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Lion’s Tales (January 14, 2004)

The fierce cougar attack last week in the afternoon on one of the two women biking together at a Southern California Wilderness Park only half a mile from some houses was both tragic and unusual. That the same cougar had also killed a man earlier on the same day in the same area greatly amped up the tragedy and the rarity of the double attack. But, when the police hunted the cougar down after dark, they were able to hunt down and kill the big cat quickly only because they saw its glowing yellow eyes staring at them near the kill site as it stalked them in the night. I think the big cat was trying to protect its human food stash. The courage shown by the biker’s partner and the other bikers who came to her aid by throwing rocks to chase it away combined with the cougar’s disdain for people and its rage against people made this long merciless day a day of near mythic proportion in the modern annals of man and beast. Because the mountainous forests that separate Anderson Valley and the Pacific Ocean have the highest cougar population density in the world, it can focus one’s thoughts on cougars and past electric sightings of the big cats.

I have backpacked in the high Sierras every summer except for three summers since 1969. In the early 1970s, I couldn’t get away from work when I was the Captain of the Philo Gyppos. In the late 1970s, I was so obsessed with competing in tournament tennis, I didn’t want to take any time away from tennis. And in 2003, I had a bone spur that kept me from hiking.

My first hike in 1970 was to solo the 213-mile John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite east to Mount Whitney Portal above Lone Pine, California, in 13 nights and 14 days. The last three days had been snowy, wet and cold, so I was glad the hike was near completion as I climbed up the west side of Mount Whitney to Trail Crest Pass at 13,600 feet elevation. It seemed the storms might break away because sparkling blue sky was now mixed with the heavy white clouds. I started down the mountain when out of the periphery of my eye was a movement on the Whitney face east of me. I stopped to rest and admire my eagle’s eye view and to locate what had made that movement. Finally, I saw a silent stream of liquid movement as a cougar on the eastern side of the southern flank of Mount Whitney leaped horizontally on to an unseen ledge of the mountain then leaped about 12 feet vertically onto what appeared to be a shadow then pull itself into its den. Curiously, I felt like I had witnessed something private, not intended to be seen. Refreshed I hiked down the mountain.

Another time in Central California in the foothills just west of Lake Success five miles east of Porterville, I was walking up the highest hill to escape the oppression of the constant Tule fogs that hang thick and heavy and low to the ground in the Central California winters by gaining altitude to see the bright world above the fog. My old cocker spaniel Arnold was with me, but the dog always ran far ahead of me to investigate the earth and to play. Just before I reached the end of the fog layer, Arnold came flying at my chest and gripped my shoulder tightly with his legs as I burst through the fog into a shockingly bright world. I saw a large cougar lazily loping toward me. I immediately put both arms above my head as Arnold clutched my shoulder and quivered with fear, and walked toward the cougar. He made a growling circular motion with his jaw but made no noise. I was close enough to look into his eyes before he broke and trotted away from me for about 25 yards, then he stopped and turned sideways to me with his golden, muscular body, and turned his head toward me and growled without noise once more. I continued toward him with my arms high until he glided away.

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