Mountain Lions!

We just ended our third week in Sequoia National Forest. With many highlights to write about, I must share the most epic of them all:

Yesterday, while hiking back to the truck (the glorious truck that would take us home, since it was the end of the week and we were exhausted), admittedly tuckered out and shuffling, I looked down and stopped short. There in the sand, atop OUR thirty minute old boot tracks, were mountain lion tracks! I asked my partner, Ben, if it was what I thought it was. As we were bent down looking at the track, we noticed several more along the old, reclaimed service road, and heading in the same direction we were heading. Since it had taken us no more than thirty minutes to hike out to our station and start the hike back, the tracks were at the oldest twenty five minutes old. Which meant that we had likely walked right by the cat! We very quickly righted ourselves and looked up and around instead of down at the track. Listening intently around us, we cautiously continued towards the truck, which was about 500 meters away. While we walked, we took note that the great cat was still using the road ahead of us, perhaps very closely ahead of us, and the angry birds and squirrels up ahead confirmed that we were indeed close to the cat. As we walked together, Ben pointed at another set of much larger tracks. There were TWO mountain lions walking the road.

Well shit.

I am a stickler about carrying my bear spray. Anyone who knows me knows that I always carry it (I was taught well by my good friend Bobbie). Bear spray shoots fifteen feet and promises to deter any charging animal from eviscerating you (that is, of course, if you draw faster than they can run. Which isn't always likely.). Stronger than military-grade mace, it will put the largest grizzly bear on his behind and send mountain lions screaming like babies. As my luck would have it, I noticed yesterday morning that the safety trigger on my bear spray had been lost in the field, and I decided to take the spray off my pack for this short, last hike lest I accidentally spray myself . What could possibly go wrong in thirty short minutes on an abandoned service road?

Completely ridiculous.

Armed now with only a rock (which would probably just piss something off even more and make them decorate the nearest fir with my entrails like a holiday tree in retaliation), Ben and I were anxious as we slowly advanced to the truck. In most cases, a black bear will only charge you if defending a cub or a food source. A grizzly bear has a considerably more sour temperament and will do the same thing, but with more unpredictability and often without being provoked. Moose are stupid and angry and not to be trusted. The mountain lion is none of these things, yet all of these things, and probably the most dangerous, as they are silent and will usually only engage with another animal if they are going to kill it. In short, a bear will mock charge you, size you up as a competitor or a threat, but a mountain lion almost always has one thought: can I kill this? With many friends having been stalked by the mountain lion, it is not an encounter I craved on foot. Even as I type, my friends and I are discussing how bear spray is not a competitive weapon against the speed of power of a mountain lion.

And now, almost comically, Ben and I were walking alongside these tracks. We realize we are upwind of the track direction (meaning they couldn't smell us). As I'm about to shout out, make a lot of noise, we suddenly hear a crash around the corner. The crash is very big and very fast and to our right, and very seriously close. Milliseconds later, a second crash echoes to our left. The birds and squirrels are angry. Ben and I freeze like prey, waiting for more sound. Nothing.

The wind had suddenly shifted us downwind of the cats (which in this case was in our favor, but that is not always so...). With this wind change, we startled the two cats and they bolted before our noise could do the same thing. We were only 100 meters from a mother mountain lion and her half-grown cub! With the hair on my neck rising and my senses on overload, we also bolted through the space we last heard sound, making noise and trying to sound big. In doing so, we noticed more tracks, but these ones were pointing in our direction.

The cats were walking right towards us!

When we got to the truck, we reasoned by the tracks that the two cats had walked along the road to our truck (likely drawn to the smell of rotting chicken in the cooler) and had balked at the sight of the vehicle. Turning back, they backtracked their own tracks up the road the way they had come, which was right towards us. We were closing the distance to one another in a very short amount of time. Thankfully, I noticed that first track and we were as ready as we could have been as opposed to what would could have easily been a bad situation as we hiked in exhausted silence. And this all took place in a very short period of time.

One hell of a thrill! I consider myself competent and able in the field, but the laws of nature are simple: let your guard down and you die. Always a chatterbox in the field, I don't think many days pass where wildlife doesn't know exactly where we are, and being ever vigilant in observing our surroundings helps keep us safe. By noticing the faint tracks in the sand, we knew what was there, but being tired probably assisted us in getting close to the cats because of the wind direction and our lack of noise.

The smaller of the two mountain lion tracks.

A great run in Sequoia! Lots of fishers, hills, bears, and beautiful scenery. And, as we've found, there are a few cougars in the area! More on that later...