As a Child of Toronto, I Was Used to Raccoons. Elk, On the Other Hand…

A close encounter with Rocky Mountain wildlife was proof that I would always be a city girl.

I was a city kid, a child of Toronto. I can prove this because there is a picture of me in a park as a toddler chasing a raccoon. My family moved to Calgary when I was seven, for new opportunities and cleaner air, and I wouldn’t see another raccoon for years. I was still a city kid, but in Alberta—a province with a dedicated rat control program.

Wilderness bumped up against us in different ways. There were cougar sightings in parking lots and deer munching on Mom’s spring flowers. But no rats! In my imagination, I was an animal whisperer akin to a forest-dwelling Disney princess, but those initial Calgary years would remind me that I was actually a kid who had asthma attacks on trail rides.

Zia Vanina, my aunt, came from Toronto to visit us in 1992. To impress her, we loaded up the family van for a pilgrimage to the main attraction of southern Alberta, the Rocky Mountains. As the snow-covered flatlands rose into foothills, and the foothills gave way to jutting, marvellous rock formations, the farm animals dotting the pastures outside our windows became mountain goats balancing on steep, slippery shale and deer snacking on winter berries.

After an hour, my dad pulled into a rest stop and we were greeted by the sight of a dozen elk. Elk are one of the largest members of the deer family. Males can be bigger than horses and have long antlers, and females are slightly smaller, with no headgear.

Other families that had stopped were getting uncomfortably close to the elk. The large beasts ignored them, gently sniffing discarded McDonald’s wrappers and nibbling on snow.

Soon my nature-loving dad was walking toward the elk, so we followed him. My heart raced as my snow boots crunched toward the herd. The presence of 12 big-boy mega-deer with antlers that can inflict serious damage made me seriously nervous.

The elk posed for pictures and I stuck my hands into the fuzzy pockets of my sherpa-lined jean jacket and climbed onto a small snowbank, a short distance from my family.

“Maybe I do belong here,” I thought, watching the sun dance on the surface of the half-frozen emerald lake beside us. As if to say, “No, honey, you don’t,” a large elk snorted and I suddenly felt the weight of a mountain on my shoulders. The elk had reared up and hooked its front hooves over my shoulders like it wanted to do the conga, murder me or both. I slid down the snowbank, positive these were my last moments. My mom started yelling “Oh my God!” My dad said, “Oh s**t.” I shrieked and ran until I shook the beast free.

Luckily, he slipped off my shoulders and rejoined his posse. I stood by our van, hyperventilating. Back inside, the adults were so desperate to calm me that I was promised an extra-large haul at the candy shop in Banff. The candy helped, but the ick remained.

The elk had singled me out. It gave credence to the dissonance I was feeling. My aunt cited the incident as proof that we should all return to Toronto immediately, and I didn’t disagree. It took me a while, but I moved back as an adult. A raccoon person has no place among elk.

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada