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A Mountain Lion Reality

There is nothing like waking up early and driving 12 miles out of Aspen on a windy road. Actually, there is nothing like waking up early on a snowy Sunday in January and driving up this road before any other vehicle in four inches of new snow. Driving no more than 15mph I was able to make out some tracks on the snow covered road in front of me. Immediately reminded of the book I am currently reading, The Tiger by John Valliant, I stopped my car to investigate.

Describing a journey in Russia's Far East, looking for Amur Tigers, Valliant writes,

There is an unintentional courtesy in the winter forest that occurs around pathways of any kind. It takes a lot of energy to break trail through the snow, especially when it's crusty or deep, so whoever goes first, whether animal, human or machine, is preforming a valuable service for those following behind. Because energy - i.e. food - is at a premium in the winter, labor-saving gifts of this kind are rarely refused. As long as the footpath, logging road, frozen river - or highway - is going in the right direction, other forest creatures will use it too, regardless of who made it. In this way, paths have a funneling, riverlike effect on the tributary creatures around them, they can make for some strange encounters.

Imagining myself Trush, the hero and tiger tracker of Valliant's book, I was unrelistically praying the tracks were those of the immense Amur Tiger. (This book has me obsessed.) However, I was delighted to find the tracks of a different charismatic megafauna, the mountain lion - a local creature I have never seen in the wild. The tracks were alternating in a not quite perfect stepping motion, each print being about 2.5 inches wide. Perfect steppers would use the same place to step with the front foot and then the hind foot, another way to save energy, and making it appear that only two feet were walking in the area. I've read that in deeper snow a mountain lion would be a perfect stepper, but these few fresh inches did not provide enough of a challenge to warrant this careful pattern. There were no other tracks nearby. It seemed this lion, as Valliant describes, was just taking advantage of this previously plowed road as a way to travel upvalley.

Realizing that I was standing in the middle of the road, and a truck could come around the corner any second, I jumped back into my car and continued the slow valley climb. The tracks continued for another three miles! I parked at Toklat and walked next to the tracks until they turned west into the woods. I suppose it wasn't my day to meet a lion face to face.

Telling one of the 'cowboys' who works at the Ski Touring Center about my discovery he casually pulled out a gun and told me that 'Yea they come around this way from time to time. Knew it was smart of me to grab this when i woke.' Responding to the terror on my face he assured me that no, he's not hunting the lions, just trying to make sure they don't bother the work horses up there. He said he would never kill a lion, just scare him off...

He laughed at me, the silly animal loving naturalist, and went on his way.

~ Caroline Greene Hunt