Before I ever went camping, I assumed that to see animals up close in the wild, you had to spend days on end in the middle of nowhere, disguised as a bush. It hadn’t occurred to me that animals have no interest in making nice with a bush; they want to make nice with humans, as long as they act like humans.
I got my first inkling of that when Bob and I visited Maryland’s Assateague Island. Of course, I wanted to see the wild ponies Assateague’s known for. I thought the island’s confines would make sighting easier than in Montana, let’s say, where the 15 residents give horses the run of the state. Soon as we’d set up the tent, I took Bob down a dirt trail leading into the woods. If we crept quietly enough, I knew we’d spot a pony or two. An hour later, we returned disappointed. Maybe we needed to head down the trail before dawn. Maybe we needed to walk quieter. Maybe we needed to forget about stealthy pre-dawn hikes because right at suppertime, a dozen ponies came strolling through the campground looking for handouts. The photo opportunities were unbeatable, as long as you didn’t mind a Winnebago or Boy Scout troop in the background.
In Canada’s Jasper National Park, elk is the animal to spot. Some 1,300 live in the park. But I knew enough not to expect any to pop up in the campground; Jasper is almost four times the size of Rhode Island. Bob and I would have to look harder or get luckier. I thought a three-mile hike through the Valley of Five Lakes might improve our odds. The emerald-colored lakes made for beautiful photos. Only an elk or two could have made them any prettier.
We were nearing our campsite around dusk when we spotted a huge bull elk alongside the road. Up ahead, we saw a smaller female with her calf. I couldn’t believe our luck. As we got out of the car, another calf appeared along with a young bull. In no time, eight elks were nibbling the bushes at our site and the next. If fear hadn’t held me back a few feet, I probably could have touched them. The big bull seemed to know exactly what humans want. He stopped eating, turned toward us, then held his head high long enough for us to take several pictures. By then, the elks must have tired of us because they wandered deeper into the campground, evidently enjoying the attention from a growing herd of shutterbugs.
The next day, Bob and I stopped for lunch at a roadside picnic table. Signs warned us to “Observe wildlife from a distance.” To do that, we would have had to eat on the ground. A mountain goat was licking a grill alongside our table. He must have realized that wasn’t a very dignified image because he jumped up on a table and struck a photo-worthy pose.
Bob and I see an eagle here in South Florida about once every 10 years. I thought we’d slash the wait time on the heavily forested Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle. Several days into our stay, with no eagle sightings, we noticed a fisherman pushing a wheelbarrow onto the beach. In seconds, a dozen of these majestic birds, symbol of our nation’s strength and independence, were loudly fighting for every fish head and tail he tossed into the air. We should not have been surprised.
We’ve encountered more fearsome species – alligators in the Everglades, a bear in a California park — but none more troublesome than our own.
We once returned to our campsite at Bluewater Park in Ontario to find a pair of men sitting on folding chairs no more than two feet from our tent. They had parked on our site and put their belongings on our picnic table. The rest of their family was across the street, on their own site. The men were so rooted to their chairs that Bob and I felt like we were the intruders. I thought they’d be considerate enough to move when the glow from the headlamps we use to read in the tent went out. They kept right on talking. When I got up to run at 6, the men had relinquished the lawn chairs to their wives.
Days later, we were circling Bay Furnace Campground on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We saw just one empty site. I got out at the campground manager’s trailer to book it. A man pulled up behind and asked which site I’d picked. He said he had his eye on 36 too, but would give it to us because we got there first. When nobody answered my knock, I decided to look for the campground host. So did the man behind us. He zipped around our van, blocked the road in front of the host’s trailer and registered for site 36. It was the last available. Bob and I found a spot later that morning at another lakefront campground that was nice as the first. But I still hoped the camper at site 36 had his own close wildlife encounter, with the site hogs from Bluewater Park.