by Peter Holleran
Note: first submitted to the Tamalpa Gazette in 2000, this has recently been updated for the benefit of new readership and includes additional encounters, amusing and gruesome information, and audio and visual links for heightened reality.
One of the joys I find on the trails of Mt. Tam, the Marin Headlands, Marin County Open Space District, or Point Reyes is making the unexpected acquaintance of the local fauna. It is a primal thrill particularly when heading out alone on the relatively unpopulated mid-week or winter run or hike. There is a sense of danger and excitement on a solitary trek in the wild, ON or OFF-trail, that eludes one on the more social, more human, group outings. Moreover, as such jaunts are quieter due to the lack of conversation and less clomping there is more chance of surprising the resident, seasonal, and random meadow, canyon, and forest dwellers - including, but not limited to, rogue mountain bikers (recently seen desecrating the untracked wilderness between High Marsh Trail and Alpine Lake), homeless people (found encamped just off Nora trail below West Point Inn), and above the law runners (such as myself - according to recent reports - but who exonerate themselves by reporting on the former and generally keeping an eye on things). Indigenous wildlife that has trotted, slinked, loped, soared, burrowed, galloped, or bounded across or along my path in the span of a few weeks have included: uncountable deer, one impressive herd of tule elk, a large family of turkey vultures, six bobcats, three coyotes, five fox (including babies), one mole, three mountain lions, innumerable wild turkeys and jackrabbits, and one indiscernable large, dark shape. The essential and definitive book, Tamalpais Trails by Barry Spitz, complete with detailed map, will help the uninitiated duplicate my adventures. A description of close encounters follows.
Deer are everywhere, but one of the best places to find them is on Pumpkin Ridge off Sky Oaks Road near Bon Tempe Lake, where they can almost always be observed. A unique, smaller species, the mule deer, can be seen on Bear Valley Trail in Point Reyes, just past Divide Meadows, and on the nearby Rift Zone Trail I have spotted the rare white deer, considered sacred by some Indian tribes. On Tamalpais at dusk I have come close to crashing into quite a few large deer when rounding any of the numerous bends on TCC; the trail is so soft and you are running downhill at such a good clip that they don't notice you coming. It is always exciting in the dimming light amidst the tall trees. Statistics show more human deaths occur each year because of deer than any other animal. This is largely due to car, not running, crashes, but phony digital remastering and stories in tabloids not dissimilar to the Tamalpa Gazette have led some to believe there has been a surge of ferocious one-on-one attacks on people. Actually, this idea is not all that bogus anymore, as in recent days a number of such incidents HAVE occurred. A jogger and several others were attacked in Illinois, and one death and several brutal antler gorings took place in California. Therefore, respect this lowly animal, and don't give fellow Tamalpa runner, the beloved Dr. Elmo, material for another cult hit single, like "Kiernan got impaled and lost his reign, dear."
Fox abound on Tam, and they are not that timid at all. Barry Spitz once reported feeling threatened and being scared away by an assertive, barking fox, although this is not common behavior - for a fox anyway. Perhaps the animal sensed potential exposure in the local press and overreacted. In the middle of a sunny day while jogging around the Verna Dunshee paved loop on East Peak an entire family of fox trotted in front of me and only reluctantly moved off the path when I got a few feet away. On two other occasions while maybe a half dozen people were resting on the rocks directly below the fire tower several fox casually strolled by as if we weren't even there. A very natural, enjoyable experience. Fox have taken up housekeeping at Pantoll campground, and on moonlit nights I have seen their eyes shining at me on Old Mine trail while jogging out towards Cardiac. They have also paced me on Matt Davis between Nora and Bootjack.
On one weekend morning I startled an entire family of turkey vultures that were resting on Eastwood trail just below West Peak (even on a weekend, Eastwood is likely to be empty due to its precipitous nature; you can hardly call it running, but it's an adventurous route to and from both sides of the mountain). It was quite an experience for half a dozen of these large birds to stretch their giant wingspans and take off practically in my face at point-blank range. It reminded me of the haunting 1956 sci-fi movie Rodan. They obviously didn't expect to see a human in this remote locale. A marvelous mind-stopper that made my day.
Regular wild turkeys can be seen strutting single file all over Marin, at Pantoll, Muir Woods, even my own backyard in San Rafael. They run 20 miles an hour and can fly up to 50 for short periods. It is illegal to kill them (even for Thanksgiving), but the County has plans to get rid of them anyway. Go figure. According to unelected bureaucrats with taxpayer money to burn, they (the turkeys) impinge on the habitat of some small critter or other that is considered more important. The turkey has a powerful muscular stomach called a gizzard which serves the same purpose as jaws and teeth in mammals and can crush hard objects; to assist in the grinding process, the turkeys ingest small stones or grit along with their food. This trait could come in handy for a runner stopping at an aid station. Just pop in the food and a few pebbles with no time wasted on chewing. Because of this ability and their potential for speed maybe should we consider the idea of allowing turkeys into races. (Come to think of it, perhaps we already have). Unscrupulous turkey farmers have been known to load up the gizzards with rock to increase the weight of the birds which are then sold by the pound. I saw this trick pulled by the Kingfish (George Stevens) on the TV show Amos 'n Andy!
Bobcats, some quite chunky thirty-pounders, have run into me on Tennessee Valley trail, Redwood Springs trail (near East Peak picnic area), Old Vee Road (on Pine Mountain, where they strut around like they own the place), Concrete Pipeline (one loped along in front of me for a quarter mile), Coastal trail north of Palomarin trailhead, and Miwok trail in Gerbode Valley. One foggy morning I saw a rare black bobcat (not to be confused with the more elusive black panther) cross Ridgecrest Boulevard on Mt. Tam near Rock Springs. The origin of this variety is unknown, but some ideas may be entertained from a study of other mutant cats. Bobcats, while able to bound away at top speed, in many cases do not move over until they absolutely have to. On a glorious run north of Bolinas on Coastal trail, while climbing the rise after Ocean Lake just before Wildcat camp, I came upon one fat old cat. I kept getting closer and closer and this fellow just wasn't budging. At maybe five feet he stepped off the trail with a look on his face like, "you don't belong here!" After the turnaround at Wildcat Camp (where, not a human in sight, a lone fox checked out the garbage scene) I began to think, "I haven't seen a soul in three miles, exactly why do they call it WILDCAT Camp - what else might be out here?" Suddenly I really felt like I was not on my own turf and picked up the pace for the 4.5 mile return trip. Another afternoon while descending Miwok Trail on a run to Rodeo Beach I saw a woman far below apparently frozen in her tracks. When I reached her I noticed a bobcat in the middle of the fire road (which she thought might be a mountain lion), and I told her not to be afraid. "But why doesn't it move?!" she said. I confidently replied, "because you aren't moving fast enough," (!) and kept on running. Sure enough, as I got within close range it moved over, but then I thought, "why am I so cocky, can I really tell the difference between a bobcat and a BABY MOUNTAIN LION?" - and where baby goes, momma can't be far behind. (Hint: when in doubt, check out the tail; those of bobcats are very short).
Although the hiking books haven't been updated to reflect it yet, the fact is that coyotes are all over Marin. That should not be surprising as the "prairie wolf" has even been found as far east as Central Park in New York City. My first encounter was on Sky Oaks Road near Pumpkin Ridge trailhead several years ago. Out of the blue a bushy coyote came bounding down the slope, stopping ten to fifteen yards away, fixing on me with a striking, soulful gaze. It looked more like a wolf to me, not a scrawny Wile E. Coyote at all. (Nevertheless it wasn't. The gray wolf weighs in at 100-175 pounds and stands 36-40 inches tall. To appreciate how big that is, by comparison the female mountain lion weighs 65-90 pounds and the male 130-150. The wolf, moreover, has a bite strength of 1000 pounds per square inch (ouch) while the average large dog only 700). A second sighting occurred on Green Gulch trail coming out of Muir Beach. It was one of those magnificent, slightly misty, somewhat windy Marin Headland-type days, and I went out for what was suppposed to be an easy run (at least, as easy as can be with a few 1000 foot hills figured in). As I passed Green Gulch Farm Zen Center I felt a heightened sense of energy (perhaps the monks were having an extra good meditation) and started to run hard up the hill. I felt great and was running beyond myself. As I crested the top a coyote bounded across the dirt road in front of me only to disappear like a shooting star over the next rise. What a rush! Is THAT why they call it Coyote Ridge? On another fantastic outing (up Chicken Ranch Fire Road in Ignacio to Big Rock Ridge, on a late afternoon with the threat of rain, heightening the feeling of wildness) barely 200 yards into the run another coyote slinked across my path not forty feet away. At first, when I got over being stunned, I reasoned that since his tail was between his legs he was most likely fairly shy. But after further thought I concluded he wasn't shy, and probably wasn't scared at all: coyotes always run with their tails between their legs, don't they? Farther up the ridge, on the back side of the extension of Queenstone Fireroad, beyond its junction with Chicken Ranch, facing towards Indian Valley, is one area I am definitely not in a hurry to wander off-trail in the near future. In the evening I have often heard what sounds like 40 or 50 coyotes howling in there all at once. I can deal with one or two, but a large pack awakens primal fear and raises the hair on the back of my neck. Haunting images came to mind of stories I read about Russia in WWI where the military had to be called in because large packs of hungry timber wolves were encircling small towns trying to break into people's homes). O.K., I admit I am a wimp - then YOU go up there.
Hardly awesome or majestic, yet proof that delight comes in small packages, was an encounter I had one day with a solitary mole. Approaching the junction of Hoo-Koo-E-Koo and Railroad Grade I slowed to a walk upon noticing something moving in the middle of the path. In the blink of an eye a tiny gray package turned on its head and burrowed directly into the hard-packed fireroad. Its speed was such that I could swear it had a titanium bit on its nose. Simply amazing. I found myself drawn to contemplation of things below, and wondered if we were only running on the surface of things. The blazing sun overhead melted my incredulity (ie., addled my brain) and I became motivated to research the subject further. I am now convinced that the reason our local government agencies set trail restrictions and designate official routes is they have knowledge of a secret opening on Mt. Tam leading to an inner world and I will search until I find it.
Sometimes things are not what they seem. Climbing out of Stinson Beach on the Willow Camp Fireroad I crested the top of the "West Wall" of Tam and saw what looked like a eight-foot ball of flies in front of me. Since the slope dropped off steeply on either side I decided to just run right through. It turned out it wasn't a huge ball of flies, but a huge swarm of bees! This spot is three miles from anywhere, so a remedy for anaphylactic shock if needed would be hard to find. Already tired, running fast uphill was an impossible escape, so my only alternative was to hustle off-trail over the steep slopes and high grass and pray to emerge in one piece. Things could have been worse. A friend of mine, Jerome Lourme, was stalked by a mountain lion in this area.
In June of 2006 while descending Mt. Tam I stopped before a rattle snake resting on the Temelpa Trail. The rattles were clearly visible, but not rattling. It was a small snake, maybe two feet long. Normally shy creatures, it didn't worry me too much, but rather than press my luck and boldly jump over it I gently threw a few pebbles in its directions and told it to move on - which it did, but just barely and not in any particular hurry. I continued running and thought that being so small the chances of its venom packing a large punch were not too great. I was later informed by someone that actually it is the little snakes that are more dangerous because they "don't know how much venom they release". Whether that rather dubious explanation is true I don't know, but it is worth looking into. Rattlesnakes seem to enjoy rocks and from time to time signs have warned of their presence in the rubble surrounding the East Peak lookout on Mt. Tam. Their natural enemy is the generally-harmless-to-humans California King Snake, which all hikers and joggers should be familiar with and recognize by its large black stripes. The ability to open their jaws very wide allows them to swallow rattlesnakes easily. It is erroneous, however, that they are immune to rattler venom. They have adapted to it, but if bitten in the head or heart can die.
One of the most stunning places of all is Tomales Point. To run out and back during normal working hours (!) or in weather with the ocean on one side and Tomales Bay on the other, a nine-mile roundtrip with little chance for a human encounter, is simply majestic; the landscape is almost Brigadoonish. On one such jaunt I had a most incredible experience. Half-way out I noticed to my amusement that the famed Tule elk herd had spread itself right across the fire road. Now, these aren't small deer, they are BIG elk, many of them five feet high at the shoulder, with large antlers. Moreover, this was rutting season, and I had been warned to give them plenty of space. I patiently waited (after grabbing a big stick), and they did gradually move aside. On the return trip they had moved farther away so my run continued unhindered. A mile later when nearing Pierce Point Ranch, however, I began to have a strange, wild feeling. With the wind picking up and the waves crashing far below, I felt like I was not alone. Running faster, I looked up to my left and saw the entire herd galloping alongside me! This was fantastic, the ultimate thrill, which shortly, however, turned to mild panic, when I thought, "are they running FROM something?!" Hhhm...No other humans around. I sprinted to the car.
Which brings me to the final series of close encounters, those with the mountain lion, catamount, panther, painter, puma, cougar, aka the big cat, fourth largest in the world, which always merits some caution. Now, at this point I must confess that it really wasn't I who saw them, rather friends and an acquaintance (and a "friend of an acquaintance") but I'll vouch for at least two of these stories. Geoff Vaughn reported sighting a mountain lion off Yolanda trail a few years ago. Just a little one, a "junior", as it were (a mere four or five feet long). Others have also spotted them there. One Salomon-sponsored professional mountain biker I met at the top of Tam told me that a friend of his faced off with a big cat on Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road, in broad daylight, and that he even had teeth marks on his front tire to show for it. O.K., I won't stand by that one. But I did stop running alone down Corte Madera Creek trail off Hoo-Koo-E-Koo in the later afternoon once I heard this, for a while at least. The most reliable of the three, told by my friend Brian was that he was cycling on Concrete Pipeline between Bolinas Road and Five Corners when a large cougar jumped down on the road about 50 feet ahead of him. He realized he couldn't stop in time (nor did he want to!) when just before colliding the cat lunged down the ravine in the vicinity of Canyon trail. Now, why did I HAVE to remember this on a lonely, rainy, late Monday afternoon run when for diversion I turned off Concrete Pipeline and went down Canyon?! Mike Lotter reported in early 2006 running in the wild Pine Mountain area with a friend and seeing a fresh deer carcass on one side of a fireroad on his outbound run and finding it dragged to the opposite side on his return! He opined that he would not return to that area alone any time soon. Nor, unfortunately, are these cats confined to secluded mountain areas alone. Eddie O'Rourke reported one 50 yards from his home in Walnut Creek, several were spotted just above the soccer fields at Indian Valley College, at White's Hill School in Fairfax, wihin sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, and casually walking up someone's driveway in Ignacio. In short, you can run, but you can't hide. "Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear..." Could this be The Day of the Animals, aka Something Is Out There?
As a result of stories like these I have modified my behavior to some extent. I do keep my eyes and ears open when I crouch down to tie my shoes, and I'm a bit more hesitant about heading down dark or isolated trails by myself when the sun is going down. At times I may carry a stone in each hand in order to fend off predators. But when I do this I always face a dilemma: by this rather negative contemplation am I not attracting the very thing I fear? I then usually drop the stones and settle for handclapping and shouting to warn of my presence. I feel I have made some progress: years ago as a hiker I carried a loud whistle, pepper spray, and a stun device! Apart from all this I continue as before, running with the "wolves", the elk, the fox, the bobcat and the deer. I recommend it highly.
And what about that indiscernable, large dark shape? I saw it ahead of me one evening while cruising in the rapidly fading light along the curves of the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road, and recently, on a more secret, unofficial path. I prayed that it be a deer, and not a bear, cougar, bigfoot, extra or intra-terrestrial - or, even worse, a citation-hungry park official! (Just kidding). Maybe some day you will see it, too.
On Feb. 5, 2002 I finally did encounter a mountain lion, on the Matt Davis/Coastal Trail just west of Pantoll on Mt. Tam. It was small, maybe three feet long with a two foot tail. I got within thirty yards before it slinked off. I thought it was afraid of me until I realized that a very big hiker with a large walking stick was rapidly approaching from behind. Terry Parks claims that on one occasion he ran along this same trail for a couple of miles with a mountain lion running ahead of him. (And for that stunt I nominate him for a "Darwin Award").
In May 2003 a lone black bear, most likely wandering down from Sonoma County, was sighted three times in Point Reyes, Mt. Tam, and Mill Valley before vanishing as mysteriously as it appeared. The usual advice given for this type of situation is (1) run (2) make alot of noise and hope it goes away, or (3) offer it a PowerBar. If it still does NOT go away but instead approaches aggressively, try using pepper-spray, if you can get it out of your pack or pocket in time (which is unlikely). If that only pisses it off, however, then the rule is: (1) if it is a grizzly bear, lie down, roll in a ball and play dead, or (2) if it is a black bear, don't lie down, roll in a ball, and play dead (they like to gnaw on your skull), but fight back, for what it's worth (which isn't much). If it is a grizzly, climb a tree, but if it is a black bear, don't (they are excellent climbers). Or, maybe it's the other way around. Let's see, which is it? Uh oh, time's up....
In spite of these challenging encounters I consider Marin County a reasonable trade-off. No way will I do a triathlon, however, because of the "Jaws" factor, nor will you find me running anywhere near water in Florida, where an alligator recently ate a jogger. Apparently even the fastest of us might not even be safe as it is claimed some of these creatures can run up to 30 miles per hour over short distances. I suppose this is even a remote risk in Marin, if some wiseacre kid flushes his pet into the sewers where it grows to immense size before seeking restribution by stalking us on the trails. A report in Scientific American, furthermore, documents embryonic chicken growing alligator teeth, which may be evidence that the currently popular substitution of poultry for beef in the diet is not so benign after all, and may in fact be responsible for the emergence of nightmarish characters like "Jake the Alligator Man" (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a stunt double after multiple attempts at duplicating Leslie Acoca's 1991 Dipsea face-plant after the stile onto Highway One (see Dipsea: The Greatest Race, 1993 ed., p. 223)). And if all of this isn't enough to worry about, think twice before refilling a water bottle at water's edge: exotic piranha-type fish were found dumped in Novato's Stafford Lake a few years back - courtesy of someone else with nothing better to do.
In summary, as a sarcastic blogger recently put it, "Don't jog near wild animals, they just hate that." What can one say? Life is a risk.
See Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association for information on Saturday and Sunday guided hikes on Mt. Tam.
Also see Hiking Trails at Mt. Tamalpais for descriptions of selected hikes.