What do you do when you meet a predator?

 

The March day in western Colorado was crystalline clear. North-facing mountain slopes held up to a foot of snow; the south faces, however, were bare. I made my way up a favorite isolated mountain valley along a stream of beaver ponds. I saw no beaver, but I did see a small mountain lion track. It’s a common experience: My cougar sightings have all occurred close to beaver activity. I stopped to rest on a log in the sun as a raven checked me out from on high, and a flock of chirpy cedar waxwings worked the aspen catkins. The air brimmed with the exhilaration of spring. When I decided to go higher, the wind was in my favor; perhaps I’d see an elk.

I rounded the high overlook and continued a few steps when I suddenly noticed that the hair on the back of my dog’s neck stood on end. I peered into the valley below and saw nothing. Then I followed Teak’s eyes. Thirty yards directly below us was a mountain lion.

I watched as the lion, intent on putting distance between the dog and me, leapt a small stream and disappeared into the thick forest, tangled with downed debris. Then, another lion appeared. It, too, walked the bank of the stream, jumped over it and disappeared. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stood spellbound when danged if a third lion didn’t come into view. Within a few seconds, after this one disappeared, the mother finally appeared, dwarfing her yearlings, which, until that moment, had seemed huge.

She was magnificent. Having assured the triplets’ safety, the lion strode upstream about 10 yards and climbed onto a trunk snag that bridged the stream. She was halfway across when she looked back at me, let loose with a tremendous snarl revealing razor-sharp canines, and sprang to the other side as if propelled by the thickness of her powerful tail.

My body, frozen in awe, eventually relaxed, as my breath returned. I moved up a few yards and looked back on the spot where the family had been. It was a dry, south-facing slope, hidden under a slight rock overhang. I imagine that they were lazing in the spring sun, relaxing in these quiet weeks before the backcountry opened up to throngs of hikers.  I would have missed it all had it not been for Teak’s keen nose and our good luck in being downwind.

To witness the wild is to step into an extraordinary space. I wonder why that mother didn’t feel threatened by either the dog or me, and act on her fear by charging us. My response to our encounter was just as surprising: Avid photographer that I am, I never thought to reach for my camera. I simply watched in fascination as my body received information that lay far beyond the reach of my conscious brain. That is why I didn’t flee; I stood my ground and sent out whatever nonthreatening and nonverbal vibes take over at a time like that.

I had a similar experience once above timberline in the Canadian Rockies when I met a mother grizzly and her three cubs, I rounded a corner and there they were, moseying across the mountainside, turning over huge rocks in search of insects. I grabbed the dog and stood still, watching, until the mother noticed me. She could have been on me in a nano-second. Above timberline, there was no place to run, no trees to climb. I directed every drop of energy I had toward her presence, trying to communicate the fact that I meant no harm. She looked at me, stuck her nose into the air, and, as if by magic, her cubs gathered around her. They all stood still for a moment, then turned on a dime and headed down the mountain, the three cubs following like the tail on a kite.  A few moments later, they reappeared on a mountainside farther away.

I want to find meaning in these encounters that left me breathless and yet unharmed. Even though lions and bears are fierce predators, when they noticed me watching them, they suddenly seemed vulnerable and alone. I was privileged to see those two mothers make the wiser choice, protecting their young not by confrontation but by their decision to move on. I, too, was able to walk away, deeply humbled by the experience. I knew that I was the intruder, forcing wild animals on their own wild turf to react to me. The imperative of wilderness weighs heavily on us all.

Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is on the road promoting her latest book, Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!