I woke, desperately needing to relieve my very full bladder. The phone tells me it is 5:08. Yet the dawn air, heavy with fog is cold and I hesitated to leave my warm bag.
My body is telling me to get up- yet I resist. The restroom is 70 feet from the tent and I stir, first slipping on my coat. That is when I hear it, the unmistakable snarl from a Mountain Lion. If you have never heard a cougar snarl, just think of a Tom Cat in a back-alley street fight and now make that animal 150 lbs. It seems to be about 60-70 feet away, near the direction of the restroom. I lay out the geography in my head. There is a dry stream bed which runs alongside the campground and I’m at the very last campsite.
Another growl, slightly closer, a low guttural rumble that makes the hairs on my arms and neck stand. From the change in direction I can tell the big cat is walking down the streambed my direction. I reach under my cot and pull out a can of bear spray, removing the protective cover. The craziness of my situation now really hits me. I am in a thin tent with just a few micrometers of fabric separating me from a wild cat that could easily kill me. The cat cannot see me nor I him (?). I cannot spray the pepper spray without getting out of the tent which would expose me to the cat and to get out, I must bend down to get out of the door, thus putting me in a very vulnerable situation.
Last year, we lost three grown goats off our farm, all to one cougar. When we reported the first killing the Fish and Game Office told us to “shoot on sight”. We know it was a cougar as my husband had a brief encounter with the cat in the goat’s pen and we also found the dead goats, drug away from their enclosure and half eaten then covered in forest duff. These goats were bigger, weighed more, than I do.
Another growl, closer still. The beast is still in the riverbed, but now just 15 or so feet from my tent. My heart is pounding. I slip out of the sleeping bag, placing my feet on the floor. Positioning the bear spray so that I can pull the trigger, I realize the can is so big it will take two hands to engage the spray. That is a crappy design!
Another growl. I really don’t know what to do.
A growl-this time the lion has climbed up from the streambed and must be directly outside my tent. I am so scarred I’m almost frozen with fear, I’m trying so hard to figure out what to do.
A growl from the other side of the tent, the cat is circling! I know the cat is between me and my car so within 6-8 feet of the tent. Suddenly, at that second, I “see” my car keys and hit the panic button. This is a new car and the headlights swing back and forth, the very loud horn honks two different sounds and every light flashes.
I took a breath, I knew I was safe, and the cat was gone. I didn’t really know this, but my mind told me I could step out of the tent and slip into the car. The car’s clock tells me that for the last four minutes I have been listening to the encroaching lion. Tears slip from my eyes and my hands tremble as I drive away. At 5:15 A.M., my choices of open establishments is limited in the small coastal town or Crescent City yet I find an open drive thru coffee hut and order a cup to go.
The sun will not rise for another hour and I stop at a beach just outside the park’s entrance. The gray fog is heavy and thick, I slowly walk the beach trying to calm myself. I wondered if there had been two people, would this situation even occur? This is a part of the problem of being a small, solo traveler. I look, and maybe smell like food.
Four years ago, my husband and I were hiking in Yellowstone and I was walking in front. Suddenly a bear charged us. A roaring flash of loud, black, growling furry rushing at us. My husband, who stands over 6 foot, scooped me behind him while taking my walking stick in one move. Holding the stick over his head and on his tip toes, yelled back at the bear. To this day I don’t know how he stood his ground to that rushing bear, but he did. The Bear and he traded insults and threats and eventually the bear dropped to all fours and backed away. Ray is a lot bigger than I am and I’m not so sure I could convince a bear to back off.
At 7:00 I returned to the campground and stopped at the Ranger station to share my story. The ranger confessed they are far more concerned with cats than bears because they are so unpredictable. I was about to leave when she asked me, “Where did you go after you left this morning?” “Oh,” I replied, “I got a cup of coffee and went to Crescent beach just outside the park”. The Ranger’s jaw dropped open, her eyes wide. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “A dog was taken by a cougar from that beach last night.”
I decided to end my camping and head up to Oregon.
Later that day, as I ate lunch, I picked up the local paper to find the story of a woman, a 5’2”, 55-year-old woman who was hiking, killed and partially eaten by a mountain lion at Mt. Hood Oregon. That could easily have been me.