“What, after the fat is boiled away, is the essence of hunting dangerous game? In a word, it is the challenge in its most elemental form, the same challenge that provided the drive that brought the hairless, puny toothed, weak, dawn-creature that became man down out of the trees to hunt meat with rocks, clubs and pointed sticks. This daring still lives, in various degrees of mufti, under the flannel breast of the meekest shoe clerk…” From Death in the Long Grass (1977) - Peter Hathaway Capstick
“One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted. If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carrie with it; the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job.” - Jose Ortega y Gasset
Travel had been up and down a steep drainage or two, and finally up another creek in the dark for the last hour. This dark trek was the result of a couple of assumptions that I was beginning to suspect were either twisted luck, or flat out mistakes covering the days’ ten miles of hunting. Walking in pure darkness with dying batteries on a headlamp will do that to you when you find yourself second guessing where you really are in big mountain country that you’ve never been in before.
The high meadow elk wallow that had taken most of the day to achieve was now just a delusional spot on a far mountain. A small spot in the vast distance where I had persuaded myself that the mud hole would result in an arrow being flung at a deep throated bull elk. The mud hole didn’t pan out as planned.
The batteries in the headlamp weakened far faster than planned. The long and treacherous walk back to the campfire took significantly longer time than planned. There really wasn’t much of a plan here, as it was mostly attributable to hopeful thinking. Hope is never much of a plan.
The GPS ran on batteries that were suitable spares for the headlamp, but I couldn’t bring myself to the sacrifice. I didn’t trust the GPS. I just couldn’t stomach the thought of fumbling around in the dark with batteries for one gadget to feed another gadget. Maybe I was closer to camp than I thought. The term, hope is not a plan, returned as the hike continued up the rocky trail in the dark timber.
The GPS was a new and almost unfathomable gadget. Already, in a just a few recent days, the old compass and I had each caught the new fangled GPS in a couple of lies. Maybe the new gadget had learned the errors of its’ ways.
The path up this particular creek looked almost familiar in the dimming battery light. In reality, there wasn’t little to really decipher about this creek that seemed to bring on any real assurance or sense of comforting familiarity. In the dark big timber everything has a surreal sameness that can quickly be bewildering.
I held the bow in one hand and a canister of bear spray in the other since the moonless darkness blackened the dense willow drainages and the tall timbered trails. The bear spray had been drawn from the holster like some gun slinger in a wild west boom town saloon. A man with notches on his pistol who would, out of necessity, rip his trusty Colt Peace Maker from worn latigo leather and jam the big barrel up the nose of some offensive drunk cowboy who had disparaged the old pistolero’s horse or his momma.
This trails’ darkness was deep in bear country, albeit not Griz country. It was moose country, wolf country, two kinds of cat country and after the first sound of something crashing through the willows and lodgepole in the darkness, the bear spray was unsheathed. I figured the cats and the wolves would have moved a little more quietly, or suspected that they would have attacked silently from behind.
This ‘quiet approach to certain death’ logic spiraled me into a lengthy, unhealthy internal debate as to whether a can of aerosol propelled pepper spray would render something as large as an enraged moose to decide to give up on stomping something in the dark. Give up on pulverizing someone with only one dim eye, gripping a can in their hand, into a bloody pool of wolf bait.
In that dark hours’ hike there had been two, maybe three, large somethings crash off the trail into the dark timber, completely unseen, but completely and breathlessly appreciated for the yield of the right of way. Maybe the third large something crashing through the dark brush was pure imagination, a simple failure of confidence, or some borderline hallucinogenic something. I never saw who, or what, made the retreating noises crashing through the dark timber. They left little to track in a weak light when armed with only a paint can and a bow.
The creek path was the right one. I could see the fire and it looked larger than I remembered from the night before. I whistled my approach and my son came to meet me.
“Where have you been? We were beginning to come looking for you!”
There was an edge to his question that made the tone of his voice somewhat uncharacteristic. I didn’t think it was my tardiness.
“Whats up?” I asked.
“I was stalked by a mountain lion today!”
“What?” I plainly had heard what he said, but it seemed unbelievable when I tried to process what he had just told me. I now understood the edginess in his questions concerning my whereabouts.
He continued on; “Rob and I had called up a bull on Madson Ridge where the lodge poles are down like jackstraws. I left Rob with the shot and I drifted back about fifty yards to keep calling. The bull came in on a rope. I turned to make sure that his cows hadn’t gotten by us and there was this huge cat laying in the grass, ears back and only the last four inches of his tail was moving. As soon as I got over being frozen in place by the cat’s stare, I turned to face the cougar. I stood raising my bow over my head and tried to scare the animal away.”
“How close was he?”
“When he didn’t move, I knocked an arrow for the shot and came to full draw. The only shot I had lined up with his head or back, and I wasn’t sure that that the shot a good idea. I ranged him at 18 yards. His eyes never left me. I’ll never forget those piercing eyes. I decided that I needed to get broadside for a kill shot. The bull was closing the distance fast and I worried about spooking Rob’s bull for at least one thin second. I slowly pulled back to full draw and inched my way broadside to the big cat. There was no growl or hiss. The only thing that moved on the cat was his head and his tail. When I finally got in position for the shot, I ranged him again and now I stood at 15 yards. Being closer stunned me when I realized I had crowded the cat and the it hadn’t charged. The arrow hit the cat in the shoulder and the lion let out a loud scream, leaped straight up, maybe six feet like it had been electrocuted, did a complete 360 degree flip and bounded over the jackstraw pines, out of sight, like he had been shot from a cannon.”
I collapsed shaking involuntarily by the fire. The big fire was useless on the cold chills crawling up my back.
“Did you find your arrow?” I asked shakily.
He continued while I inspected the arrow in the firelight; “Yeah! Look at this! There’s less than three inches of blood on it. Look at the teeth marks on the shaft! Rob came up grinning where I was sitting, shook up and shaking like a leaf, and told me he had just shot a log. You should have seen the look in his eyes when I told him what had just happened. He thought I was trying to pull a fast one on him! We quickly found the arrow and blood with some hair and tracks. We lost the blood trail almost as fast. We found tracks where the lion had crossed the creek and then it disappeared in the rocks and we lost all sign.”
“Do you think the lion would have charged?“ My words were failing, breaking involuntarily.
“I’m dead certain he was committed, especially when he never moved as I stood up and tried to wave him off. The eyes were dark and deadly. I’ll never forget the eyes.”
I slumped by the fire and continued to shake violently like a town dog passing a peach pit. Thoughts, all manner of strange and awful thoughts dumped into my mind in one fell swoop. There were dark, terrible calculations of time and distance to analyze.
We were easily ten miles from the nearest vehicle for evacuation. I wasn’t sure where the nearest horse was, or in which direction to go to get to one. Could a man who survived being mauled by a panther even ride a horse? What was the duration of the walk out, or carry-out? Once a vehicle was reached, where was the nearest trauma center? These grizzly questions cascaded like a bad storm until I came to the most disturbing question pondered in this flood of gruesome thoughts…What would I say to my son’s mother and his wife and kids?
That last terrible thought stopped me in my mental tracks. Enough; He’s OK. We are OK. Enough. I hugged him, I think I hugged him. If I didn’t, I should have. And, we were all OK.
But, we were now living in the backyard of a wounded mountain lion. At daylight we searched for the wounded cat in the rocks, the trees, the caves, all to no avail. No trace. It was a slow and extremely tense search that went on for days.
Every tree was better than a great sight for revenge. Every boulder outcropping, a springboard for one last killing leap that no arrow or spray can could prevent. The mountain lion had disappeared and spared us revenge.
The memory will never disappear. That was the day in Idaho when Rob shot a log instead of a bull, and from 15 yards, the big hungry mountain lion, with killer black eyes, was arrowed in the shoulder.
There were no need for batteries for head lamps after that momentous day.
WOMR Note; Extra batteries aren’t as heavy as I once thought. The GPS still lies. Send comments to email@example.com