I love to hike. In fact, I try to take a 5-10 mile hike each weekend. I just can’t think of a better way to get a few hours of solitude, while also getting great exercise, and an excuse to observe and photograph nature.
Today was no exception - I decided to do a ~9 mile hike at one of my favorite nearby locations - Rancho Canada del Oro. At about a 15 minute drive from my house, it offers convenient access to pristine hiking. There are many points in the preserve where no signs of human activity are visible. No roads, no buildings, no power wires, and no other people!
I was about 4 miles in, marveling at the scenery. If I’m generous, it has rained about .05 inches since May 1. Yes - 4 months of no rain, but plenty of sun and heat. Yet, all around me, life was flourishing. Hundreds of butterflies fluttered at my feet, dragonflies patrolled their territory, and lizards scurried to hide when they detected my footsteps. Sporadic wildflowers still bloomed amid the golden brown sea of parched grasses. It was amazing to think about the delicate balance that must exist to allow all of this to persist during our annual summer drought.
I reached the highest point of the hike, almost 2000’ (about 1400’ elevation gain from the trailhead). Starting to head downhill, to my left was a low, wooded canyon, and to my right, steep grassy peaks (called the bald peaks).
Just then, breaking my solitude, a large animal bounded down from above and onto the trail no more than 15 feet in front of me. It hurried over the side of the slope and down, out of site. My first thought was “wolf”, but I immediately knew there were no wolves here. Then I replayed the scene in my mind, and realized it had a massive tail. Mountain lion.
In fact, I know that far too many of the stories of lions attacking humans follow this scenario: solitary hiker/biker out in a secluded area of wilderness; a long, dry summer has left the mountain lions at their most hungry and desperate. Along comes an unsuspecting meal out for a hike or bike ride, and the rest is a story for the newspaper.
Over the years, I’ve had encounters with snakes, coyotes, hormonal elk, and bears (including a mother bear with a cub in Arizona). While these got the adrenaline running, I never felt threatened. But I’ve always had a bit of a fear of mountain lions. They are the only animal of the group that occasionally thinks of people as food.
With all of these thoughts circulating, I cautiously approached the trail’s edge and picked up some large rocks. I peered over the edge, hoping the lion wasn’t laying in wait for me to do just that, and saw the lion snaking its way further downward in the grass.
With the exposed landscape and temperatures approaching 90, I could see the heat waves radiating off the mountain side. Looking through the viewfinder, it was as if I was in the African savannah, looking at lions through the heat of the land.
While he was staring, I was thinking about the primitive thoughts he was probably having - sizing me up, considering whether I am food or foe. After a few seconds of more staring, he disappeared into the woods below.
At this point I still had 4.5 miles back to the car. The question was - which route? My intended direction was downward, with the trail switchbacking back and forth across where the lion had just been. Or I could turn around, but have to cross the entirely exposed bald peaks in the heat. If I continued on my original route, I’d also be much more likely to encounter people as I’d get to more popular trails.
I decided to continue on my original route. I thought about some deer I’d seen earlier, and thus, there was plenty of food for the mountain lion - he probably wasn’t so hungry as to care about me. If he wanted me, he had already had its chance.
I picked up rocks to throw if I saw him again, and found one larger rock with a nice pointy edge, should I need to defend myself. I couldn’t avoid thoughts of what to do if I saw him again, how to avoid seeing him again, and what to do if it surprise attacked me (which is the usual modus operandi). I knew that I needed to protect my head and neck and fight back. I figured I’d hit it with the sharp rock, yell, kick, scream. I’d try to gouge its eyes, and use my heavy 300mm camera lens as a baton.
As I walked, the mountain lion took on supernatural qualities in my mind. Its stealth, speed, and strength were undeniable. I was relegated to a path of switchbacks on a mountain side, but he could simply bound straight up or down the mountain side. I remained vigilant. I occasionally looked over my shoulders, scanned for movement, and kept my rocks handy.
Every towhee scratching at leaves looking for an insect meal, or lizard rustling leaves to escape my threat caught my ear. Slowly, I progressed through the canyon bottom, and up the other side. I was now in an area of the preserve where cattle grazed. Lucky me! Now instead of 3 foot tall vegetation, a summer’s of cattle appetites had mowed the landscape to the soil, with only short grasses and sparse wildflowers growing a couple of feet.
Slowly, I felt more at ease, and more relaxed. I crossed a recent wildfire area, and after another 30 minutes of steep terrain, was back at my car. Of course, I took a moment to re-read the ubiquitous warning that most of the area parks have.