Cougar: on sighting the ghost of the forest
It is laying there among large gray boulders in the dappled shade, body relaxed, yet alertly watching as we sit among autumn colored wild roses with their bright red rose hips. A distance away to be sure, yellow Aspen and Willows coloring the gray boulders, a small waterfall nearby. Mountain Lion, there is no other animal in our mountains that says “wild” as these big cats do. While traveling back roads in western Colorado, looking for some jaw-dropping autumn scenery Barb said something like “There! Its a, a, stop! See it? Stop, it’s a…..Stop!” OK, you get it, and no, she isn’t usually incoherent, I stopped but ol’ Eagle Eye here didn’t see the Lion in the tawny grass of the road side. It quickly disappeared down the steep slope to our left and even though having stopped, I had only a small glimmer of hope that we might get a very brief view of the cat moving off through the trees. Across the space of a small mountain canyon, below us was the lion. To see a Puma, Cougar, Mountain Lion, Catamount, Painter, and whatever else people call these big , solitary cats is rare and is usually a very brief flash in the headlights.
We live in Lion country, most people in the west do but our neighborhood has a lot of remote, rough country with a good population of deer, and not a lot of people, so a few times a year when traveling after dark, we may spot a lion dashing through our headlights. Ravens calling and, in the warmer months, vultures circling low and landing in and out of the trees show us where a lion kill may be present, we always approach quietly, looking for signs of the kill, back tracking the trail, putting together the story. We are sometimes surprised at how far a cat will drag a deer to feed in peace, I’ve followed the drag trail for literally several hundred yards, uphill, through trees and brush to luckily find the well camouflaged remains, carefully covered to be consumed later. But that is all we see, tracks, and if the signs are fresh enough our senses become hyper alert, not out of fear but of the possibilities.
The cat continued to watch us as we milled about getting to a good spot to photograph from and then put its head down on its paws and took a brief nap. This is the holy grail of wildlife observation, an animal so relaxed and unconcerned that it pays no heed to the observer. As the sun warmed, the lion rose and dropped down between the boulders and disappeared from sight. We had no idea if it would simply stay down in the shade or, yes there it is, jumping up onto the rocks and in a few strides crossed the top of the waterfall and once again disappeared. This time, it moved into the shadows of the forest and was lost to view. We sat quietly for a few moments considering what had just taken place, and realized that this amazing, mid-day sighting of the ghost of the forest had come to an end.