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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ghosts in the High Country

I wanted to share a story in response to Andi Poland's  Facebook re-post about a mountain lion stalking a hiker in southwest Colorado (link to article, at the bottom of this post). As Andi said, pumas are out there whether we see them or not. Please use caution and common sense when you're hiking.

And if you think you're being watched, you probably are!

"Cat Nap" Oil on panel by Nancy Rynes

I was hiking in the high country near Gould, Colorado, a couple of weeks ago. Deciding I wanted something off the beaten path, I started a short hike off a 4WD road at about 10,500 feet in the Never Summer Mountains. I was really scouting for photography locations for the next morning - I wanted to find a place where I could photograph some beautiful alpenglow on the peaks at sunrise the next day, and this little valley with a lake seemed like it might be a good spot. Since I am still recovering from a biking crash and I wasn't going far anyway in my scouting, I decided to leave my camera gear in the car - it's heavy and my back was bothering me a bit that day.

Not 100 feet down the trail, I smelled by the worst cat-pee stink of my life. I do know what cat pee smells like, having had to clean up that smell in more than a couple of newly-purchased homes. This was a similar smell, but seemingly 100 times stronger and it was coming from around the base of a dead tree alongside the trail. I kid you not, the scent was a very overpowering version of what you might smell from a domestic tabby cat.  It literally stung my nose, but then again I have a pretty sensitive sniffer!

I had a feeling I knew what caused the stink but I checked out the tree more closely just to make sure. The spray/urine seemed very fresh and came from a pile of scratched-up debris and cat-like scat near the base of the snag. I got glimpses of relatively recent, large-cat footprints, but nothing terribly distinct. The ground had been dry for a while and I am guessing it didn't take footprints well. Probably someone actually experienced at tracking would have seen more than me!

I thought "lion" at this point, but looking up higher on the snag confirmed it: scratch marks about 6 feet off the ground. Sharp scratch marks. Recent scratch marks. Many scratch marks.

A large cat had set out a territory marker and I was about to walk right past it. I didn't even hesitate - I abandoned all plans for a hike and made my way back to my vehicle. I could find another place to see alpenglow :-)

Some things to watch for while hiking (in other words, when is it time to leave?):

  • Recent mountain lion tracks on the trail.
  • Parts of a recent kill left on the trail - hiking in the hills near Boulder early in the mornings, I run into this at least once a year. I typically see parts of a deer left on the trail with mountain lion tracks around. If it's very fresh (it often is), I quickly leave. Sometimes this means I have interrupted its breakfast, sometimes the cat dropped it for an unknown reason. Fresh carcass is no laughing matter - I retreat quickly (but don't run) and report the kill to a ranger. Sometimes these carcasses are left by coyotes or bears but the tracks will tell the story. Probably best to leave in any case!
  • Recent cat scat/scent piles like the one I found.
  • Cat scratchings 4-8 ft up on a tree or snag.
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