“What the hell is going on?” I asked myself audibly. My mind stumbled as I picked up the pace, already out of breath and sweating but staring down at fresh mountain lion tracks in my set of tracks I’d laid down less than an hour ago. In open areas where the snow was good I could see the then fresh lion tracks I’d originally found an hour ago and my boot tracks following them but now there was another set of lion tracks in the mix and in some places directly in my boot prints. I couldn’t comprehend what I was looking at as I sped along, stumbling across a steep canyon game trail in the northern Rockies of Montana.
A December storm had left just enough fresh snow to get out and track and I was stoked to finally be home tracking my own back yard again. I had set some camera traps out a few days before so I was hoping to see if any interesting critters had walked by them. Of course somewhere in the back of my mind I’d hoped to cut fresh cat tracks but I kept pushing the thought out in fear of jinxing myself. The season was just starting and this was a recon trip just to hopefully glean where the prey species were and if I’m lucky cut an old, crusty cat track. It felt good to be loading up my Mystery Ranch pack and tightening up the high-ankle boots in preparation for what would hopefully be a successful mountain lion season. For me, a successful season is working day after day in the sometimes (most times) bitter cold hiking, tracking, obsessing, waking up 2 or 3 times a night when it’s snowing to go check for tracks in subzero temps with a headlamp all in hopes of just catching a fleeting glimpse of this wildly fascinating mountain ghost. If there’s any chance to tuck in and watch a lion that’s a remarkable experience and to photograph it; sublime. Winter is the only time us flat-footed waffle stompers have much of a chance to track a cat. Even the elusive mountain lion hasn’t figured out a way to hide all of his tracks in the snow but I’m telling you sometimes it seems they try.
Once I was completely layered and suited up with pack, pole, binoculars, bear spray, gaiters and knife I lit a bundle of sage from Crow Agency, MT. I offered it to the 4 directions, to my grandfather above and mother Earth, enveloping myself in its powerful smoke and “rubbing” it around my body like my Crow friends had taught me. This was kind of an afterthought and something I had never done before setting out on an expedition but in this country, alone and in the worsening conditions it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Give thanks and ask for guidance; stay humble.
So with the smell of burning sage around me I set out, eventually dropping into a steep and densely wooded gulch leading to a creek and in the direction of my first camera trap. Within an hour I had cut fresh lion tracks coming off a hill and intersecting my path. I followed the tracks to the frozen creek where the lion turned and started walking downstream. These tracks were fresh, maybe that morning at the latest. Maybe coming off a kill and heading to bed for the day in the pre-dawn light. Now the age old question…forward track or back track? Since these seemed fresh I decided to follow them forward and see if he walked by my camera. The tracks had that round-toed look of a male but weren’t very big. I guessed a young male had come through and was making his way toward more open country while all the time hunting along the creek bottom.
When I got to my camera the lion had actually stepped right over it! The tracks told the story. If there hadn’t been snow I would never have known this stealthy strider was even in the vicinity. At least I knew my camera was in a good place so I re-armed it and continued following the tracks as the snow and wind picked up.
Following the tracks away from the creek bottom and up a small hill I stopped to really examine one of the tracks. Everything was perfect in this track. The ridges sharp and no new snow that was now falling had even accumulated in the depressions. These were super fresh. I was minutes behind a mountain lion and starting to feel a little edgy. It was then I decided to go back and retrieve my camera trap while I give this scenario a chance to breath. I had seen several lions in the past. Sometimes for long periods tucked into a hillside or from the comfort of a camera truck but this was different. I was alone and close with inclement weather moving in.
Was I pushing my luck? I mean cats don’t just jump on people’s backs, disembowel them, dine on them then shit them out later right?
That’s the message I had always adhered to and even preached but in this woody gulch with the wind swirling around how much was I willing to bet on that?
In lieu of fighting my way back through the dense underbrush of the ravine I opted to climb out and take the high line back to my camera where I could drop back in and reassess my situation. The whole hike back I was in a bit of a daze. What had I just stumbled upon? Was I fooling myself that I was ever close to that lion? Did I just panic and cost myself an opportunity to see another lion in the wild? I didn’t even bring a dslr or video camera, only my iPhone as I was just going to check my trail camera. I went back to where the lion tracks came down the hill and followed them back to where I had first intersected with them. I followed my tracks and the lion tracks back to my trail camera along the creek. Stuffing the trail camera and cable lock into my pack I decided this opportunity was too good to pass up. I quickly started to move through the juniper and cedar, ripping a hole in my coat trying to make up for the ground I had lost. I was second guessing myself for coming back. Get back to where I had bailed off the tracks as fast as possible was all I could think while I plodded along following my recent tracks. When I got close to where I had bailed off the trail I saw what looked like a lion track in my track from before. I kept moving with purpose and didn’t see another track as the trail lead under some big Douglas fir trees where no snow had made it to the ground. Coming out into a clearing I saw plain as day fresh lion tracks in the new snow over my tracks.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked myself audibly. Had I inadvertently out flanked a mountain lion? Did this lion circle back and had begun tracking me? I pulled out my iPhone to document the situation in hopes of putting the pieces together. My mental map did not immediately line up with what was unfolding in front of me. I snapped some pictures then realized with an entire body shiver that once again this cat was close and this time I’m not sure he’s in front of me anymore and worse yet I’m crouched over trying to take pics with a phone! I put the phone away and stood silently. It was then I noticed the Clark’s nutcracker were screeching somewhere ahead of me. Other birds I couldn’t identify were also alarm calling. Of course! They had been doing this in the same area before but I was so caught up in my own conundrum I neglected to notice their alarms weren’t for me but were ahead of me. This time I proceeded a little more cautiously and noticed at the top of a rise the lion had mimicked my stride as he too slowed to peer over the other side. I pulled my phone back out to video this phenomena as the Clark’s squawked away somewhere in front of me. I walked filming the cat tracks in my tracks almost stride for stride then stopped the video to stay in tune with my surroundings.
I took a few more strides then peered over into the next gulley…
To my amazement a mountain lion stood facing away from me in a thicket not 50 feet away. He was tan with rusty overtones and very long and lean. He looked over his shoulder at me then jumped out of the thicket and very casually but very intentionally moved out of the gully and disappeared over the next hill a hundred feet away. The lion moved with a mercurial ease as if in some timber dance. He was a tawny, liquid rope while I stood there gape-jawed with the density of space. He never looked back and the last I saw of him was the tip of his tail as it swooshed and disappeared with it’s owner over the rise. It was then I realized I had a camera in my hand ready to go and could have captured mountain lion footage with a phone! This would be a wildlife filmmakers crowning achievement - hell that would have been anybody’s tour de force - mountain lion iPhone video! But just as the regret from not documenting the encounter was starting to set in, the magic of the moment took over. There was a mirthful equanimity as I stood there hearing the birds following the cat - heckling him the whole way. I think I even laughed out loud imagining the seen. Closing my eyes, I tried to commit to memory that sound of the Clark’s and now magpies announcing to everyone who knows the lingo a mountain lion is coming. I was thankful the instinct to film had been blotted out by the complete and utter awe of the experience. That’s when you know you’re getting into the good stuff. When just being in the moment outweighs the urge to capture everything. I’m not really sure my arms were actually working at that moment anyway.
I wasn’t anxious about being in the presence of the lion anymore but I knew better than to pursue. The entire event was incredibly brief but for those few seconds we were the only two sentient beings in the universe. I had been given a gift of the wildest kind and it was time to give this amazing predator his space which was my gift in return. There was an intensity in his glance that sent a clear message if I had any questions about the unspoken protocol here. The details of the experience weren’t important anymore as I hiked home. It was hard to believe we both co-existed in that wild place. That I was part of nature too. There was a sense of belonging, an excitability like someone had just whispered a juicy secret into my good ear and I was in the catbird seat. I knew the lion and I had separate journeys from here but this chance encounter will stay with me forever. I could make that same walk again everyday for the rest of my life and probably never have that happen again but maybe someday on some wind-carved, jagged, gnarly canyon trail our paths would cross again. Let’s hope so.
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