Ruff Country

animal encounter grouse tale

A traumatic trail-tale with an unlikely attacker.

It’s my first year in Bozeman and I’m eager to experience a quintessential southwest Montana summer. I sign up for the Ridge Run—what will be the longest race of my life—and start the Distance Running 101 crash course. I need to start training, well, yesterday, so I quickly tick off Peets Hill, Drinking Horse, and Triple Tree. Feeling confident, my mind shifts to something with a little more elevation and a lot more mileage: Mystic Lake.

Twenty miles round-trip with 1,000 feet of elevation gain, this will be a good opportunity to test myself. Plus, local insight says that this is a great training run. “You should run up Bozeman Creek,” they say. “It’s a great family-friendly trail,” they tell me. Well, they all fail to mention the dangers that hide just out of sight.

The ascent goes smoothly as I meander up the rolling, bending trail. Once I reach the cabin, my first problem sets in. It’s a hot, smoky day and I’ve been drinking so much water that I’m now completely out, at my farthest out-point of the run. Yeah, I know there’s a lake, and a creek that runs the entire length of the trail, but I weigh the pros and cons and decide that a couple hours of thirst is better than a week with giardia.

So, I make my way back—hot, thirsty, and already tired. My main incentive now is the cold water and beer waiting for me in the car. As I descend, I have to restrain myself from diving mouth-first into the creek. The miles feel slower than the way up, but I force myself to push on.

About halfway back, I see it, creeping out of the shadows. It moves through the trees and stops directly between me and my lifeline back at the car. The creature puffs up its chest. No doubt it means business. Then it issues a chilling screech and the hairs on my neck stand on end. I feel trapped. This is an ambush and it dawns on me that I’m going to have to fight my way out of this one. Just me against the most vicious grouse in the forest.

Taking flight, it heads straight for my neck like a screaming, bloodthirsty missile from hell—and I may or may not let out an involuntary shriek.

I make my way to one side of the trail, hoping it will give me a window to shoot past. No dice—it mirrors my movement, blocking the escape route. I move back the other way and it does the same. It lunges and flaps at me as if a charge is imminent. I try veering way off into the woods, but this is an even worse idea—it becomes frantic, and starts closing in. As I retreat, I revert to everything I know about bear encounters. Walk backward slowly, don’t turn and run, don’t look it in the eyes… or, do look it in the eyes? I can’t remember anymore. Dammit, it’s almost on me!

I stumble backward and, panic-stricken, look for a way to defend myself from the rabid beast. A few rocks thrown in its direction don’t phase it. I grab a bigger rock and a branch. When I launch the dirt-encrusted stone, it explodes upon impact and the shrapnel sets the bird off. Taking flight, it heads straight for my neck like a screaming, bloodthirsty missile from hell—and I may or may not let out an involuntary shriek. If a terrified person screams in the woods and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?

I manage to deflect the aerial assault with the branch, just a few feet from my jugular, and use the opportunity to make off with my life along with what little pride I have left. After I feel comfortable with the distance I’ve put between us, I turn back to make sure the coast is clear. I see it there, still standing and staring me down, defending its territory and daring me to come back. I contemplate marching back for another face-off, to show it who’s boss once and for all. If it wasn’t for this terrible thirst, I would. I swear, I’m a mountain-hardened athlete—I’m going to run the Ridge, after all. I just hope to God I don’t see one of these feathery freaks along the way.