A Wild Encounter In the Eastern Sierra Nevada
By John P. DeGrazio
You ain’t never seen a mountain lion until it looks you in the eye.
Those words have stuck with me since the day I heard them from a Sonora local the year I moved out West from New York City. As my wilderness experiences have proliferated over the past decade, I often wondered how I could not have at least run into a big cat on the trails. Not anymore.
The first time I may have seen a mountain lion was back in December 2007 with a father and son on the Mist Trail below Nevada Fall in Yosemite. The son thought he saw the cat scurry through the rocks but could not confirm the size of the tail. We thought it may have been a cougar but it also could have been a bobcat or even a deer. Status: Unconfirmed
Recently, my friend Evan and I were on a trip hiking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in a day. Evan spotted a swift animal moving alongside the Tioga Road just before sunrise that appeared to have a long tail. We never were able to get a close enough look to substantiate the claim. Status: Unconfirmed
Up until this weekend, the only time I believe I saw a cougar was on the Wawona Road late one early spring afternoon in 2oo8. As I was driving, I notice a long sleek body sauntering across the road from a few hundred yards away. As I sped up to see this tan colored creature, it ambled its way up a side hile. After two bounds, it disappeared completely. Although I have no recollection of a distinct tail, I remember seeing the most powerful hind legs explode up that vegetated slope from a distance of less than 100 feet. Status: 70% Confirmed
I recently spent a long weekend in the Eastern Sierra and camped along the Shepherd’s Pass trail at Anvil Camp with a good friend. We spent a few days hiking/scrambling up some peaks (more on that later) and were amazed by more than one unique wildlife experience (again, more on that later). We had finished our preliminary hike up the pass and were already digesting dinner. It was early, but we wanted to get a fresh start on the next morning’s adventure.
At about 6pm a visitor made its way into our campsite in clear view from a distance of about forty feet. This magnificent creature was a tan color with a round head and ears that pointed upward. Its slender body appeared to be about eight feet long with a long thick tail. We began to admire this fearless predator, and it suddenly stopped in its tracks. With a sudden head turn, it was unmistakable. We were observing a Puma concolor in the wild. And it was observing us very carefully. It appeared to be a healthy male about two hundred pounds and seemed as curious as his admiring crowd.
He fixed his gaze on us for what seemed like an eternity. The moment turned from amazement and wonder to a transitional period of discomfort. After a full minute of this ‘stare down’, I pondered our next move, especially since we were well within the range of this powerful animal’s single bound. I am normally quick with my phone camera as can be seen by this bear encounter in Yosemite, but I had it powered down to conserve battery life on a four day trip. I decided to power it on but never took it out of my pocket so I wouldn’t startle our new guest.
As we locked eyes, I thought of a game I played with our family cat when I was very young. We would lock eyes from across the room. This sparked an aggressive reaction where our cat would puff out its tail and try to attack me. Since I have developed an allergy to cats as an adult, I can no longer study feline behavior nor can I share cat photos and videos on Facebook.
Thinking of that experience as a child, I suddenly felt uncomfortable waiting for a potential strike. Fortunately, this animal never showed any aggressive behavior pattern. This did not prevent me from taking preventive action, however. I picked up a water bottle, and like Butch in “Pulp Fiction” I began to look for other, more effective weapons. I noticed a couple of rocks below my feet so I bent over to pick them up and immediately felt vulnerable. Remembering cougars like to attack quadrupeds, I sprang up with the stones in hand. Fortunately, my friend remained calm, stood upright, and continued to fix eyes on the puma. I decided not to shout but clacked the rocks together. Upon hearing this new sound, the wildcat began to run away. Loping would actually be a better description. It was one of the most beautiful, exciting, and potentially dangerous encounters I ever had in the wilderness. It is the exact reason I keep going out on trips like these. Most importantly, I seen me a mountain lion! Status: 100% Confirmed