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 NewTowncarShare News (newtowncarshare.info). She is on the road promoting her latest book, Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.
  • Visit our website for full description and to apply.No phone calls please. NPCA is an EOE.
  • The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...