It’s interesting how certain encounters, no matter how brief, can define better than words, what you feel you’re about. A very recent and brief encounter with a mountain lion summed up for me my love of the outdoors and adventurous proclivities.
Despite almost 25 years of hiking in NorCal’s coastal range, I had never done the famed Dipsea Trail. Well known for its footrace and beauty, the trail has been competitively run almost every year since 1905. I picked a foggy, somewhat chilly day for the trek, figuring about 3.5 hours for the 7.5 mile journey that includes almost 700 steps at the start and nearly 2,000’ of elevation gain.
The beauty of the landscape is amazing as the Dipsea passes through portions of Mount Tamalpais State Park, Muir Woods National Monument, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and ultimately to the town of Stinson Beach on the edge of the Pacific.
Just about mile marker three, I saw a small side trail to the west that looked like it ended in about 50 feet for a grand view. A good spot for a water break. Up until this juncture it had been incredibly quiet. There were folks challenging the Dipsea steps but once I hit the trail at the top, I was alone and would be for the next 2.5 hours.
I had just taken my day pack off and was reaching for my water bottle when I spotted the cougar (Puma concolor, Linnaeus, 1771) 50 yards away, meandering from my left to right in short, yellow and green grass slightly bowing to a light breeze. The lion was walking at a moderate pace and as still as I was, I figured it would just head into cover without seeing me.
I was thrilled to see it. It stopped, turned its head toward me and then continued in my direction to within 25-30 yards. At this point he’s (no idea if a male or female) squared up and inspecting me. While he was making his approach, I had slowly lifted my pack up on top of my shoulder to look “bigger”. I kept direct eye contact and started talking to the very still cat. A few calls and whistles later and still no movement so I took my phone out and called my wife – “here’s where I’m at and call you back in a bit when this standoff is settled.”
At this point a couple of minutes have passed and I’m getting wary that my talking and whistling hasn’t had the desired effect. I should have started to back away slowly but that item on my mountain lion encounter checklist got forgotten. Time to sing. What song do you ask? Well, the one that came to mind was American Pie. Yup, and when I got to the chorus and sang the line, “this will be the day that I die”, I burst out laughing. Several minutes and verses later, instead of the cat becoming uninterested I appeared to have an audience and the mutual sizing up continued. Despite the cat not advancing further I figured I should have a Plan B. I had a bag to put between the cat and my neck and a locking pocket-knife to show I had teeth too. For some unknown reason the cat was being wary and still interested. And then, after what seemed like a very long time but was something over 5 minutes, the cat turned and sauntered into cover.
A super cool encounter which elicited some degree of pucker factor. I also came across some black-tailed deer, hawks and a banana slug (I was super confident of my status here). Despite having the presence of mind to call my wife and let her know where I was with the cat, I never thought to take a photo. My field drawing/painting is representative of my singing audience.