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.
For more information, check out this site: http://www.mountainlion.org/featurearticlesign.asp
The original report on the mountain lion stalking a hiker: http://outtherecolorado.com/mountain-lion-stalks-hiker-in-southwestern-colorado/article/1535088#0JbKey80FEeWDzI1.99
Content and photos copyright Nancy Rynes. You may link to this page, but please do not copy anything here without my written permission.