Thursday, April 10, 2008

Nature, Red In Tooth and Claw

On Sunday I returned from a wonderful trip to Yosemite National Park. Here is my most memorable experience from the trip.

My father and I were hiking the 5 mile Mirror Lake/Tenaya Creek loop. The trail to Mirror Lake is extremely busy, but the rest of the loop past the lake was much less crowded.

I had two cups of coffee in the morning and I had been hiking alongside a rushing river for about an hour, so I had to pee. The trail was fairly empty--we saw perhaps one hiker every fifteen minutes of so. I had been looking for a properly secluded spot to do my business for about ten minutes, and found the perfect location behind a large boulder and some dense vegetation along the side of the trail. I walked off the trail about 40 feet up a slight hill, past the boulder and a fallen tree, to make sure I couldn't be seen from the trail.

I looked uphill slightly to the right, and...

Fifteen feet away was a mountain lion -- looking directly at me.

I froze.

The mountain lion turned around, silently jumped over a fallen tree, and walked uphill away from me. It was slightly larger than a German shepherd. Its coat was medium brown, slightly shaggy and had a faint pattern which extended nearly to the long, thick tail.

It behaved...exactly like a shy stray cat.

The close encounter passed so quickly I thought it might have been a hallucination. I stayed frozen and watched the silhouette head slightly further uphill. I put my brain into instant replay mode just to make sure I had seen what I thought I had seen. Coyote? No, unmistakably feline. Bobcat? Too big. Massive tail. MOUNTAIN LION. Just as my brain sent me this information, I noticed another silhouette moving on the hillside through the dense canopy of tree branches above me.


The silhouettes were in profile and didn't appear to be specifically watching me, so I backed away down the hill to the trail. I yelled to my Dad, who was sitting with his back to me reviewing some photos on his digital camera, "Mum-mum-mountain lions!" and pointed at the silhouettes moving away from us on the hill 50 or 60 feet away. I urgently grabbed a walking stick that I had been using for a few miles which had a fairly sharp tip, and found another heavier log that would make a serviceable club. As I was doing this, I yelled at my Dad to grab a sharp stick...and try to get a photo. My father, a consummate photographer, crouched down to get the shot.

"Get the fuck up! Get the fuck up!"

The silhouettes were gone.

But he did get the photo. It's very "Where's Waldo?"

Can you find Waldo the mountain lion? You'll have to look at the full-size image, in the upper right hand corner. Here is a cropped version.

After our sighting, we still had a long, tense walk back to the trailhead through dense forest dotted with large boulders alongside the trail. I've never been so happy to see a throng of tourists as when we finally got back to the trailhead.

Some observations:
  • On the northern, more populated side of the river trail, we noticed dozens and dozens of ground squirrels. Looking back, I don't remember seeing a single squirrel on the south side of the river. Perhaps this is because the world's most effective rodent deterrent is cat urine?
  • The lions HAD to have known we were there on the trail. 200 people probably travel that exact trail every day and never see anything. We never, ever would have seen them had I not ventured off the trail for a moment. They only became visible when I briefly attempted to make myself invisible from the trail.
  • The lion that was 15 feet away from me must've been a curious adolescent, and the other cat had to be the mom. They appeared to be approximately the same size, but the patterned fuzzy coat is typical of a younger mountain lion. Mountain lions are usually solitary.
  • Despite receiving millions of visitors a year, Yosemite is most definitely NOT Disneyland. Although mountain lions have only verifiably killed 6 people in California since 1890, whereas 8 people have died at Disneyland since 1955.
Takeaway advice:
  • Take a sharp stick with you when you pee.
  • If you see a mountain lion DO NOT RUN. Maintain eye contact, speak aggressively, put your arms above your head to make yourself look bigger. Look and act threatening enough to make it look like eating you would be trouble than you're worth. Kids are more vulnerable as they are prey-sized, so if you are with a child, pick them up. Fortunately in my case and almost every other encounter, mountain lions don't typically see people as prey. I was aware of what to do, but the eye-to-eye part of my encounter was so brief that I never even had time to raise my arms. I'm 6'3", which was enough, apparently.
Is there still a mountain lion in Griffith Park? I remember hearing about one a few years ago, and a quick search only turns up articles from 2004. I would guess that there isn't one in the park any more, as I would've heard about sightings during one of the Sierra Club night hikes.

Regardless, the Verdugo, Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains are verifiable mountain lion habitat, so keep your eyes open.

We reported the sighting to a ranger at the Visitor Center. He was excited and recommended a few mountain lion related articles. This one is especially gripping.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

See if you can find a Mountain Lion in this bizarre video: