Elk Island National Park, Alberta

October 2006. Misadventure #3 The longest night ever

I remember slowly driving over a cattle grate across the road. It struck me as being an odd item – What is that for? Further in I found the administration building but it was closed for the season. Just an honour box, where you flip the lid open, get the pen and registration form and fill out your name, licence plate number, how many nights you are staying and leave the money in a slot in the top. I was the only person in the place, so I had the whole park to myself. Mid-October in central Alberta is not camping season to most people.

I chose my spot and set up my tent, laying out my air mattress, sleeping bag and pillows. Then I set to work making supper over my single-burner gas stove. An old family recipe, macaroni and tomato juice. As the last light of dusk faded, I flicked on my head-lamp and continued stirring the little elbow pasta till the water was all absorbed, then I poured in a can of Heinz tomato juice and tossed it all together.

I sat at the picnic table, eating my pasta from the pot. Thinking the best thing about camping in the fall is there are no bugs, but it was getting cold and I tugged the zipper of my jacket up tight to my neck and hurriedly washed up the pot at the water spigot. That is when I heard it.

The shuffling of leaves under foot. “Was that a snort or a growl?” either way it was damn close – too close. Then I heard it again. Definitely a snort-growl. Tilting my headlamp to shine the beam towards where I heard the disturbance, I scanned the edge of the trees line but saw nothing. Visions of a buffalo tromping right thru my solo tent put and end to the thought of sleeping in there.

I considered the back of the truck but it was filled with belongings I was toting home to Ontario, and I didn’t feel like wrestling with the two bikes attached to the rack on the back. Did I tell you my arm was in a sling? Yes, I had had shoulder surgery a couple of weeks earlier. Three screws were inserted to secure my shoulder from dislocating. (That is another story.) Anyway, there was no room for me to fit in there. At last – the roof. If a black bear was going to claw at me, he was going to have to stand on his hind legs to do it.

One item at a time I plucked from my tent and flung up on the top of the truck cap: sleeping bag, air mattress, pillows. I stepped up on the bumper and heaved myself up and rolled onto the top of the cap. Here I set up my bed. Turning my headlamp off, I watched the stars.

Until the baying, yipping and crying started. Coyotes, wolves? all too close. They whined on and my eyes darted around. More rustling and movement from just beyond my campsite. Two or three times I sat up and listened hard, straining to see into the darkness at what was there.

When the dogs of the night settled down, I closed my eyes only to hear or imagine I did, deep exhalation from nostrils. The moon had granted some light until the clouds passed in front of it and the stars were blocked out to. The wind picked-up. Every gust the trees would creaking- shedding the last of their leaves. When there is nothing to hear, everything makes noise.

A sliver of daylight brightened the sky only to be shrouded again in clouds. A few droplets of rain splattered on my sleeping bag but thankfully that was all. As soon as there was enough light to see, I got up and took my unused tent down and stowed it away. Did I sleep? I can’t say but know I was proud as punch I made it through such a long scary night. As I rambled over the cattle grate, I realized it is probably there to discourage the bison and elk from crossing onto the campground. But I know they still get in. They come through the woods.

Happy travels from Maritimemac

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19 thoughts on “Elk Island National Park, Alberta

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  1. Sorry, I’m laughing. And I know just how you feel. I’ve spent many a night with everything from moose to bear to to wolves to lions snuffling around outside my tent. It’s hell on sleeping! 🙂 But having to deal with all of that while you’re arm was in a sling is above and beyond! –Curt

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  2. I have had a sleepless night or two out in the wild, when my imagination has more than run away with itself, but your tale here is head and shoulders (and one working arm) above anything – even a truck topper – enjoyed this! Camping in AB can be chilly, including summer, so your October splashes of rain could have been worse. Thanks for this, recipe and all!

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  3. I’m trying to figure out what it took to climb onto the truck topper with one arm! I know how creepy it can be camping out alone. I haven’t had a bear or wolf encounter, but feral pigs tore up the ground all around my tent near Amarillo, Texas. Those things can kill you sure! Glad you made it to the morning light in one piece. Great story!

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    1. Eileen’s I don’t know why I didn’t just sleep in the cab? Must have been because of arm and my old truck had bucket seats that didn’t recline. I was terrified all night. I recall I it took several failed attempts to wriggle far enough up onto the cap to get up..but I’ve always been lithe. T Wild pigs are mean and big…yikes you must share that story I would love to read it..

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    2. There isn’t much public land in Texas, despite its size, so I was trying to find this state park, but there was no signage and I couldn’t get a cell signal, either. Finally got dark and as I was driving some back road, these hulks ran right in front of my car.

      I eventually made it to the park and set up camp in the dark. Almost no one else there. There was a generator (I guess some state parks are off-grid and have these huge generators – happened in Kentucky, too), that kept me awake most of the night.

      I thought I heard some snuffling around my tent, but it wasn’t until morning that I saw the ground all torn up around my tent that I realized the pigs had been there. Not much of a story!

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  4. I can totally understand your concern especially when there are animals walking around that are as big as a truck. However I’ve always lived not far from Elk Island National Park and the only time anyone has ever been hurt by anything other than mosquitoes is when a photographer was stalking a bison and got too close. But good for you for stopping in as few people other than the locals or those who love to see bison ever got to Elk Island National Park. It truly is Underrated by the majority of travellers.

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  5. Probably the most adrenalin you’ve had coursing through your veins since you were getting ready to come out of the starting gate in one of your past races…. Great post and good description of what it would have been like to be in your shoes…

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