“I was walking along Aravaipa Creek one afternoon when I noticed fresh mountain lion tracks leading ahead of me. Big tracks, the biggest lion tracks I’ve seen anywhere. Now I’ve lived most of my life in the Southwest, but I am sorry to admit that I had never seen a mountain lion in the wild. Naturally I was eager to get a glimpse of this one.
It was getting late in the day, the sun already down beyond the canyon wall, so I hurried along, hoping I might catch up to the lion and get one good look at him before I had to turn back and head home. But no matter how fast I walked and then jogged along, I couldn’t seem to get any closer; those big tracks kept leading ahead of me, looking not five minutes old, but always disappearing around the next turn in the canyon.
Twilight settled in, visibility getting poor. I realized I’d have to call it quits... I heard the poor-wills and the spotted toads beginning to sing, but of that mountain lion I could neither hear nor see any living trace.
I turned around and started home. I’d walked maybe a mile when I thought I heard something odd behind me. I stopped and looked back -- nothing; nothing but the canyon, the running water, the trees, the rocks, the willow thickets. I went on and soon I heard that noise again -- the sound of footsteps.
I stopped. The noise stopped. Feeling a bit uncomfortable now -- it was getting dark -- with all the ancient superstitions of the night starting to crawl from the crannies of my soul, I looked back again.
And this time I saw him. About fifty yards behind me, poised on a sand bar, one front paw still lifted and waiting, stood this big cat, looking straight at me. I could see the gleam of the twilight in his eyes. I was startled as always by how small a cougar’s head seems but how long and lean and powerful the body really is. To me, at that moment, he looked like the biggest cat in the world. He looked dangerous. Now I know very well that mountain lions are supposed almost never to attack human beings. I knew there was nothing to fear -- but I couldn’t help thinking maybe this lion is different from the others. Maybe he knows we’re in a wildlife preserve, where lions can get away with anything... Rationally there was nothing to fear; all the same I felt fear.
And something else too: I felt what I always feel when I meet a large animal face to face in the wild: I felt a kind of affection and the crazy desire to communicate, to make some kind of emotional, even physical contact with the animal. After we’d stared at each other for maybe five minutes -- I held out one hand and took a step toward the big cat and said something ridiculous like, “Here, kitty, kitty.” The cat paused there on three legs, one paw up as if he wanted to shake hands. But he didn’t respond to my advance.
I took a second step toward the lion. Again the lion remained still, not moving a muscle, not blinking an eye. And I stopped and thought again and this time I understood that however the big cat might secretly feel, I myself was not yet quite ready to shake hands with a mountain lion. Maybe someday. But not yet. I retreated.
I turned and walked homeward again, pausing every few steps to look back over my shoulder. The cat had lowered his front paw but did not follow me. The last I saw of him, from the next bend of the canyon, he was still in the same place, watching me go. I hurried on through the evening, stopping now and then to look and listen, but if that cat followed me any further I could detect no sight or sound of it.
I haven’t seen a mountain lion since that evening, but the experience remains shining in my memory. I want my children to have the opportunity for that kind of experience. I want my friends to have it. I want even our enemies to have it.”
-- Edward Abbey, The Journey Home (E.P. Dutton, 1977)
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Warmer spring temperatures mean a greater likelihood that we’ll see wildlife. While some animals like deer are active in all seasons, others lay low in winter.
Bears, for example, typically hibernate during the coldest season. When there are warm spells, like we had this past winter, they may venture out on mild days.
We’ve seen bear footprints in the snow, but never a bear during the winter months. In other seasons, on hikes we cross paths with a bear an average of once a year.
That happened most recently on our hike last June in NY’s Black Rock Forest. Bear sightings are also common in NY’s Catskill Park and areas of northern NJ.
Other wildlife we’ve seen over the years include a mountain lion (just once, on an Adirondacks backpacking trip several years ago), a bobcat, and multiple sightings of porcupines, raccoons, moose (in Vermont & Maine), foxes, rabbits, and snakes.
…Not to mention countless birds including hawks, turkey vultures, eagles, wild turkeys, endless songbirds…. and loons, among the most exotic wild birds with their mournful cries, which serenade us on many of our wilderness camping trips.
Wildlife sightings are always a surprise – we never know when they’re going to happen, of course. After they spot us, bears and other animals often run away so fast that it’s rare for someone to get a good photo (although you’ll find quite a few wildlife pics that were taken on our trips in the “Flora & Fauna” slideshow on our website).
I’m often asked, especially by beginners, about whether we’re at risk from wildlife. People have concerns based on scary stories they’ve seen in the media or movies.
Most fears are baseless, although people should know how to behave in the presence of a wild animal. Attacks reported in the news have almost always been provoked by people “doing stupid things.” Respect the personal space of a wild animal and they’ll virtually always respect yours. When hiking with a group the risks are close to zero.
[For those of you who are interested in statistics, since 1900 there has only been one recorded human death from a bear in the state of NY, and only one in NJ].
As many of you know, you’re vastly more likely to get hurt in an accident at home or on the street than by wildlife. It’s unfortunate that wildlife often get a bad rap.
It can be exciting and memorable to encounter a wild animal in the woods. It’s a pleasure you’re likely to periodically enjoy if you spend much time hiking.
-- Charlie Cook