WEST FORK KICKAPOO - “Stop! I took my gun out of my pack and it’s on my hip—I’ll shoot!”
I was hiking on the Mule Trail in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. It’s a mowed grass trail starting at Campground J, near Old Highway 131, an abandoned road that stretches from LaFarge to Rockton. The man with the gun was on the high end of the trail near the campsite, and I was on the low end looking up at him.
We both froze, as if we were playing a game of tag and I’d yelled, “Freeze!” Only this wasn’t a game.
My right hand was holding two leashes. Téte, my black hound dog who likes to bark for no reason, for once had nothing to say. Ruben, my youngest dog, sat down, exhausted but curious, his tongue hanging out of his mouth from a hard run. Finnegan, the narrator of several children’s books, stood unleashed by my side.
While the four of us were silent, the man talked nonstop about women who have dogs that will protect them, women who have dogs they can’t control, and how men can summon their dogs, but women can’t. He said he was from Ashville, North Carolina, “where everybody hates everybody and everybody carries a gun.”
The man demanded that I pull out a leash and put it on my third dog or he’d shoot him dead. He said he’d seen me hiking on Old 131 with all three dogs off-leash, and repeated, “I have my gun here and I’ll shoot.”
As he ranted, and we listened, he said he’d been attacked by dogs protecting their woman owners. He was scared. I understood. But I needed to wait for him to run out of steam before I could talk or act.
When he paused, I put my left hand up and said, “I’m going to bend over and pick my dog up. Then I'm going to move off the trail so you can pass. I want you to know I’m not breaking any laws—dogs at this time of the year don’t need to be on leashes.”
He put his hand on his hip, where he said his gun was, and started walking toward me, saying, “I’ll shoot right now.”
“Stop,” I repeated, this time loud and clear. “Did you hear what I just said?”
“Then don’t come any closer. I’m going to pick up my dog now.” Finn hadn’t moved all this time—did my dogs sense the seriousness of the situation? I leaned to my left, still keeping my eyes on the man, picked Finn up with my left hand, and maneuvered him under my arm like a quarterback holding a football.
“I’m moving off the trail now,” I said. My heart was not racing. I was as calm as my dogs, who now appeared to be drugged. Just moments before, they’d been running down the trail with the pure joy of being off-leash, while I’d been photographing monarchs and swallowtails.
As the man stepped forward on the trail, I kept the conversationgoing. “My dogs and I come here every day. I saw your car, North Carolina plates, at the trailhead on Indian Creek yesterday.” He replied that he was here looking for land. As he drew next to me, I said, “These dogs never bite anyone.”
“That little dog is a rat terrier and he’d bite me in a flash. If you set him down I’ll shoot—I’m not kidding.”
The shock wore off. I was being menaced in the one place I find my peace almost daily. My sanctuary. My home away from home.
I turned and walked toward my car, wondering if he’d shoot me in the back or shoot one of my dogs. All I knew for sure was that he was afraid of dogs, had a gun, and seemed anxious to use it.
As I reached my car, feelings washed through me. I've been going to the KVR for over 20 years now with my pups, to de-stress after work, to record nature with my camera, and to reap the many benefits of being outdoors. Until now, I’d always felt safe. But this man had repeatedly threatened to shoot as we stood innocently, statue-still, after what had been a carefree hike.
When I reported the incident, the policeman said he knew who the man was and would go talk to him. Later that evening, he sent me a follow-up email, assuring me that the man said he now knows my dogs aren’t vicious and he doesn’t ever want to shoot an animal; that he was sorry he’d brought his gun into the conversation, and that he’ll leave it in his room or car if he comes onto the KVR property again. He explained he’d had a bad experience with dogs and automatically thinks they are out to bite him.
The policeman went on to say that hopefully, this is the last incident they have with him.
“Be safe out there,” he added.
Excellent parting advice.But it may take a while for me to feel safe again.