessarily know what was going on. I did see an animal that was behind me, but had no idea what it was.
The animal did circle around at that time to, for some reason, go in front of us. And all of a sudden, from behind us, it was now in front and looking directly at myself and the two kids, it looked like a mid-sized German Shepherd. It’s not like a Western coyote that’s about 20 pounds and looks more like a fox.
It’s a very Eastern coyote. I still thought that it was a German Shepherd.
Louisa: This wasn’t the family’s first encounter with an aggressive wild animal. About six months prior, a rabid raccoon had wandered into their backyard where their children were playing and bit their middle son on the leg.
Alison: I do remember saying, “Why is this happening? Why is this happening to us?” I remember saying that out loud. It was just so frustrating to think, like, what are the odds that this would happen once to a family? Never mind twice in the span of six months. This is the part of our story that is very difficult for us to remember. It’s like time was both standing still and in warp speed at the same time, our oldest who was still only 6 at the time, our daughter knew that this was a situation she needed to remove herself from.
She found the biggest tree to hide behind and called her two younger brothers over to her.
Louisa: Ian and Alison knew the animal’s behavior was threatening. What they didn’t know was that the same coyote was reported to have attacked a car, as well as a woman walking with her dog just miles down the road, hours before it happened upon their family.
Alison: We’re outdoor enthusiasts. We know quite a bit about being out in the backcountry. We know coyote behavior. Pretty quickly, it was obvious to us that this animal was not engaging with us in a way that a coyote typically would. It was absolutely hyperfocused on annihilating us, and it wanted nothing more than to seemingly to harm us.
Ian: It was bouncing back and forth. It was high energy, and it was lunging. And so there was no way to shoo the animal away. The first thing we wanted to do was just not be there, not be in that situation, and try and remove ourselves. Unfortunately, within very short amount of time was obvious that was not an option.
Alison: They talk about how that survival instinct and that mama bear instinct kicks in. And it absolutely 1000% did. There was no question in our minds about what we were doing. A switch flip and we were kicking, we were pushing, we were doing anything we could to try to just keep the animal away from vital parts of our body.
Louisa: Luckily, the O’Reillys were dressed for January in New England. Their thick layers of clothing offered some protection against the coyote’s teeth and claws, and their heavy boots became their weapons.
Ian: I do remember getting a pretty good kick to its jaw, which I think unsettled it to the point of making it a more fair fight.
You’d think that two fully grown adults and one 45-pound coyote would be a unfair match. However, I will say that’s certainly not the case. This is a rabid animal that is not working with a full mental capacity due to the virus inside of it. Its ability to survive and inflict damage and be so incredibly interested in killing us was wild. It was wild.
Alison: Somehow we were able to get that animal wrestled to the ground. So, that’s really where my memory comes back online.
Ian: I was able to get on top of it at that point, and really use sort of my heft to my advantage. I’m certainly not a giant individual at 180 pounds, but it’s enough versus a 45-pound animal to certainly have an advantage.
Alison: It’s interesting. That’s when our ability to have judgment and make decisions came back online too. And so something switched obviously between being completely in this animalistic survival mode to, okay, we have somewhat incapacitated the animal for this moment. We have this window that we knew wasn’t gonna be long and we had to make some pretty quick decisions. I grabbed whatever stick I could find in the clearing and tried to stab the coyote. And I will tell you, their pelts are incredibly thick. It was useless. I was not gonna be able to defend us in any sort of way. And I was also in danger of hurting Ian because Ian was on top of the coyote and holding it down at that point. And he was like, “You’re going to hit me.”
Ian: And I don’t really wanna be stabbed with a stick.
Alison: And so this is the part for me. You would think that battle with the coyote would’ve been what keeps reoccurring in my brain. And actually the hardest part for me was this kind of crux that were at in the story now where I had to make the decision to leave. Coyotes are pack animals; we didn’t know at this point, whether that animal was by itself.
Louisa: Coyotes can be found across North America and are members of the canine family. They typically weigh around 20 to 50 pounds, which is comparable to the size of your average Border Collie or Dalmatian. Attacks on humans are exceptionally rare and there have only been two recorded incidents of humans being killed by a coyote in North America. Any coyote exhibiting aggression, or in contrast, a coyote that seems unusually tame is a prime suspect for rabies.
Alison: He looked at me, he said, “You gotta take the kids and go.” So I got the kids to come to me from behind the tree and I picked up my 2-year-old and I’ll never forget. My train of thought was, who’s going to bring me food after the funeral for Ian? I was literally thinking I’ve just left my husband to die. And that was the hardest part for me.
Louisa: We’ll be right back.
At the start of the episode, we talked about Stillhouse, maker of award-winning spirits that come in unbreakable stainless steel cans. Now my colleague Maren is going to tell us how to use Stillhouse black bourbon to make a drink that goes down just right when you come back to your campsite after a long day, mountain biking, filthy, exhausted, and psyched. After a day like that, I love to do a beer cocktail, a little fancier than your average brewski, but still super duper easy. Step one is making sure you put your beers and your bourbon in the cooler at the beginning of the day. Very, very important. Absolutely. What’s next? Crack open a cold one. I like a stout for this. Take a few deeply refreshing sips and then add some Stillhouse black bourbon to the top. Just about a shot, and then put a finger over the beer can and give it a gentle shaked mix. And then you’re all set. It’s boozy and caramely and goes great with s’mores. Actually speaking of s’mores a few months ago, the Backpacker staff tried soaking marshmallows in booze for about 10 minutes before toasting them. I feel like the black bourbon would work perfectly here that. Genius. I’ll have to try it. Right? I wanna go camping with the backpacker staff. You sound like a riot. This summer, the Stillhouse team is embarking on an epic American road trip, rolling in their sprinter van to bring good times and great memories to a campsite near you. They’re calling it “The Detour.” check stillhouse.com for dates, locations, and information. Stillhouse is the official spirit of adventure. Please drink responsibly.
While out on a family hike, Alison, Ian, and their three young children encountered a rabid coyote intent on injuring them. The family didn’t know it at the time, but the coyote was already responsible for two violent attacks nearby earlier that day. After a scuffle, Ian was able to immobilize the animal, allowing Alison and their children to run back to the trailhead to retrieve Alison’s cell phone and call for help.
Alison: This is one of those really poignant moments in my life. And I know that seems really odd to say, but I just remember almost watching myself run out with my kids. And I think my brain was doing this separation of I have to start figuring out what my next steps are and I have to be present for my children and what they’re asking of me right now.
And so I think my brain naturally separated in that way, and I was hearing this very calm voice come out that was saying, “Daddy’s gonna be just fine. Daddy’s fine. We’re gonna see daddy in a minute.” “Is daddy gonna die?” was the question that was quite frequently asked, and it was repetitive. I have three, so everything’s repetitive anyways, but they were asking it over and over again. The person I was hearing talking as I describe it was completely calm and collected and very sure that everything was gonna be just fine.
It’s interesting that survival looked different in that moment of, I just need to stay calm for my children. When in my brain, I just kept going, “So who’s gonna plan the funeral? What will that look like?” I was, for some reason, very focused on the food that was going to be happening or who was gonna take care of me afterwards.
So to be having this very calm, cool collected conversation, watching my babies, they were babies at that point, running out of this trail and just hoping like, “Please don’t fall down. I can’t carry you all the way, and please just keep moving.”
Louisa: Meanwhile, Ian was back on the trail using the only edge he had, his own body weight, to immobilize the coyote.
Ian: What I was thinking is, “Okay, how do I end this in a way I won’t get hurt?” I thought I had a very good handle on the situation. In fact, I did not. I’d use only a handful of strategies thus far. And I thought strangulation was the way to go because I had no other tools around me other than my arms and legs and a bodweight advantage.
After about five to seven minutes, I’m guessing of hopefully trying to put it to sleep. I let up just a little bit on my grip and my overall straddling it, if you will, and realized that it was just waiting for me to stop. It was fine. There was nothing going on with it. It was just politely waiting for me to stop and then either run away or continue attacking.
And that was really the point when things started getting a little bit darker.
Louisa: Ian had only one option
Ian: I distinctly remember this moment of letting out a scream of just being so frustrated. So upset with this animal for choosing us to run across on a path. It was not hunting us. It was an unlucky incident, an unlucky encounter.
The eyes were looking at me and I was looking at it, and I was so angry. I’d say from there, the rest of the story kind of plays itself out where there’s a moment in time when I could tell that the animal had passed. It led up, and at that point, I realized that the gig was up, but I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure, so I just continued.
Louisa: After finally reaching their car at the trailhead, Alison was able to recover her cell phone and call for help.
Alison: And as soon as I called 911, I was an emotional mess. That dispatcher did an amazing job with getting me to calm and focus, but it was an interesting experience to hold it together for that entire mile run out and then to get on that phone and just lose my cool.
So the first responders came and every kind of first responder you could possibly imagine, they pretty much reassured me right away that we’re probably looking at a rabid animal. They agreed that coyotes don’t typically act this way, but they were really great about staying with me and entertaining the kids while we were waiting for Ian to come out and that’s the best moment when they were escorting him out of the woods. It was the best feeling.
And to see that his injuries were something that we could deal with. I’ll never forget the smell. When Ian came out of the woods, I said, “Oh, you smell terrible.” They got him in the ambulance and gave him a once over. And where we had come out of the woods was probably maybe half a mile from our local emergency department.
And so we just drove ourselves to the ER.
Louisa: According to the CDC, about 60,000 Americans are treated for rabies after suspected exposure. Every year, rabies is dangerous and effectively 100 percent fatal if left untreated, but vaccines taken before the onset of any symptoms are always 100 percent effective.
Alison: I was so focused on getting my kids checked out. Obviously rabies is an absolutely 100 percent lethal condition and so you don’t mess around with it. So it was clear that Ian needed rabies shots because of the wound on his forearm was significant and the wound on his chest was significant, and it obviously had punctured so that was no question. So they were cleaning up Ian and getting that all started. And I was in the other room with the three kids and neurotically checking them as if we wouldn’t know if they were bitten, but in the moment your brain does really crazy things when you’re anxious or you’re scared. And I’ll never forget the ER nurse looking at me and saying, “Do you wanna be checked?”
And I said, “No, I’m an adult. I would know if I was I’m fine. I would know if I was hurt.” And it wasn’t until about 9 o’clock that evening, we’ve put the kids to bed. I decide it’s finally time to shower. We’re done with all the chaos of the day, and I had on long underwear and I thought to myself, “This is weird. Where’s all this blood coming from?” And then I slowly realized it’s me. It’s coming from me that I had a really significant wound on my lower leg and my shin area. And I had no idea.
Louisa: So Alison too was treated for rabies. All in all, the family was lucky to sustain only minor physical injuries. But the cognitive effects of the incident ran much deeper.
Ian: It was interesting to see the children. For example, our youngest had amazingly high separation anxiety after that moment. That was the aha for me, that this is not going away. We were able to pump our daughter up and say, “What a great job you did.” And she was able to use that as an emotional, personal booster.
Our middle child also feels that he saved our younger child in the process of getting him out of the way. Certainly not as a positive, but there’s some silver linings there. The younger guy was just too young to process, and all he saw was something’s trying to kill my parents.
Something’s trying to hurt them. And it’s certainly encoded in a way that was very difficult to deal with. Yesterday, two years and three months later, in a car ride from picking up my middle son, he said, “I don’t think about the coyote anymore.” And he’s developing in a way that he’s now just able to describe it. It’s amazing how long it takes to process these things.
Louisa: Alison is a licensed psychologist who specializes in helping her clients through traumatic events. We wanted to know how she used her professional experience to help shape her family’s path to healing and what it was like being on the other side.
Alison: I think getting back out there was so important and so critical. And I think it was surprising to a lot of people that the very next weekend we were hiking again. But I think that’s so important, and it’s been an important part of our journey at least, to really reimburse ourselves in the part of the world we like best, which is the trails.
Talking about it when it comes up, I think leaving space or creating space in our family to have that be a conversation. That’s why we volunteer to tell the story, because we know how therapeutic that is in my professional role. I tell people all the time, you gotta talk about it, right? Talking heals. And it’s true. And the brain scans will show that’s true. And that’s the best way to heal from a trauma is to tell your story and to talk about it. And when you’re the survivor or you’re the person that’s experienced it, it’s really hard to do. I have lots of colleagues who have checked in on me. I distinctly remember one of them about a week or two after saying, “How’s the movie reel going?”
And I knew exactly in that moment what she was talking about. This was true for all of us is that what happened just kept playing over and over in our brains. And it doesn’t anymore. It went away eventually, but in those first two weeks it was pretty intense. And the other thing I think that really surprised me is my reaction to certain situations.
So for example, Ian and I are both runners. And we were out for a run together and someone’s dog was off leash and came flying out of the house at us, and I had an absolute meltdown, I collapsed to the ground. I was scream crying, and I’ll never forget the first emotion I felt was complete shame and embarrassment.
But for me to experience that I’m having this reaction and I’m so embarrassed by it, it really gave me the perspective of what some of the individuals I work with feel when they have those flashbacks or those experiences that those feelings are real and sometimes worse than the emotions tied to the event.
Louisa: Ian had his own journey toward healing having had to kill the rabid animal with his bare hands.
Ian: I’m an animal lover. I always have been in the very beginning, what I found to be a very interesting perspective was people saying, “How did you kill an animal? You animal killer. I can’t believe you did that.”
And to say, “Yeah. Let’s trade positions for about five seconds there.” And see if you would do something differently. I couldn’t believe at the negative backlash of that. And it was just really shocking to me. And from that perspective, it took me about a month before I could run in the dark again because it was just the unknown. The very first time I did it, I think a squirrel ran across my path and I just about had a heart attack. Getting spooked by a squirrel is not something I’ve ever had before. When I run even today, someone will have a dog out the window and the dog will just randomly bark, and I quite literally jump. I jump mid-run, mid-stride.
I jump, I am immediately thrown back into that moment of what is this? Where is the animal? When we go on hikes and there’s dogs off-leash, and they come charging up, we’ve gotten much better at it. But I get upset. And is it fair to them? I don’t know. And maybe not, but it’s my emotions that I own.
Louisa: Alison’s experience in the woods that day has driven some of her work. She is now helping to train and consult with first responders and ER staff on ways to respond to patients and emergency scenarios.
Alison: I’m trying to work with and train and consult with, I’m now doing a lot of work with first responders around.
Ways to respond best when they arrive at situations like this. And so it’s just really helped me to open my eyes to how powerful our survival reaction is on all levels, not just on helping us to fight flight or freeze in the moment, but helping us to not feel pain or not understand what’s going on fully so that we can just get through those moments.
I’m not sure I realized the magnitude of how well that system does for us as humans until we experienced it. The other thing that I think is worth sharing is that it takes a long time to heal and that’s okay. I think I’m constantly feeling like I need to make excuses for my kids, but they’re still having symptoms and that’s actually what we would expect.
Traumatic experiences have a massive impact on our brains at a really neurocellular level. The research is very solid to show that even helping others to understand that you can have reactions even years later, and that’s completely normal. It’s our brain protecting ourselves from things that happen that are really hard or really overwhelming.
And that healing is certainly not a point in time. It’s a journey, and the last thing I’ll just say is it’s the overwhelming amount of gratitude we’re able to feel every day when we’re able to summit a mountain or be out on the trails or just be going to work. I think it’s not a stereotype for when you face a really life-threatening incident to come out on the other side with immense gratitude for every day. The last two years have been amazing in that way giving us this new way of looking at life.
Louisa: The O’Reilly family did everything right, but unfortunately they still found themselves in a survival situation with a sick animal. The coyote who happened upon them was acting aggressively, but it’s important to note that you should never approach or pet any wildlife, even if they appear to be ill and you’re simply trying to help. Pay special attention to steer clear of animals acting in any way that is unusual, like animals that are typically nocturnal, such as bats or raccoons walking around in the daytime, animals that are unusually tame or are excessively drooling. If you or your pet has been in physical contact with any wildlife, especially if you’ve been bitten or scratched, you should consult a public health professional to determine your risk for rabies right away.
This episode was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese along with Zoe Gates and Emma Veidt. Editing was by Zoe Gates. This epsiode was sound designed and scored by Jason Patton. Thank you to Alison and Ian O’Reilly for sharing your story with us. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.
This season of Out Alive is brought to you by Stillhouse. Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at backpacker.com/outsideplus.