The spring I turned 13 my dad was logging on Bumble Bee Mountain, in the St. Joe River area of Northern Idaho. In May, as soon as school was out, we took the travel trailer and moved closer to dad’s work. That particular summer we camped at the edge of a beautiful park-like mountain meadow near a bright and bubbly mountain creek. To the north a small stand of pine trees separated the meadow from a towering rock slope.
Early in the morning on our first full day there, my dad left for work and my step-mom, Shirley, and I went out to explore our new neighborhood. We took the collie, King, with us. King was content to let us explore east and south, but when we tried to move north, or west, he would attempt to “herd” us in the opposite direction. Finally, King, normally a very well-behaved dog, began to push against our legs and shove us toward the trailer. His odd behavior made us uneasy, so we let him herd us in.
Several hours later we decided to try to take another walk. This time King made no resistance. We walked the quarter mile to the creek, strolled upstream until we found a little sandy beach — and stopped and stared in horror at the sand. Footprints. Cat. Big cat. King’s behavior that morning suddenly made sense. Our next-door neighbor was a mountain lion.
After that we went only where King allowed us to go. He was in charge of all trips away from the trailer, and nobody went anywhere without a rifle. Cougars are endangered, and we wished this one no harm — if it was willing to offer us the same courtesy. We tried to stay out of it’s way.
After a couple of weeks the cougar prints no longer showed up in our vicinity. Dad said it probably didn’t like living next to us any more than we liked living next to it. Still, we remained cautious.
Near the end of June one bright, beautiful afternoon I was sitting on the trailer steps talking to dad, who was using his pickup tailgate as a workbench and sharpening his saw chain. The sun angled just right and glanced off a huge strip of silver on the cliff face. I knew it was mica, but I still thought it would be cool to see such a huge chuck of it up close. For the first time I noticed a narrow winding, completely navigable trail up the cliff face. I mentioned it to my father and told him I was going to follow it. He grunted — which means he heard me, but he wasn’t really paying attention. I started across the meadow.
I’d gone about 100 yards when dad shouted for me to come back. I turned and saw him standing on the trailer steps with the rifle in his hands. He waited as I retraced my steps, then he handed me the rifle and told me to follow the cliff trail through the scope. It was windy and twisty and enchanting. The thing is, wherever there’s a trail, there is something that made the trail, and at that trails end, just a few yards below the cliff-top, on a ledge in-front of the mouth of a little cave, lolled a momma cougar and two cubs.
Not a good place for a walk. I never did explore that trail.
~ + ~
Fast forward 20+ years: Michael, (my ex-husband), his son, Brian, and I were camping in the mountains above Bovil, Idaho. We were elk hunting and had parked the pickup in a wide spot on the side of a mountain road and hiked into the woods to the top of a ridge, then we hiked along the ridge, and back down the mountain. The air was quite chilly and occasional snowflakes danced in the breeze. It was time to go back to camp.
We returned to the road a couple of miles up hill from the pickup, and were having a leisurely stroll down, not bothering to be quiet because the snow flurries would have driven the game to bed anyway. As we rounded the last curve in the road, Michael flung his arms wide, catching Brian in the chest with his right fist and about braining me with the barrel of the rifle in his left. Both Brian and I started to protest, but neither of us got further then the beginning of a squawk. About 50 yards away a cougar rested on the hood of our pickup.
Michael whispered, “Don’t move.” Ha. Couldn’t have if I wanted to. At our approach the big, tawny cat had lifted it’s head. I locked eyes with it. It tensed. Muscle rippled beneath it’s sleek fur. A shot of electric current zinged through my body. My brain was shouting, “Look away! Look away!” and I managed to shift my gaze slightly to the left. Those magnificent muscles relaxed.
Michael slowly lowered his arms. He checked the magazine of the rifle. I hissed, “You are not shooting it!”
He said, “Only if it makes me.”
Snow began falling in earnest. My cheeks, nose and toes were frozen. My back and stomach ached from tension.
Brian was 16 that year. I had never seen him so still for so long. I know he’d never been quiet for that long while awake. Michael held the rifle at ready. I wondered why his arms hadn’t given out.
I bit my tongue to keep my teeth from chattering. I don’t know if it was from the cold, or from tension. Probably both. Enough snow had fallen that everything, including us, glistened white — except the pickup and the cougar. The pickup was sheltered by pines.
The cougar watched us, as we stood.
The sun sank. The western sunset glowed red. Brian whispered, “It’s going to be dark soon.”
My feet felt completely numb. So did my face.
Michael cussed. “I’m going to have to shoot it now, while I can still see.”
I wanted to protest, but didn’t.
The cougar had never once looked away from us, but it finally turned it’s head and raised it’s nose to the breeze. Suddenly, with a mighty leap it was gone, bounding up the slope like liquid gold.
Slowly, Michael lowered the rifle. I exhaled for the first time since coming eye-to-eye with glory. Brian whispered, “That was awesome.”
Yes, it truly was.