Eyes in the Night…

Well, it’s spring break next week at the University of Iowa, which means all of the professors are trying to squeeze in as many papers and exams as possible before all the young ‘uns rush off to tropical locales. I’m not a young ‘un, and I’m not jetting away to some white sand beach (nor am I particularly fond of admitting either) but somehow I still need to suffer through those same trials of the mid-term workload. It hardly seems fair.  Anyway, I’m pretty buried with school right now, so for today’s post I’ll again turn to my 2007 hike journal and share a tale from the Pacific Crest Trail.

In light of my entry from last Friday, this seems an appropriate time to share a mountain lion story of my own. The following excerpt took place in early July as I left Kings Canyon National Park and entered the John Muir Wilderness (central California.) The day had already been full of adventure. I’d lost my camera and backtracked several miles in search. That’s actually a pretty good story in its own, but I think I’ll save it for another post. For now, we’ll pick up with the events which followed, as I hiked into the night trying to catch back up to my friends…

The ordeal had set me over an hour back, and I was about 7 miles away from where Will and Cole would be camping with darkness closing fast. It didn’t matter, I was floating on air. I decided rather than make camp to just go ahead and walk in the dark. Returning once more to the creek ford, I crossed it for the fifth and final time. Cherishing the opportunity, I took several photos as the sunset cast perfect light on the turbulent waters of the creek cascading through Evolution Valley. With darkness now at hand, I descended a series of steep switchbacks to
the canyon of the San Joaquin River. Feeling at one with my surroundings, I decided not to take out my headlamp, and moved like a shadow through the deep dark forest of the canyon floor. I couldn’t quite see the trail, but could somehow sense it, and navigated flawlessly through the
night.
It was 10 o’clock by the time I reached Piute Creek, marking the point where I would leave Kings Canyon National Park to enter the John Muir Wilderness of Sierra National Forest. The trail crossed Piute Creek on a wooden bridge, and on the opposite side I dropped my pack and dug out my light. I’d enjoyed walking without it, like a nocturnal animal, but now needed to see my surroundings. Will had read that there was a cabin here somewhere, just off trail, and that’s where the guys would be found.
Scanning the forest with my highbeam, I moved slowly along, hoping not to miss it. After walking for a mile, I knew I’d gone too far. The details on the cabin had been sketchy, perhaps it wasn’t there at all. If so, the guys would be camping somewhere nearby. I decided to walk a bit
further until I found a decent campsite. If I met them along the way, great. If not, I’d probably see them in the morning.
A bit later, I noticed a glow in the forest just ahead. My first thought was it was another headlamp, probably Will or Cole in camp. Anxious to stop for the night, I proceeded down the trail. Then I noticed the light disappeared when I turned my beam away. It must have been the
reflection off their tents, I thought. I shone my light again in that direction, and caught a glimpse of the shimmering return. What I saw stopped me dead in my tracks. It was not the reflection off a tent, but instead, two green glowing eyes. I could tell it was a large animal, which remained stationary, locked on my position. It was about thirty yards away, through the trees, and I couldn’t make out the body, only the eyes. I’m not sure if a bears eyes reflect a green light like that, but a cats do.
My heart raced. Here I was, in the middle of the forest, in the middle of the night, facing an extremely dangerous situation. I knew my immediate response in the moments ahead would make all the difference in the outcome of this encounter. Hoping it was a bear, I decided to try and scare it off. I yelled, loud and confident, and took a few steps toward it, clanging my trekking poles above my head. The eyes lowered, indicating the animal had crouched down, and it started to come toward me.
Its movement sent a chill down my spine. This wasn’t a bear. In stealth like motion, the eyes continued to slowly advance, now twenty yards away. Adrenaline rushing, I yelled again, this time much louder, more commanding, primal desperation. The animal stopped, but did not
retreat. I took a step back and drew my bear spray. I wasn’t sure if the mace would provide an effective deterrent in a cougar attack, but other than a small pocketknife, it was the only defense I had.
Time stood still. I stared directly into the fierce looking eyes, which stared directly back at me. We remained transfixed on each other, each awaiting the others next move. Slowly, I began to back away, fighting the urge to run, knowing better than to turn my back. I still couldn’t
make out the body of the animal, and focused every ounce of my attention on those haunting green eyes. They remained still, hinting that the creature just might be willing to let me leave without conflict. I backed fifty yards up the trail, and the eyes stayed put. I knew I had to
get away from the area, and decided to go back in the direction from which I came. I turned, still walking slowly as not to provoke an attack, and headed up the trail. Every thirty seconds I stopped, turned around, and made a thorough examination of my surroundings to be sure I wasn’t followed. I knew if I had been, I’d have to make a stand.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. I never saw the eyes again. I ended up walking about a mile, all the way back to Piute Creek. It was now after eleven, and though I was trembling from the encounter, felt it best that I stop here and make camp. Since I never did see the body of the animal, I guess I can’t document this as a confirmed mountain lion sighting. I’m pretty sure that’s what it was, though. The eyes, the size, the motion, it almost had to be. My guess is it may have been an adult male, which can be very territorial. I don’t think it was a predatory situation, since it doesn’t seem to have followed me. More likely, I came upon the animal, and its actions seemed to say, “Hey, this is my turf. If you want to leave, fine, but if you want to yell and threaten me, it’s on…”

I’m just relieved that the situation ended like it did.

-July 2, 2007

 

In hindsight, my actions were probably a little more aggressive than you’d be advised to take toward a bear; but at that stage in the hike I had already encountered a few, each quick to turn tail with a couple clanks of the trekking poles. I’m still certain that’s not what this was. As the animal crouched, it moved toward me in long, deliberate strides; the trademark of a cat ready to pounce. That moment, as I remember, was absolutely surreal. It was one of those scenarios that you know as a hiker you may one day face, yet can never fully prepare for the magnitude of the emotion involved. I will confess, this was one of the scariest moments of my life. I’m glad that it happened, though, because it was a truly amazing experience. Aided in large part, of course, by the fact that it “ended like it did…”

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