Sunday, April 8, 2007

Mountain Lion Sighting

Mountain Lion Sighting!

In April of 2007, I was taking a Spring backpack through California's Henry Coe State Park. I had hiked from the Park Headquarters through Poverty Flat to Los Cruzeros. I went next to Kelly Lake via Lost Spring, then headed back via Coit Road, Mahoney Meadows Road, down the China Hole Trail, along the Mile Trail, and up the Madrone Soda Springs trail. My last night out, I planned to camp at Madrone Soda Springs.

After a challenging 10 mile day, my knee was hurting, and I was glad to stop. I selected my campsite, an open flat area surrounded by trees and heavy underbrush. I lounged in my campsite, wearing camp booties on my grateful feet, snacking, and reading my paperback. Twice I heard the sound of voices passing by on the trail below. Somewhat later, I heard a thrashing in the bushes, and the sound of large sticks breaking, as though someone was setting up camp nearby. Enjoying my solitude, I ignored the noises for a while. Finally I decided I should introduce myself to my neighbors.

I stood up, and as I peered through the branches, there he was, just 30 feet away. As I took in his classic profile, muscular haunches, firm jowls, long tail and tawny coat, it dawned on me that my guest was a genuine mountain lion, the sort of creature that one sees in the pages of National Geographic, but rarely in real life. He stood a little under three feet high at the shoulder, and weighed maybe 125 pounds. I had always wanted to see one of these noble animals in its wild habitat, but I was astonished and awed to see one so close. He turned his head in my direction, looking as suprised to see me as I was to see him.

I froze in my tracks, and remembered instructions for mountain lion encounters. Don’t take a cougar by surprise (too late for that.) Don’t run (you’ll look like prey.) Stand up (I was.) And look big. I raised my arms over my head. “I’m big!” I told my new friend, just in case he didn’t get the idea.

He looked at me somewhat distainfully. turned slowly away, and sauntered off in a diagonal direction, in no hurry to leave, and apparently unimpressed by any threat I might present. I fancied that we both knew who would win if it came down to paw to paw combat. I listened to him crackling off through the brush up the hillside from my camp.

I reviewed the situation. My mountain lion had made no threatening approach, and did not appear to be stalking me, or even particularly interested. Mountain lions usually eat deer, and there were plenty of plump fawns frolicking about the hills of Henry Coe.

On the other hand, It was only about an hour before dusk, an active time for cougars. They rarely attack humans, but it does occasionally happen. Had I startled him by my unexpected appearance? Did he feel threatened by my presence? He didn’t seem to have much fear of people. Was this normal? Where was he now? It would be easy for a stalking lion to hide out in the dense bushes anywhere around my camp.

In any case, I knew I wouldn’t sleep well for wondering, and I’d be pretty small and helpless when I tucked myself into my sleeping bag for the night. I packed up my gear (still trying to look big and threatening.) Fueled by adrenaline from my encounter, and enchanted by my first viewing of a real mountain lion, I powered up the hill, moving slowly and glancing often over my shoulder. The excitement carried me the last 5 miles to the trailhead campground.

When I chatted with the ranger the next day, he was delighted by my report. Mountain lions are shy, and rarely seen, he told me. But they do play an essential role in the ecological balance of this protected place. Cougars have occasionally been spotted in the area where I had planned to camp, and it was not uncommon for lions in the park to have grown accustomed to human presence. He told me that there has never been a cougar attack on a human at Henry Coe State Park. I felt honored to have finally seen my very own mountain lion.

© Amy Racina 2007


Rick Deutsch said...

An interesting account. I am also planning an overnight at Henry Coe soon. I'll keep my eyes peeled...and will make lots of noise! I highly recommend the use of hiking poles. Not only for their main purpose...assisting your hike...but also as a crude defensive tool - just in case.
Should a mt lion attack occur, I'd rather have a couple strong poles to fend of the cat than nada. I think of the rare case where an attack does occur and how futile your fists will be.

Rick Deutsch

Amy Racina said...

Good thoughts, Rick! If I had elected to stay where I was and camp for the night, I would have put my poles near my sleeping bag, and also assembled a pile of rocks (for throwing.) Standard operating procedure (for me) and common backcountry wisdom. Don't be fearful, but do be prepared to fight back if need be.

Have a great time at Henry Coe! My personal favorite, for an overnighter, is Los Cruzeros. I've seen coyotes there, a bobcat, and on one memorable trip, lots and lots of baby bunnies. Plus there's a nice swimming hole.

: ) Amy