In the lion's eye

  • Mountain lion

    Sherm Spoelstra

I like to work alone, far from other people, in the deserts and mountains of southeastern Idaho. These are the forgotten lands, rarely seen by the public and only occasionally by agency personnel. On one job I will always remember, I am in the Black Pine Range, working as an independent biologist for the Black Pine Mine's reclamation effort. As I analyze the replanting of 26 miles of exploration roads, I become intimately involved with the mountain range and its native inhabitants.

When the mine manager requests that I camp in a cove partway up the northeast side of a peak named Black Pine Cone, I eye the site with some trepidation. Deer and their elusive companion predator, Felis concolor, or mountain lion, are common in the Black Pines. As I stand in the cove, amid its nestled boulders, downed timber and dark trees, it feels as if a lion belongs here.

I install my camp at the edge of the cove: a small dome tent, a folding table for writing and cooking, extra spare tires, a cache of water and fuel. The first day I finish several miles of surveys and line transects at dusk. By the time I gingerly edge my truck down from the ridgeline and over haul roads back to my camp, it is dark in the trees. I fix a cup of instant soup, briefly warming my hands over the little propane stove before shutting it off. The downcanyon winds sigh among the fir branches; a great-horned owl calls; and then, unmistakably clear and sharp, the cough and growl of a lion.

Spoon half lifted, I freeze and peer into the dark. I can't see a thing. Suddenly I've had enough. I dart into the tent and zip it shut. Minutes pass and I realize the absurdity of my situation: What security can a few millimeters of nylon provide against a lion?

For the next week, I work on the slopes that surround the camp, clipping plots and dragging my 100-meter tape measure, transect sticks and flagging through the grass and brush. When I visit the mine office at the foot of the hill, the men wisecrack, "Well, them lions haven't et you yet."

I survey more exploration roads that run through aspen groves, cross open slopes of mountain mahogany and extend down into dark groves of Douglas fir in the canyons. I walk each reclaimed road from beginning to end, taking photographs, estimating plant composition and cover. My eyes are typically focused on the ground and I see the tracks of many animals, especially deer. Late one afternoon, as I trudge back to the truck, I see fresh lion tracks delicately impressed upon my own earlier prints.

One set of tracks appears to be from a female lion, the second from an older cub. Farther down the slope, another double set of tracks, this time what appears to be a large male and a female. I walk slowly on, secretly darting glances in all directions in hopes of sighting my companions. I am being watched.

Another week passes, and I find more fresh tracks, on a saddle above Silver Hills Spring. They overlay deer tracks in a dusty Jeep trail. I return to camp at dusk sick to my stomach, forego dinner and crawl into the tent. My fever climbs. I pass out and awaken some time later with icy chills. The night is so very still.

And then I hear something. A soft gentle padding, walking toward me. I lie in silent misery while the soft footfalls, hesitating a bit, circle the tent. I hear breathing, slow and heavy. Something passes closely by the wall of blue nylon, shadowed by my lantern's weak light. A large triangular head pushes against the thin fabric, bulging the wall inward.

I can't scream or even move at first. Finally I use my fingertips to tap the inside of the tent not far from the enshrouded head. It withdraws. The footsteps move away.

At some point the nausea subsides and I drift away in sleep. I awaken to the calls of red-breasted nuthatches, to sunshine warming the tent. I start to crawl out, but pass out once more, on the little doormat. When I awaken again, the sun is higher and I lift my face from the soft soil and trampled grasses. There he is, on the hill behind the tent. The lion rises gently - a young male, golden sun-and-shade patterns on his flanks. With a flash of long-tailed grace he slips through the trees and disappears.

Like a posted sentry, or perhaps a predator waiting for the right moment to strike, the lion had kept watch through the night. As if he knew I was weak and vulnerable, he waited nearby only until I emerged with life somewhat restored. Later, I look for his tracks, to reassure myself that he was real. I kneel and touch the delicate prints in the dust.

For another month as I continue to work on the hill, I marvel at the hardy plants, the spotted towhees and a pygmy owl. I talk to weasels, to does with fawns and bucks with antlers encased in velvet. I surprise sage grouse in the brush and am thrilled by the acrobatics of harriers, eagles and prairie falcons. But I never again meet the watcher who visited my camp.

Miriam L. Austin, who lives in Twin Falls, Idaho, worked at the Black Pine Mine reclamation site from September to November 1999.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Miriam L. Austin