Sept. 23, 1987… 4am. Beaverhead Nat’l. Forest
Pitch black except for a million stars spreading a blinking blanket over me, trekking up the trail in the dark. I really didn’t need any light, I had done it so many times. I knew every boulder, tree stump, juniper bush, creek crossing. Make it to the saddle before day break, take a breather, stop, listen. The wind was down, a silent darkness slowly being overtaken by first light, no bugles yet.
Picking my way up the sidehill on the switchies. Huffing and puffing past the jack pines through the scree, climbing up…looking way down and across the canyon to the old ski hill over my right shoulder. Not much more to the steep part, gonna get up on top of the ridge and take another blow.
Into the timber now, a sliver of first light squeezing through lodgepoles, doug firs and whitebark pine. Trail levels off, finally I’m on top.
A light, misty September sprinkle happened up here…silent foot falls, moist for a change…no crackle to the sticks and leaves. Next year half of Yellowstone Park would burn, but for now…
I walked over to the left edge and looked down the cliff into the creek, listened to it barely audible tumbling down the mountain over huge boulders and moss covered rocks. Took in patches of quakies turning gold. A raven croaked way down in there somewhere.
Moving slowly back up the trail, the several-hundred foot drop off to my left, a gentle slope downhill of to my right…I am in the trees at 8500 feet, noiseless. No snow up here. Good light now.
Three black strands of sewing thread dangled from the tip of my recurve…I held it upright in front of me to check the wind. The strands blew back dead into my face. Head down looking at the soft earth for a sign…a nutcracker chattered off through the trees. I stopped, stood stock-still and listened.
My eyes scanned ahead, up the trail, left and right, through the trees. Off to my right was an opening, just before the lodge poles got thick. My eyes searched.
The big cat was standing crouched, bent at the knees at forty yards, quartering away from me, facing left, into the wind, ears up, eyes staring dead, focused like lasers. A mature tom around 140 pounds congealed like petrified wood, powerful shoulder muscles rippled through a tawny coat, blending with the pine bark and understory. His long, tan, graceful tail, curled up at the black tip, barely twitched. He had no idea I was there.
At first I tensed up. But the longer I stood there, the longer the wind stayed right and the longer the big cat didn’t see me, the more relaxed I felt.
I thought, “how lucky is this?…what are the odds?” Here I am within a bow shot of one of the most secretive, elusive alpha predators in the mountains and he is unaware of my presence. He had his eye on some unseen prey and the thought of a kill had his full attention.
I stood there, barely blinking, watching him coiled motionless.
I thought about all the history this impressive animal carried with him…mountain lions had survived years of being chased, treed, hazed, shot at, trapped, snared, speared, poisoned…the bounty hunters of old cutting off ears and tails for $10, $20, $50 per cat…females and kittens brought bonus money.
The campaign of killing was often waged by professional hunters like Ben Lilly, Jay Bruce or Uncle Jim Owens… in New Mexico, Idaho, California, Arizona…anywhere they could find a cat to kill. Mr. Bruce claimed responsibility for 669 lion kills in California alone and “Uncle Jim” laid waste to over 500 lions in Arizona.
Before them, Arapahos and Nez Perce, Mandans and Blackfeet , Cheyennes and Lakotas and many other tribes hunted lions.
While I watched the big tom I thought about how the Native Americans killed the mountain lion to utilize them, making quivers and blankets with the hides and eating the meat, while the European invaders killed the big cats to eradicate them off the face of the earth, hanging them by the neck from a tree limb or the side of a barn, to rot in the sun.
In one fifty year period in the USA and Canada, over 66,000 mountain lions were killed. By the early 1960s, only 4000 survived in the lower 48 states.
I watched the big tomcat intent on his business, the business of survival. I felt insignificant in his world…the natural world. I only had to make it back to the pick-up, turn the key, start it up, get home, feet-up, crack a beer.
He had to make it through another brutal Montana winter in the wild.
I hunted for fun, the big cat hunted to survive.
I clucked at the lion like you cluck at a horse. His big head wheeled on a swivel, looked straight through me with piercing yellow eyes, locked in, without fear.
I stared back, feeling small, out of place, like I didn’t belong.
Then two or three astoundingly swift and graceful leaps…a blur of movement without a sound…and he was gone.
I squinted hard down through the maze of lodgepole and jack pine and downed timber. Nothing.
From somewhere a red-tailed hawk let out a scream, a pine squirrel chattered, a chipmunk poked its head out of a stump to get a look.
I turned around and headed back down the trail the way I came from.
A chill of a north wind whistled through the timber with another Montana winter not far behind.
I had a lot of time to think during the long hike down the mountain.