Encounter With a Mountain Lion on the Pacific Crest Trail
I shined my headlamp in the direction of the rustling sound. What I saw made the hair rise up on the back of my neck. Forty feet away, two yellow eyes were staring right at me. I yelled at the eyes but they only blinked and did not shift. This was now a chess game and it was my move…
It was late spring in southern California and I was hiking another 100 mile section of the PCT. I couldn’t take the five or six months off of work to hike it in its’ entirety; well that and my wife wouldn’t appreciate my extended absence. Thru-hikers that trek the entire 2600+ miles are special in the sense that they are driven to spend days of solitude, pain and hunger to accomplish the task. Me, I was content to eak out another section of this glorious trail. Emerging from the Mojave Desert, I felt like a beat up fender in an auto body shop. The sandblasting effectively removed one or two layers of skin. My tent survived the 50mph gusts, the ground-hog stakes worth every dime. Hiking at night, my encounters with scorpions were frequent and uneventful. The tent was zipped up tight to keep out those critters.
Eventually, crossing Hwy 58 in the early morning, I realized that I was technically entering the Sierras. It still looked like a desert, but with foothills. Eventually, there were some trees and shade. Taking a break near a stream that I had almost missed, I thought about not having seen anyone since the highway. Sometimes on the PCT, you can go all day without seeing another human. Not one to use a headset while hiking, I began to hum and sing to myself. Those good ol’ gospel tunes that were stuck in my head since childhood. As I was filtering some water, I sensed that something else was around but didn’t think much of it. If you hike solo long enough, you tend to not worry about the boogeyman. Besides, I often carry a “stinger” when in the backcountry. While the likelihood of being accosted out here is slim, my little pistol provided me with peace of mind.
Around the 12 mile mark, I started looking for a suitable campsite. Something near the trees, no widowmakers (big dead trees) and not in a gulley where a flash flood would wash me away. The wind had died down and it was quiet and calm. One of the first things to do is pitch the tent and get my bedding situated. I prepared my food about 50 ft away from my tent and the Ramien noodles cooked quickly. This is a great meal when you just don’t have an appetite, but need to eat. Add a little pita and it fills you up. As my daughter recently explained to me – Ramien means noodle in Korean. Why would we call it Noodle noodles? Hearing a branch snap got my attention and I thought that maybe another hiker was coming through. Most of the PCT thru hikers had passed through last week, but there were some stragglers that were taking advantage of the famous hospitality and trail magic in this area. After a few minutes and no hikers, I didn’t think anything of it and went about my camp chores.
Sunset was coming quickly; the colors from the desert would gradually change the cumulus clouds various hues of purple and pink as the horizon turned a darker shade of blue. I think that sunsets are more enjoyable – maybe because I’m awake. It’s hard for me to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise until I’ve had that first cup of coffee. No campfires tonight, most of this area is under a fire ban. Many of the wildfires around here are caused by campers and hunters who are careless with their fires. I carry two lights, one a portable LED lantern that hangs from the tent and my headlamp for when nature calls. At my age, nature calls often – especially when you drink several liters of water each day. Since I was entering into the Sequoia National Forest, I carried a bear canister for my food and stowed it 50 ft. away from camp.
When camping alone, I often hit the sack early. At home, seven hours of sleep is good. Here, eight or nine broken hours of sleep is ok. As I switched off the lantern, I heard a shuffling sound out in front of the tent. I listened intently. It was quiet, the crickets were the only other sound. I counted the cricket chirps for 14 seconds , ok 10 chirps, add 40 – that’s 50 degrees out. It’s an old trick that I read about, count a cricket’s chirp for 14 seconds, add 40 and you can estimate the temperature within a few degrees. I discounted the shuffling for some skunks or racoon and was almost asleep when I heard it again. Ok, have to see what this is. I put on my headlamp and unzipped the door on the tent. Not wanting to tick off a skunk, I stayed in the door of the tent and scanned the area nearby. I was in a small clearing, near some scrub brush. As my lamp scanned the forest, I froze when a pair of yellow eyes appeared about 40 ft. away. The eyes were about two feet off the ground. The first thing I did was to yell, like “Hey, get outta here!” It didn’t move. I grabbed my whistle from within the tent and blew on it. No good. Whatever it was didn’t move. I was thinking should I leave the relative safety of the tent to scare this away or should I stay here and make some noise?
I decided to confront whatever it was to show who was in charge here. Grabbing my hiking poles and cooking pot, I went out the front of my tent and banged the pot, raised the poles over my head and walked a few steps toward the creature. Adrenaline must have been surging through my body because my ears started ringing. I kept my distance, continuing to make noise and that’s when it became apparent who my visitor was. My headlamp illuminated the body of a mountain lion! It slid away in the brush with its’ long tail twitching on the end. This creature didn’t run from me, it just walked away. I had almost forgotten about the small pistol tucked within my waistband. Not in the mood for hunting a cougar, I retreated to my tent and turned on the lamp.
Within 10-15 minutes, there was shuffling outside the tent. This time it was to the left. Oh boy, this was going to be a long night. I banged on my pot and blew the whistle for a bit and waited. Now, the crunching sound was behind my tent. This critter was circling my tent trying to reconnoiter its’ prey. Knowing that I couldn’t go to sleep with a predator stalking me and the thin-walled tent would not provide protection, I decided to go on the offensive. I got my camera with the flash ready and in the other hand my pistol. I really didn’t want to shoot the big cat but needed to scare it away. Emerging from my tent, I turned my headlamp on to the brightest setting. The light caught the yellow eyes and I pointed my camera in the general direction and started taking a few night pics. After a few flashes, it took off and I could hear the shuffling grow fainter. Here’s what I saw:
It was a long night after that. Like a little kid, I left the light on and laid there listening. Chirp, chirp, chirp…… At one point, I remember thinking about my GPS locator. Normally, it’s used to send my position with an OK message to my family and friends. However, underneath a protective flap is the SOS button. If I was in dire straits or hurt then I would press it. I can hear it now: “You pressed the SOS button for a big kitty? Come on man!!!” The thought did cross my mind though.
Not really being able to sleep, I would cat-nap until sunrise. After eating some oatmeal, I checked out the area and must have flushed out some quail which scared me more than the mountain lion. I ended up going back to my tent to catch a few hours rest. I was awakened by the scream of a wild cat ripping into my tent. Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I struggled to unzip it to reach for my gun.
Within a few seconds, I realized that I had been dreaming. My tent was intact and there was no cougar attacking me. I decided to pack up and hit the trail. After all, there was 53 miles of trail to cover. 🙂
If you haven’t figured out by now, this is one of my fictional blogs. While there are mountain lions in the western most sixteen states and Florida, encounters with humans are rare. However, this past summer an Australian PCT thru-hiker was harassed by a mountain lion all night in the Sierras. She actually did a video of her incident and pressed the SOS button on her SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange messenger. The cat never attacked, but it took over six hours for rescuers to show up. While it is unusual for these big cats to stalk humans, they are predators and can view us as prey. In daylight, your best defense is to appear as large as possible and raise hiking poles or sticks over your head and make a lot of noise. Never run or crouch down as this may trigger their instinct to attack. When hiking with children in mountain lion country, it’s best to keep them close by. To my knowledge, mountain lions have never attacked humans in a tent.
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle