Encounter — by Cheryl Hamilton
Night-cooled air lingered over sun-struck land that early September morning, the day before my 56th birthday. I had arrived at the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park the evening before.
Big Bend is a park unlike any other, where visitors can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States. With elevation of less than 2,000 feet along the Rio Grande to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains, the park’s many ecotones – formed by river, desert, and mountains-result in an outstanding diversity of wildlife.
Composed of igneous rocks formed during the eruption of volcanoes between 35 and 32 million years ago, the Chisos Basin is the result of thirty million years of erosion stripping away the overlying rocks. Several of the most challenging hiking and backpacking trails at Big Bend begin in this area of the park.
Lodging and camping is available in the Chisos Basin, and I was staying with two friends in one of the Roosevelt Stone Cottages. Although the five stone cottages were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, they have retained their charm and are popular with visitors.
Waking at dawn, I stepped outside the cottage for a short hike on the Basin Loop Trail to the intersection of the Window View Trail. I was traveling without a backpack, as I expected the hike to take less than thirty minutes.
The Basin Loop Trail makes a series of switchbacks as it heads down toward the Window View Trail. I was enjoying the evergreen sumac, agave, sotol and native grasses flanking the trail. The rocks crunched under my hiking boots.
I came down one particularly steep switchback and followed the trail around a bend to the left. From the corner of my eye, I saw a slight movement. Not more than ten feet away I saw an adult mountain lion staring directly at me. Panther. Puma. Cougar. Catamount. Felis concolor: cat all of one color. The second-largest cat in the Western Hemisphere. Only the jaguar is larger.
The surge of adrenaline was immediate as I made soft eye contact with the lion. I estimated her weight to be about 125 pounds; she was a tawny color with a beautiful face. Her eyes were grayish-brown. I was close enough to see her whiskers. She was standing quietly, watching me. I watched her. Several seconds passed.
Although my thoughts were racing, I felt incredible mental clarity. I was alone on the trail. This was a large adult cat, and I am small in stature: five feet four inches tall and 110 pounds.
“Make yourself look big. Don’t run. If the lion is aggressive, throw sticks or stones. Walk slowly backward while maintaining eye contact.” These were the messages I had read over and over again in the park literature. That last directive seemed impossible. I couldn’t easily move backward, as it would have taken me up an incline.
A dead branch lay to the left of my foot, next to a large log. I thought about standing on the log to make myself look taller, but decided I wanted the stability of the trail. The chance that I might slip and fall was too scary.
I chose the branch. Maintaining eye contact, I ever-so-slowly reached down to pick it up. The branch was about five inches in diameter at its largest point and six to eight feet long. Several smaller branches extended from the main limb.
I raised the branch as high as I could over my head and began to move it slowly from side to side, all the while maintaining eye contact. Holding it gave me additional confidence as I continued to face the lion.
“This could be it!” I thought to myself. Even wielding a large limb I would be no match for the cat if she pounced. Adult lions can jump up to 18 feet vertically and as much as 45 feet horizontally. Their muscular legs propel them higher and longer in leaps than any other cat. They deliver a powerful bite below the base of the skull which breaks the neck. Death is swift. What remains of a body after the cat’s initial meal is cached for later consumption.
I thought about my friends back in the cottage. They weren’t exactly sure where I was or how long I would be gone. I thought about my husband and our two sons and our wonderful memories of the park. I had visited Big Bend many times since my husband and I honeymooned there nearly twenty years before. I had seen javelinas, mule deer, fox, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, peregrine falcons and a myriad of bird species. Up until now, I had seen mountain lion tracks and scat, but this was my first sighting. I had always wanted to see a mountain lion…from a safe distance.
I felt a strange sense of calm. I love being outdoors. I am happiest when I am hiking or exploring natural areas. If these were my last moments on earth, I had experienced an encounter that was extremely rare and special. If I survived the encounter, I knew it would change my life.
A couple more minutes passed. I continued to move the branch slowly back and forth while holding my ground. The branch was getting heavy. The female was still watching me quietly. Then…she growled at me. Not a threatening growl, but she was definitely stating her presence. I jumped, and my heart was racing. She didn’t move. The standoff continued.
I could hear voices coming from the vicinity of the lodge. I could smell coffee. I was less than one hundred yards as the crow flies from the balconies where I could hear park visitors talking.
I was beginning to relax a bit, as I believed that if the big cat planned to attack she would have already pounced.
All of a sudden I sensed a movement a few feet to my left. This time I felt my heart in my throat. About eight feet away, to the left of the female lion, was a second adult mountain lion. He was slightly larger in stature; however, his stance felt more aggressive to me, and he was closer than the first. He must have been hiding in the brush watching the whole time. I felt quite certain that he had just moved into sight. Based on his location, I must have walked past him as I headed down the steep trail before the bend.
Now I felt fearful for the first time. I remember thinking, “I don’t stand a chance against two lions.” I continued to move the branch back and forth over my head. The second lion moved toward me. He growled, and I began to prepare physically and mentally for an attack. I gripped the branch more tightly.
The stand off continued. When I realized that both lions were watching me without aggression, I decided it was my turn to speak. They had both voiced their presence.
I had just returned from a trip to Alaska, where I had spent several days backpacking in bear country. The rangers had advised us to make noise as we hiked through dense brush. “Yo, bear….yo bear…yo bear…”
I stared at the lion closest to me and said loudly. “YO CAT!” He seemed surprised, cocked his head, and continued to watch me for several seconds. Then, the male lion crossed the trail and began to move away up the draw toward the cottages. The female followed him. Both lions continued to watch me as they headed up the canyon toward the High Chisos.
I turned slightly and continued to wave the branch over my head. I began to walk backward on the trail. They continued to watch me; I continued to watch them. I knew that lions sometimes circle back around their prey to attack from behind.
When they were out of sight, I walked backward more quickly now. I had walked a few yards when I came to another bend in the trail. At the bend, I turned and walked forward as quickly as I could. At the top of the hill, I was still carrying the branch as I came face to face with two day hikers on their way to the South Rim.
Relief poured over me. I dropped the branch, and my voice and hands were shaking. “I just had a close encounter with two adult mountain lions on the trail. You might want to consider another route this morning to give them some space. If you go back toward the lodge, you can take the paved road across the bridge to the cottages and pick up the trail from there.”
They turned around quickly, and we all walked together back to the trail junction. I headed to the ranger station, and the hikers crossed the parking lot toward the bridge.
The ranger station wasn’t open. I crossed the bridge to the cottages, looking to my left and right. When I left the cats, they were moving up the canyon in this vicinity.
As I approached our cottage, my friend was coming up the stairs. She took one look at my ashen face, and said “Are you okay? What happened?” My other friend joined her, and I shared my experience with both of them. I was still shaking. I felt an incredible mix of emotions…awe that I had experienced this rare encounter, and relief that I was unharmed.
Together, we walked back to the ranger station to report the encounter. I began to explain the details to the ranger. She pulled out the wildlife sighting card and asked me to fill it in. My hands were still shaking so badly I asked if she could write for me. I explained where I was on the trail when I encountered the first lion, and she began writing. Then I explained the appearance of the second lion. She lay down her pencil and looked at me. “Mountain lions are solitary and secretive; it is highly unusual to see two lions together, as they rarely travel in pairs. It might have been two females. It might also have been a male and a female. They come together for 7 to 10 days at a time during breeding season and then go their separate ways.” I felt quite certain that I had encountered a breeding pair.
The rest of the day I was in a fog. It took several hours for the “fight or flight” response to ebb. It didn’t take very long for the word to get out that a hiker had an encounter with two mountain lions in the Basin near the Window View Trail. We overheard conversations about it throughout the park.
After the encounter, I was able to gather additional information from the park rangers. The mountain lion is Big Bend’s top predator. Over 90 percent of the sightings occur along park roadways, and the typical sighting lasts less than sixty seconds. Encounters along the trail are rare. Since 1984 there have been four lion and human encounters that have resulted in attacks of people. In both cases, those attacked recovered from their injuries and the aggressive lions were killed for the safety of park visitors.
Park officials estimate that there are approximately two dozen mountain lions in the 800,000 acres inside Big Bend National Park. Normally reclusive, most lions will try to avoid contact with humans. Their primary prey species are deer and javelina, and one of the park rangers indicated that he had found a fresh deer kill in that area just a few days earlier.
Because they were not aggressive with me, the big cats continue to roam their territory at Big Bend as they help maintain the delicate balance between herbivores and vegetation; between predator and prey. I am deeply grateful that I was given this rare gift. The image of the two lions is etched permanently in my brain. When I think of them, I smile.
Two months after the encounter, Cheryl returned to the site of the encounter with her family. She was photographed holding the same branch on the same trail. Her family calls the photo, “A cat’s eye view of Cheryl.” Cheryl calls it. “Gratitude.”