Hansie and That One Coyote
I love spring along the Front Range of Colorado, U.S.A. In the many places I’ve lived, I’ve often heard the expression: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.” That expression never really registered with much sense until I settled into, and made, Boulder County my home. One day it might be 80 degrees and sunny, the next day tops out at 15 degrees and a blizzard.
It was one of those days, the blizzardy kind, in April 2020. The usual sun-drenched scene from the Teller Lake trail: The Flatirons, aka the Foothills, snuggling the city of Boulder to the west, with monstrous peaks of 14,000+ feet embracing those Flatirons just a few more miles farther west, were not to be seen that day. That day the sky was white in every direction right up to the point where it collided with the white ground in every direction. Early afternoon and the snow swirled lightly and felt cold but pleasant. The pandemic of 2020 had suddenly brought more people to this trail which runs fairly flat through farmland, with the occasional small herd of cows or horses. But this day there were no people and no horses or cows in sight. Just white with 2 specks, myself and this off-leash dog, Hans, walking with purpose northward up the trail. Hans is a client dog I take on 90-minute romps on various off-leash trails several times a week. A lovely dog, a tall schnauzer mixed with about 20 other ingredients. I’ve nicknamed him Thunderfoot, because when he runs at full tilt, his paws make a thundering echo on the dirt trails. Boulder County offers dog owners the opportunity to legally take dogs on certain trails without leashes. It’s a beautiful thing. It is expected that with this special tag your dog is under the human’s “voice and sight” command. I’m told it’s a rare right, or opportunity, to have this kind of freedom. But with every right comes responsibility. Sometimes, dogs, like humans, don’t always do what they are supposed to do.
With our eye lashes fluttering away the swirling snow, Hans and I happily and earnestly pushed through the 6 inches of snow on the trail with about another mile to get to the car. He saw it first, then I saw it too with some misbelief. About 20 yards ahead of us a large and hairy something on 4 legs emerged from an irrigation ditch, crossing our path from left to right. Hans took off like a shot with me yelling “stop” “heel” “Hans STOP,” but he had suddenly gone deaf. “Voice and sight” commands were useless when a dog hears the call of the wild. And there is something about snowstorms that bring out basic instincts in dogs. And sometimes brings out the stupid. Hans was giving full-throttle, Thunderfoot-mode, chase to a very healthy looking coyote!
Coyotes, unlike many predator pack animals in North America have managed to finagle and maintain a lifestyle in the western United States something akin to what they’ve had for thousands of years. Coyotes are smart. As suburbia continues a seemingly unstoppable march into and over all things wild, coyotes have found a way to maintain their livelihood. For now! It’s not that uncommon to spot a lone coyote (though if you look hard enough there’s most likely at least one other very nearby) during the daytime. But they are most active in the evening and early morning. In Boulder County it’s quite common to hear them somewhere out in the dark around midnight hooting and hollering and just whooping it up. That cacophony usually only lasts about 5 minutes and is followed by a sudden and eerie silence. (Just 3 or 4 coyotes yipping it up can sometimes sound like a dozen coyotes. It is an auditory illusion called the “beau geste” affect. (Go ahead, look up the 1939 film, Beau Geste, starring Gary Cooper)). The variety of sounds produced by each coyote quickly distorts to sound like a whole lot of voices! Presumably they’ve said their hellos, done their hi-5’s, and the night-time hunt for food has begun. Their fear of people (like I said, they are smart) has most likely been key to their survival. But Boulder County has a very high dog population with humans who love to take them out on walks. And those dogs, mostly for worse, can serve as a bridge between humans and coyotes. In my experience, coyotes are wary, but not especially shy. I have immense respect for them. They are not especially big, maybe 30 pounds. But they look to be so much faster and stronger than any athletic 50-pound dog who has never had to kill for his dinner or sleep in sub-zero temperatures.
But just the sight of a coyote seems to really unhinge some dogs. They immediately see the non-dog part, the wild part. And then, for whatever lunatic reason, they feel compelled to chase!
Hans at full gallop is a very fast dog. But on this blizzardy day in April 2020, I got to witness just what the laughing coyote can do. Canis latrans can reach a running speed of about 40+ mph. About the speed of a greyhound dog. And now the game had begun and Hans had started it, with me in hot pursuit with my mere mortal speed and feeble bark begging them to knock it off.
When conjured up in a memory, exciting or traumatic events often move in slow motion, but it is as if time is slowed down rather than the action. Minute details are expanded and the clarity enhanced. As I watched Hans’s hind legs and tail move like a rocket ahead and away from me down the trail I also saw that the coyote had just crossed our path to the right heading into the large field of white thick wet snow. Hans easily leapt over the shallow ditch lining the edge of the trail and I followed, shouting, hoping to bring an end to the chase from the start. But I, ME, was never in this game.
My brain went to yellow alert.
Coyote had no doubt caught sight of this insolent dog and picked up his pace to a relaxed gallop. Hans picked up the pace too. I was quickly falling behind, my voice lost in the muffle of snow and clouds.
My brain went to orange alert.
This could be very bad if Hans actually catches Coyote, or if Coyote turns to face Dog. So I watched the wide arc of the race, a 100-yard radius, Hans appearing to be gaining ground just slightly. Then I noticed Coyote take a quick nonchalant glance at his pursuer. Coyote lengthened his gait slightly and easily. Just before red alert reached my brain, Hans slowed his pace, gassed out I presume, and peeled off the large arc of the chase, returning to me and the trail. Coyote slowed his pace slightly and disappeared into the white, grinning southward down the trail. What had just happened I wasn’t sure. I leashed Hans until we got back to the car. Was that just fun or was that the edge of catastrophe. I couldn’t decide.
I’ve heard it said that coyotes will sometimes “play” with a curious or pursuing dog, allowing for the chase to be close just to lure that innocent dog into the vengeful paws and teeth of its pack members. I don’t believe that to be quite accurate. The coyote most likely has pack members not too far off, but is not likely eager to engage with a big and healthy well-fed dog unless it is absolutely necessary. I think Coyote was just headed home and really not too interested in tangling with his domesticated cousin. In hindsight it was a thing of awesome privilege. On that day, Dog and Coyote had given me a glimpse of something wild. And no one got hurt.