“FUCK! I think it took my boots!” – I bolted upright, sending a spray of condensation that had settled on the inside of our tent cascading onto us. My brother, Michael grumbled in bed. He didn’t care much.
“No, you’re kidding right?”
“No man I think it took my boots!” – cautiously I prodded the thin nylon, seeing if I could feel some semblance of my hiking boots through the fabric, all without endangering myself of being quilled by the porcupine or angering it more. Little did we know we were about to engage in a full blown war with this porcupine.
Just a few days earlier we were having dinner with our friend, Kevin at his home in Invermere, a short drive away from the trailhead of the Rockwall trail. A local to the Kootenays, and just a short drive away from the most celebrated national parks in Canada, Kevin and his family frequented the trails that we had hoped to hike on and explore. We picked their brain, especially his Dad’s, who was a senior biologist with Parks Canada about what to expect on the trail, any sights that we had to see, which direction to go, and other such information. Most of their answers were standard fare.
“Go North-South, it’s more scenic and you’ll like hiking DOWN from Numa pass far more than hiking UP”.
Or, “Leave Floe Lake till the end, that’s by far the best part. The hike out from Painted Pots is such an underwhelming way to end such an amazing trail.”
Kevin’s dad piped in. Soft spoken and introverted, his comment caught us off guard.
“Be careful of the porcupine at Floe Lake. He’s a real nuisance.” He said. We didn’t know whether or not this was his attempt at a joke, or him being serious.
“OH YEA!” Kevin responded, excitedly. “The porcupine at Floe Lake is a legend. He’ll steal your boots. Something about the salt in them. Here, I got a photo of him the last time I was there”. Kevin pulled out his phone, proudly showcasing his blurry, pixelated photo of this legendary Floe Lake porcupine.
My brother and I laughed, dismissing this as any serious threat or danger. We were more concerned about the frequent grizzly bears sightings and afternoon thunderstorms that roll through the high mountain passes than a measly, oversized rodent with sharp quills on it that we-may-or-may-not see and that may-or-may-not-steal our boots. The rest of the evening continued in a blur of vegetarian chili, Kevin’s dog constantly nudging his head into your crotch searching for pets, and more stories exchange form trips deep in the Canadian Rockies.
A few nights later, we lay in our tent at Floe Lake, about to engage in a full on war of attrition with this Floe Lake porcupine.
“Well… there’s not a ton we can do right now unless you want to chase it in the dark” Michael said, rolling over in his sleeping bag and going back to sleep.
I considered my options. “Yea, good call” - I said. I resigned myself to going back to sleep. He was right, chasing a porcupine around the woods in the middle of the night sounded futile. Chances were, I’d find my half eaten hiking boot in the morning easily enough. I turned my headlamp off, re-adjusted my fleece which I had folded into a pillow and dozed back to sleep. It’s always hard to leave the warm cocoon of a sleeping bag for calls to nature, let alone a wild goose chase looking for a porcupine with many pointy bits that could injure me.
I had barely had a chance to settle back into my sleeping bag and let my heart rate return to normal before something, or someone – likely, the porcupine brushed up against the tent again.
“It’s back!” I whisper-yelled, careful not to disturb the other tents that were staked around us and could no doubt hear what was also going on. This time my brother took notice. We both sat upright, our headlamps dimmed in clenched fists. Holding our breath, we waited for another sign of it’s presence. I sat with my back to one side of the tent, and my brother sat across from me.
‘Pshhhhhhh’ ‘pshhhh’. It brushed against our tents nylon again.
“Shit, maybe it’s taking my boots too!” Michael said.
“What should we do?” I posed. Things seem much more intense in the moment than they do in hindsight. Our blood was pumping. There was a mutant-killer-derange porcupine out there that had it out for us. We had to do something.
“WHAT TH–” I whispered-yelled again, jumping across the tent. The porcupine had brushed against the thin walls of the tent right behind me and against my back. “I swear, I felt it’s quills through the tent” I breathed.
“Dude, calm down” Michael responded. "Nothings gonna happen”.
You know in the horror movies, when the main character is being chased by some deranged monster? They shine their flashlight against a wall, and a shadow of this big, horrible beast is cast? Well, that basically happened, but with this porcupine. I like to remember shining my headlamp against the wall of the tent, seeing the shadows of it’s quills standing like some jagged teeth of doom against the black night sky. I’d like to think that that actually happened. In reality, it didn’t.
Instead, I decided I’d arm myself so I could at least keep the porcupine at a distance rather than have to fight it in hand to hand combat and risk getting quilled in my hands and arms. Were we ever in any real danger? Probably not. But some quills stuck in my hand and arm would’ve ruined a perfectly good backpacking trip for me.
“Here” I said, grabbing my camera tripod and extending the collapsible legs. “At least I can poke it from a distance if it comes close again”. My brother just laughed.
We continued waiting for it to strike again in silence. Our breathing was rapid and shallow in the night as we sat in silence, our eyes shining with laughter at being so annoyed by such a little creature. The night was quiet apart from our whispered antics. Occasionally we would hear a sound, or brush against the tent and psych ourselves out, but for the most part the porcupine had decided to leave us alone. It had taken our boots and was probably mauling them somewhere in the woods and was totally content to do that. Or so we thought.
All of a sudden we heard some stirring across our small encampment. My brother and I looked at one another in the dim light, smiling, at someone else being drawn into out plight. We didn’t have to say anything to know – the porcupine of Floe Lake had struck again. We could only hear mumbles and the familiar sound of movement and stretching tent nylon. The ‘Zzzzzzzzzppppp’ of a tent zipper, and the panicked whisperings of someone who has been startled in the middle of the night. I can only imagine what they were saying to one another, their conversation likely playing out like my brother and mine.
“Bob, wake up! Something's out there!”
“Linda, nothings out there… go back to sleep honey”.
“No really! Something hit our tent!”. Linda was probably getting annoyed at Bob’s dismissal of her anxiety.
“It’s just your imagination, or a little mouse or squirrel or bird or something… go back to sleep” Bob would probably mumble.
“No, its huge! Wake up” Linda by now would have turned her headlamp on, directly into the eyes of her partner, waking him too.
"Jesus Linda, turn that thing off!" Bob would say. And on and on it would go.
My brother and I relaxed. At least the porcupine had decided it wouldn’t have targeted attacks. We lay back down, dimmed our headlamps, and went back to sleep. Throughout the next few hours, tent zippers and headlamps and boots of distraught backpackers would go through a similar experience to we did. The Floe Lake Porcupine left no one unharmed that night.
Over breakfast the next morning we struck up a conversation with our tent-neighbors. We all sat around the picnic tables, boiling water for cowboy coffee and oatmeal, our eyes heavy with the lack of sleep but glowing from the antics during the night.
"That was quite the night" we laughed, skipping the small talk.
"I'll say. Who knew a rodent could be so frightening." The gentleman chuckled as he sipped his coffee with his wife. "Never had a night like that before! I guess that's the kind of thing you remember for a long time".
We began to pack up our tent, eager to make it to the trailhead before the heat of the day bore down on us. We walked past the picnic tables where everyone sat, trading tales from their night excitedly.
"We thought it was a bear!" the swiss man grumbled. "We don't get bears in the alps. I kinda wish it was one".
"At least you'd have a scarier story to tell your friends"
"Did it take your boots or just smell them? We found ours wedged into this little gopher-hole this morning"
"Nope just sniffed them, I think my feet smell too bad. That porcupine knows better than to eat my boots!". The laughter of their conversation echoed across the lake.
I smiled, wishing them an uneventful and safe rest of their hike as a I walked by. This was why we ventured outdoors. To meet others, and share experiences with those around us held by this common thread of a love of the outdoors, a love for visiting these beautiful places, and for our newfound love of this adorable little nuisance of a porcupine who paid us all a visit.
On a hike as popular, well-traveled and classic as the Rockwall trail, it's easy to feel as if you're walking through a fabricated landscape, with perfectly manicured trails, well-marked sign posts, detailed itineraries of the trail, designated campgrounds with outhouses and cooking shelters and bear caches and any other number of luxuries. It's true – these are all things which make the outdoors more accessible, predictable, and easy.
But don't be fooled - it's still wild, and the most normal of outings can still be an adventure. Our little porcupine friend taught us that. So, if you're traveling to Floe Lake. Now you know, beware of the porcupine, or – say hello to him for me.