Intro to "The Lion Crossing"-
The Lion Crossing--Part I
A few times a week, I run up an old mining road that climbs along the flank of a rocky hogback. It’s the kind of place most people drive by without a glance because they are bound for aspen and alpine lakes on the Flat Tops ten miles away. The hogback is scarred by the road zigzagging up, and here and there, mine tailings spilling down its face. On a map, the road doesn’t seem to go anywhere. But it does, climbing through oak, sage, juniper, currants and feather bush, past an abandoned mine, around cliffs and outcrops, and along edges of deep ravines cutting through layers of red sandstone and grey shale. Three miles and a thousand vertical feet later, it arrives at a summit where you see mountains in every direction.
My dog goes with me on these runs. He’s a Red Siberian Husky, Golden Retreiver, Chow mix named Zorro, the Spanish word for fox, an apt name because his deep orange fur makes him look like a fox on steriods. He weighs 70 pounds, but thick fur creates the illusion he is much larger. If you don’t know him, he can seem detached and menacing.
When running, most of the time I keep my eyes down, scanning a few feet ahead for ruts and rocks to avoid tripping on my face, or in a couple of places, falling down the mountain. Occasionally I pause to enjoy the vista of the valley below. But most of the time I’m looking at what is right in front of me. It would be a problem to break an ankle here. Except for a couple months during hunting season, the road is deserted. Once in a while a 4-wheeler passes through, but I don’t see them because I usually go up with Zorro at sunrise.
A couple of Novembers ago, we were a mile up the trail after a rain-snow mix had fallen the night before. I was savoring the cool air and sweet smell of damp sage when Zorro yanked me sideways to sniff some animal tracks. He was on a leash because when he’s in hyper-aroused hunting mode, as he always is in this wild place, he’ll try to chase anything that runs. If he were loose, he’ll run for hours, forgetting altogether about time, and that here he is not on the top of the food chain.
I stopped to take a closer look at the tracks he’d found - large, round…four toes spread widely apart and shaped like asymmetric teardrops…clawless…a distinctive v-shaped heel pad - mountain lion. It’s paws had left perfect impressions in the wet clay. The lion had come down out of the sage, turned to look down the road in the direction from which we’d come, then cross the road back into the sage, headed towards the valley below. The tracks were very fresh, with crisp edges and water just beginning to well in the bottom of the impressions. Likely, it’d been there only minutes before we arrived. It might have stopped because it heard us coming or caught our scent. Zorrro sniffed around as I looked across a large open area covered with sage, but I saw nothing.
Coaxing Zorro with the leash, I aligned him parallel to the tracks, placing his rear foot even with the lion’s. The lion was almost a foot longer than he was. Then I placed Zorro’s rear foot into the lion’s rear print. It was over 3 times larger than his. The thought of how large that cat must be sent a chill through my body. Once again, I peered across the sage, still deserted, and we continued on our way.
Over the years, I’ve run, biked and hiked on lots of roads, paths and game trails in marquee wilderness areas and national parks, and less popular places in the boondocks, like this hogback. Only a couple of times had I come across lion tracks.
The following April we were on the mining trail, less than a half mile to the top. I was jogging slowly, gazing down on the ranch in the sprawling valley below. The cottonwoods that line the stream flowing out of the Flat Tops were already tinged with pale green buds. The stream, just starting to swell with runoff, glittered as it made lazy turns through the pastures. Suddenly Zorro stopped, his eyes trained up the hillside to the left. They say dogs don’t have very good eyesight, but he has an infallible eye for movement. Four legged and sure footed, as he climbs his head rotates back and forth like a radar dish. Once he stepped over a large bullsnake that was right under his feet because it remained perfectly still. But if something moves, he locks on it. He’s pointed me to deer, elk, coyotes, fox, even birds of prey circling overhead.
I stopped too, and followed his line of sight just in time to see the hindquarter of a tawny-colored animal slip behind a clump of juniper a little less than 100 yards away. It had a long tail and was too big to be a coyote. Something about the way it moved was different than other animals I’d seen. We both kept watching, and a few seconds later it came out the other side, then turned and looked at us. The stubby ears and angular face were unmistakable. After several seconds, the lion turned and bounded rapidly up the hill and out of sight. I wished it had waited just a few more seconds so I could study it before it ran away, but it should have been no surprise because mountain lions are supposed to be furtive and shy.
After thousands of miles in running and biking in the back country, I had finally seen a mountain lion in the wild. And it would not be the last.