Lion Tamer

this is an essay entry in:

My Strangest Encounter with a Person, Place, or Thing in the West   Return to contest page »

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by wv987 — Aug 01, 2010

An unexpected and unrequited encounter with a mountain lion high in the Sierra Nevada.

“Have you seen my dog?” The man rushed up to me on the trail, repeating his question. It was not the sort of thing I would have expected, up there near the last switchbacks before crossing the Sierra crest into Kings Canyon National Park. He was tall and dirty, but that’s not why he looked so worried—a missing dog is bad any time, but in the mountains it’s real trouble.
I asked what kind of dog. German Shepard, he said; it had gone up the trail ahead of him, and he’d lost track of it. Maybe twenty minutes ago, and he was freaking out.
I promised to keep an eye out for it. The man hardly paused as he rushed down the trail; I never saw him again, never knew what became of him or his dog.
I hiked a while, then paused to photograph a small lake surrounded by head-high brush. I was working my way around the shore, when a movement across the water caught my eye. Between two bushes an animal was drinking from the lake. All I could see was its torso, from the shoulder to just before the hips. It was a light tan color, and the first thing I thought of was the missing dog. But the color wasn’t right. Deer, I thought then—what else could it be? It was far too big to be a marmot or squirrel, there are no goats in the Sierra, it couldn’t be a bobcat.
That’s what it had to be, though I’d never seen one in the wild before, and was surprised to see one so close to a well-traveled path in the middle of the afternoon. I stood quiet and watched. The cat seemed unaware of my presence on the far side of the lake, and I decided that its ignorance would be good to maintain. So I didn’t reach into my pack for the camera.
After a moment, it moved off to my right. As it vanished from sight, hidden by the brush, I caught a glimpse of its long tubular tail. I waited a few minutes, then walked to the spot where the lion had paused. I was hoping it had left paw prints at the shore—a good photograph opportunity for me—but no luck; the shore was mostly stone and there was no sign the cat had been there.
I knew it hadn’t headed toward South Lake because I’d have seen it go that way. Had it gone up the trail in the direction I had been heading? Possibly; but the trail was dusty and though I could make out several human footprints, I saw nothing like a lion’s track. That left the granite slope to my left, up toward the Inconsolable Range east of the trail.
That slope was mostly tumbled granite boulders. It wasn’t particularly steep, though I know from other experiences that such appearances are frequently deceiving. I was not, however, focusing on the terrain at that moment—I wanted to see the lion. And since that had to be the direction the lion had taken, that was the direction I headed, up into the boulder field.
I had my camera in my hands; I really wanted that photograph. A lion in the wild would be a cool addition to my collection—and it wouldn’t cause the cat itself any grief. So I headed up into the boulders—off to find the lion.
At the time, I was thinking about the photo opportunity the fates had presented to me. At least that’s what I thought I was thinking. For a while anyway. I got maybe fifteen yards up that slope when it hit me: I was heading into a lion’s territory. In essence, I was offering myself as lion chow.
Not a good plan, I realized. I knew of no recent instances of lions killing humans in Inyo County; I was not inclined to alter that statistic. So I turned around and continued with my original plan, up over Bishop Pass, down toward the Dusy Basin to the metal sign marking the park boundary. I took a last look around in case the lost dog (or the lion?) might be nearby, ate part of my lunch, drank a little water, and headed back to my car.
Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about just what I hoped to accomplish as I trudged up that boulder strewn slope, camera in hand. Sure, I wanted a good photo of the lion; was I hoping to capture that lion somehow? There is a school of thought that argues that a photographer domesticates his subject by reducing it to an image on film. And though I could not have affected the lion by taking its photograph, I was trying to capture its essence for my own purposes. On the other hand, had I continued my foolish pursuit the lion may well have captured my essence for its purposes. But neither of these things happened. Instead, I am left with the indelible image of the lion in all its inherent wildness, a presence I could experience but never hope truly to share.