Photo: Montana Outdoors
by Don Taylor
Animal incidents, as you’d probably expect, are quite common when you drive for a living.
Thankfully, I’ve only had a couple serious animal collisions, with just one encounter that could have been quite serious, but actually turned into a good laugh. As I recall, it was late summer, early autumn, and I was headed to Vancouver, going over the Coq. It was about three in the morning as I went through the toll plaza, when “nature called”. There were no facilities around, but they had a wide, paved shoulder with a few overhead lights that was called a “rest area” for trucks to pull over and stretch, sleep, or what have you.
I stopped at the far end, jumped out and walked to the passenger side to “take care of business”. Half way through, I noticed a rather strong, pungent odour, along with some rustling, growling sounds. I looked around. Nothing. I looked up.
Standing on the top of the rock cut, about 10 ft above my head was a grizzly bear, looking down at me. I swear, he looked as big as a house! As soon as it registered what I was seeing, I dropped, rolled under the trailer to the driver’s side, climbed back in the truck, and started grabbing gears as quickly as I could.
After a few minutes, my heart returned to somewhere close to its natural place in my chest. I then realized that the nature-call had still been in progress when I was rolled under the trailer. Sweat pants off, and out the window they went. This created a new problem. My duffel bag with all my clean clothes was in a compartment not accessible from inside the truck.
Thankfully, it was late enough at night that my one adventure at streaking wasn’t noticed by anyone.
One of the more serious animal encounters was on December 29th in 1996. It was six in the morning, 11 miles east of English River, Ontario on the Trans-Canada Highway. I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. I was westward-bound, heading home, after spending the night in Thunder Bay. The truck at the time was governed at 55 mph, and I was trucking along with my foot planted to the floor.
Since leaving Thunder Bay about two and a half hours earlier, I had seen more than a few moose. Seeing moose isn’t all that common, but it does happen. This morning, I had seen about 20 of them in the ditches. In the winter, moose, deer, and other animals will come to the highways to lick the road salt off the roads.
Another time, in another part of Ontario, I was woken up when the truck started rocking. Turned out a large bull moose was licking the salt off the truck. This time, however, I’m cruising along, minding my own business, when I saw three moose standing in the ditch. Seeing one moose is unusual, seeing three in the same place is almost unheard of. I immediately slowed down, as they can be unpredictable, and if spooked for any reason, you have no idea what they’ll do.
They got spooked. Two headed into the bush. The largest one (of course) headed to the road. I slowed down even more. As soon as he got to the pavement, he made a U-turn, heading back to the bush. He went about five feet before making another U-turn, bolting back into the road. I nailed him full broadside, grill to ribs, at about 45 mph. This sent him sliding on his right side across the highway right into the opposite ditch.
When we hit, all I could see through the windshield was dark brown fur. I pulled over to check the damage as well as to make sure he was far enough off the road to ensure that someone coming the other way would not hit the carcass. Even with the full broadside, the damage to the truck wasn’t too bad. Broken grill, some truck body damage with pieces of fur stuck in it, along with a bit of moose-blood.
The truck was still drivable. The moose, however, wasn’t as lucky. He was dead. I’m not a veterinarian by any stretch, but it looked like the impact broke all the ribs on that side of his body, which probably caused some serious internal injuries. Judging by the size of him, I’d estimate he weighed in at about 2,000-2,500 lbs. This was the worst moose encounter I had, but far from the only one.
In another case, I had one of the creatures irritated with where I chose to park. This time I was on Highway 17, just east of Marathon, Ontario. On the side of the highway, there is what appears to be an old chair lift, with a parking lot. It’s a great place to park any time of the year, but in the spring, summer and autumn, it’s a total delight.
This spot is at the top of one of the majestic northwestern Ontario hills. The view over Lake Superior is breathtaking. The sounds of the waves rolling in will lull an insomniac to sleep in seconds. Add in the aroma of the natural boreal forest, and it becomes a wonderful place to stop for a few hours, or even the night.
There I was, that night, sound asleep. No engine running, no auxiliary power unit (APU) running, and the vents wide open to catch the Great Lake’s breeze. A lovely warm summer night, with just the crickets and Lake Superior’s waves making nighttime music.
Suddenly, I was jolted awake by the truck rocking from side to side. I lay there wondering what had woken me up. Did I imagine something? Was it a dream? Did someone back into me? Was the wind picking up? Where exactly was I? As I lay trying to figure out what was going on, the truck rocked again.
Okay, not a dream, and I’m not imagining this. Where am I? Perhaps someone had backed into me? It does happen in truck stops, seldom causing damage, but both drivers can feel the bump. I thought for a minute, remembering that I was in the Marathon rest area. Being backed into, therefore, wasn’t likely. No evidence of the wind picking up. What in the devil was going on?
THUMP! The truck rocked again. Okay, definitely NOT imagining this. I got up, put on some clothes, not sure what was outside the truck. I opened the curtains, trying to see what was going on. Total blackness. Pitch black. I turned on the work lights (which shine backwards down the side of the trailer), and lo and behold, there’s a moose, head down, head butting the trailer, trying to push it out of the way.
It took him about another five minutes of headramming before he gave up, and wandered away.
I did have another moose collision, kind of, in Northern Ontario. Again, late at night, but this time I was closer to Nipigon, near the top of a rather long, hard climb known as Cavers Hill. This spot has since been reworked with a passing lane, which has made the hill a lot safer. People used to take some crazy chances passing the big rigs as they slowly climbed the steep almost-mountain-like hill. I’ve seen more than a few near head-on collisions.
In this case, I had just crested the hill, starting to pick up speed again. Suddenly, I thought I saw something out the corner of my eye. One of those quick “somethings” we’ve all experienced. I dismissed it, since nothing else untoward happened, carrying on to Nipigon, where I would fuel up.
As I was fuelling, I walked around the truck, checking tires and lights, and in general, inspecting the truck and trailer. Down the passenger side of the trailer, as well as along the front of the placard holder, there was a small piece of what looked like bloody leather. From there to the front of the trailer, I saw what looked like a smear in the dark brown dirt on the trailer. The only thing I could think of was that the “something” I thought I saw was my lights reflecting off of the eye of a moose. The big animal must have been standing on the dark shoulder of the highway, blending in perfectly with the surroundings. When it heard me coming, it must have turned his head towards the sound. This resulted in the large protruding moose nose to make contact with the side of trailer. The sharp edge of the placard holder trimmed a piece off its nose, leaving a trail along the trailer side.
"With a truck, you don’t hit a bear and push him out of the way. You’ll knock him over, then the truck will just roll over top of him, putting your truck in a precariously uneven situation. Due to the bear’s mass, there’s a good chance you may end up on your side, with a very upset, injured bear nearby."
As you may have noticed, Northern Ontario is prime source for wildlife. You’re not wrong. Seldom do I have a run through Northern Ontario where I don’t see wildlife. Moose, deer, bears, hawks, eagles, owls, skunks, porcupines, turtles, beavers, and countless small animals, like chipmunks, squirrels, otters, and such are all over the place. Except for otters, I’ve hit them all. Deer most often. Like moose, when they get spooked, it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll run.
Of these, moose and bear pose the biggest danger. Moose, due to their size, and bears because while they’re really small compared to a truck, they are solid mass. With a truck, you don’t hit a bear and push him out of the way. You’ll knock him over, then the truck will just roll over top of him, putting your truck in a precariously uneven situation. Due to the bear’s mass, there’s a good chance you may end up on your side, with a very upset, injured bear nearby.
The one time I did hit a bear, I was lucky enough that the truck was equipped with a “moose bumper”. I’m sure you’ve seen them. Aluminum, tubular bumpers that sit close to the ground. The frame spreads around the grill to protect the grill in case of wildlife strikes. Trust me, they work.
I hit the bear on Highway 11/17 by Red Rock, Ontario. The moose-bumper prevented the animal from getting under the truck, just rolling it off into the ditch. I don’t know if the impact killed the bear or not. I wasn’t about to get out and check. If I had, and it was only injured, this book may never have been written.
In my early days of team driving, my co-driver Evan and I had an interesting wildlife experience. The run from Duluth, Minnesota, to Thunder Bay takes you along Minnesota Highway 61 which is a two-lane road to the Canada/USA border. It’s about 150 miles of awesome scenery following the shore of Lake Superior. Over the years, erosion of the hilly lakeside has caused some concerns for the roadbed resulting in various changes to the highway. Most notably, two tunnels were punched through the semi-mountainous rocky landscape.
One of the tunnels is fairly short, the other longer tunnel has an “S” bend in it, meaning that you can’t see one end from the other. There we were, trucking along at about 60 mph, no sweat. Very little traffic, until we get about half way through the longer tunnel. Right there, in the middle of the road were about a dozen deer.
I had about three seconds to decide what to do. In the end, there was really nothing I COULD do, except brace for the impact. Surprisingly, nothing happened. They all managed to scramble out of the way.
After this, I probably should have bought a lottery ticket.
Not all wildlife encounters involve creatures on four legs. One February, I was on a westbound-run towards Thunder Bay on the northern route of Highway 11. Around five in the morning, I was cruising along the section of highway between Hearst and Longlac in Northwestern Ontario. It was a fairly mild mid-winter night with a completely overcast sky (which helps hold in the heat), and no moon.
Dawn was still several hours away meaning that I was in the midst of total night-blackness with just my headlights cutting a path through the darkness. Without any warning, there was a SMASH! I was instantly covered in broken glass all the while getting slapped in the face by something big. It was both soft and hard at the same time, confusing me even more. I managed to get the truck stopped without hitting the ditch, a feat in itself considering the shoulder along that stretch of the highway is little more than about 18 inches of snow-covered dirt. I turned on the interior light.
There in the passenger seat was an owl! The huge feathered-creature had come through the passenger-side windshield, leaving a rather large hole in the glass. Now the bird was trying to fly away!
I got out, left my door open, opened the passenger door, just waiting for the owl to find a way out. Eventually the shook-up bird simply flew off, a good end to its encounter with my truck. I, however, had another challenge. Now I had to find something to plug the hole in the windshield until I could get to Thunder Bay to get it replaced. I ended up driving the rest of the route to the city with a pillow stuffed in the hole. I had to put on every sweater I had, plus a winter jacket, wool hat and gloves while cranking the heat up to maximum for the remaining three-hour drive to Thunder Bay.
Bird strikes, while rare, aren’t unheard of. Larger birds, while hit less often, obviously do more damage. In addition to the owl, I’ve hit one or two Canada Geese. These beasts are slow on take off, and climb even slower. The fact that you can see them from a greater distance, allows you more time to slow, and maneuver to try and avoid a bird strike, but it also means they can’t get up and out of the way as quickly, either.
During the early spring and summer is when they can be the biggest threat. When their chicks hatch, they don’t fly. They walk. Slowly. And they don’t obey pedestrian crosswalks. Drivers try their best to avoid hitting them, but it’s not always possible. When the chicks grow stronger, and they do start to fly, they can become a real hazard. Fortunately, I’ve never had one come through the windshield.
Anyone who has experienced a Canada Goose can attest that they aren’t exactly friendly. Twice, I’ve narrowly avoided having one hit the windshield, and had them bounce off the air dam just above the windshield. One of them survived, to the best of my knowledge. The other one I saw land with a thud on the road behind me. Felt sorry for it, but that’s life.
Smaller birds are another story. Usually, they’re quicker to react, and get out of the way, but one summer a few years back, I was hitting five or six a day, every day, for three weeks. I was running a dedicated run from Winnipeg to International Falls, Minnesota, crossing at Warrod, and running Minnesota 11 to International Falls.
I’d drop and empty trailer at the paper mill, and pick up a preloaded trailer that another driver had brought from Minneapolis. I’d then cross back into Canada at Fort Frances, Ontario, and return to Winnipeg, then head out again the next day. The drive along Minnesota 11 is beautiful. Lovely scenery, and a few towns along the way to break up the monotony.
In late August/ early September, I noticed I was running into a LOT of very small birds, many of which were actually stuck head first in the screen grill of the truck. This went on for about three weeks, and it was very puzzling.
Until I had to take my dog to the vet: I asked him if he had any ideas what was causing this “mass bird suicide”. Due to the weather that year, there was an abundance of fresh fruits in the area. Raspberries, strawberries, and more importantly, apples and crab apples. As the season drew to a close, the fruit ripens, and fall to the ground, starts to rot and ferment, to spread the seeds, and perpetuate the cycle of life.
This is where the birds entered the picture. They were eating the fermented fruit, and getting drunk, which causes erratic behaviour in all creatures, great and small. So they may or may not have even known there was a truck in the immediate area, and SPLAT! Bye bye birdie.
As my driving adventures take me all over North America, I’ve had a few run-ins with wildlife indigenous to those regions. On a trip along US 191 through Yellowstone National Park, I came across a heard of buffalo sunning themselves on the road. Nothing to do, but wait.
I set the brakes, just enjoying the view of these giant beauties doing what they do best. Of course, it wasn’t long before a few cars were lined up behind me. They couldn’t see what was going in front of me. One curious guy appeared to think I was “just another dumb trucker stopping to look at something”.
He got out of his car, walking up to my window and telling me to get moving. I just pointed at the dozen or so buffalo laying all over the road. He looked, saw them there, then walked up to the closest one, kicking it in the ribs! I was expecting carnage on an epic scale. But the buffalo just turned its head, and looked at him for a minute, then turned back and put his head down again. The smart-ass guy kicked him again. This time the buffalo climbed to its feet, turned full on, snorting at the irritation. Here comes the carnage!
Thankfully, no. The somewhat-wiser guy just high tailed it back to his car, quickly jumping in. The buffalo then resumed its on-road sunbathing. About an hour later, the herd finally shuffled off the road, letting the traffic through Yellowstone start moving once more.
Texas has some awesome wild life. Like armadillos. I’ve been told that they have very poor eye sight, but are easily startled. Evidently, when they are startled, they jump. It’s been said that more vehicles have been hit by armadillos, than armadillos have been hit by vehicles.
My one experience with an armadillo was about 20 miles north of the Mexican border, near Laredo. He was on the shoulder of the highway. I assume I startled him, as he jumped, bolting across the road in front of me. Next thing I felt was a series of THUMPS. He was wedged between the tires on the trailer. Didn’t even have to get out to check, I knew what it was.
I parked on the shoulder, got out, grabbing my crowbar from behind the cab, hoping I could pry him out. As luck would have it, he was in a good position. I didn’t have to move the truck at all to get at him. Crowbar in hand, I started trying to pry him out. It took about 15 minutes to get the armadillo free.
To my surprise, the little guy wasn’t dead. I got it back on its stubby little feet, watching as it scampered off into the scrub brush. Tough little critters, those armadillos.
They’re not the only tough animals I’ve encountered. Just outside of Dryden, Ontario, I was running with a friend back home to Winnipeg. We were chatting about this, that, and the other thing on the CB. I saw something on the road. I swerved to get around it, when my friend, in mid-sentence, just started laughing his fool-head off. It took a few minutes before he could regain his composure enough to speak coherently again.
He finally said; “That poor turtle spent four hours getting half way across the road, then you come along, clip his shell and send him back to the middle of the lake!”. I guess I didn’t swerve far enough, catching the edge of the shell with the trailer tires. Apparently, it looked just like when you squeeze a pumpkin seed between your fingers. The poor turtle was launched across the shoulder of the road right back into the lake. Sorry dude, that wasn’t my intention.
For a few months, we were hauling meat loads from Alberta to various points in Florida, then reloading house plants in Loxahatchee, Florida, for Walmart Canada. I had one of the first loads going to Florida, but it was a load of paper in a reefer trailer.
Since reefers are heavier than dry vans, I had to be aware of my axle and gross weights. Paper loads are usually 46,000 to 47,000 lbs. Dry vans can carry that weight, while staying under the 80,000 lbs legal limit. Reefer loads are usually 42,000 to 43,000 lbs keeping the total weight under the 80,000 lbs limit.
I had to run all the way from Toronto to just outside Miami with no more than a half tank of fuel, to keep the gross weight legal. Diesel fuel weighs about seven lbs per gallon. Running on half-tanks reduces your gross weight by about 1,400 lbs, depending on the capacity of your fuel tanks. As soon as I passed the last scale, I pulled in, fuelling to capacity. I delivered the paper, then headed to Loxahatchee, north of Miami up near Palm Beach.
I called for directions (again, pre-GPS days), following them to the letter. On the dirt road into the farm where they grew the plants, again, nature called. I remembered the shipper advising against getting out of the truck along the dirt road, because alligators lived in the neighbourhood.
I just stood on the top step of the running board, with about 10 feet of dirt road between me and the water filled ditch, figuring I was plenty safe. That gator came out of the ditch like a rocket, grabbing the bottom step of the running board, about 18 inches below me. Scared the living daylights out of me. He had bitten into the running board before I had even registered what was happening. Bathroom break was over right quick.
I got to the shipper’s location, bedding down for the night. They had an electrified fence around the perimeter to keep the alligators out, along with a cattle guard across the driveway to prevent them from entering that way. A cattle guard is a series of steel tubes running perpendicular to the road. When cattle, or other wild life try to cross it, their feet fall through the openings and they get stuck. I spent that night hoping it worked on alligators, too.
Anyone who has driven in the greater Toronto Area, is more than well aware of the exit from the east bound 401 to the northbound 400. The ramps from the collector and express lanes merge, then turn sharply to the left, and climb a rather short, but steep uphill. The curve has a posted maximum speed of 25 mph, but due to the hill, some drivers tend to push the limit somewhat. This is NEVER a good idea.
One evening, as I was preparing to take this exit, I found it closed. The reason? A cattle truck had taken the ramp too fast, and flipped over on its side. Cattle were everywhere. Some injured, and spooked; some just grazing away on the grass beside the highway.
To order a print or e-copy of Don Taylor’s book “Stories from the Road,” visit FriesenPress.