Mountain Lion Encounter: Life vs Death in Montana
I’m way behind in my posts but something happened this week that I’m going to break out of order and tell you all about it. July, 5th started like any other day in my life, I was deep in the woods above the little town of West Yellowstone, Montana enjoying my beloved nature. Little did I know that in just a few hours I would have faced a life-and-death situation and be convinced that Cody was dead.
Let me set the stage, I’d come to West Yellowstone because I hate being on the road over the 4th of July weekend and needed a place to sit for up to a week. West Yellowstone is at a high enough elevation to be cool and I could get internet from camp. It’s also a beautiful and wild area just a few miles outside town and that’s what I always look for. I was up in the National Forest looking down on the town and as you can see in the pictures, the town is just a little dot carved out of the woods–it is truly a wild and natural place. Nature rules here, man is just an unwelcome intruder.
Before I tell you all about that day, let me say that this isn’t the first time I’ve been concerned for my life in the woods. Since I’ve been living on public land for the last 7 years I’ve faced danger from wild animals many times. You can’t spend as much time walking deep in wild nature as I do without having run-ins with mountain lions, coyotes, bears and rattle snakes and I’ve had at least two dozen dangerous encounters.
Your first though might be, “If it’s that dangerous walking in the woods, I won’t walk in the woods!” But few people walk in the woods as much as I have. I’ve averaged five miles a day, every day, for six years and that adds up to over 11,000 miles. Because there is such an abundance of dangerous animals in the desert and forest, if you’re out there that much, you WILL run into them! Let me tell you about some of them.
Mountain Lions: My first encounter was probably the most dangerous. I had only been on the road for three months and I was camped in the backcountry just outside Yosemite NP, and Homer and I were out for our regular morning walk. It was on a hillside and I heard a branch snap above us. I immediately stopped and turned to see what had caused it. Just as quickly Homer turned and ran as fast as he could back to the truck and when I got back he was huddled underneath it, shaking. I believed then, and have never doubted, that was a mountain lion because I had also found mountain lion tracks in the mud on the road. I know Homer is not afraid of bears or coyotes so whatever it was, it was much worse; that only leaves mountain lions and he had probably been stalking us and when he lost the element of surprise, he gave up on us.
Coyotes: We’ve had at least a dozen encounters with coyotes and in all but one Homer chased after them so they all ran away. One time he came running back to me from the woods with two coyotes chasing him. Canines have such strong chase instincts that whichever one runs gets chased. Homer probably thought they were playing, but they were chasing him to kill him. If I hadn’t been there, they probably would have killed and eaten him. In the year I’ve had Cody, three coyotes had laid in ambush while one tried to lure him out. Fortunately he didn’t go but next time he might or they could find him wandering in the woods without me.
Bears: Six times we ran into bears on the trail and in all but two of them they stepped out of the trail in front of us and we both stopped and stared at each other and then the bear took off running into the woods. Those were very frightening encounters, but they happened so fast I didn’t have time to think we were in danger. The other two though, I was afraid and thought I could have been killed. One time I was walking along and looked up to see Homer chasing a Black Bear cub on the hillside above me. He chased the cub all around and as he did I thought to myself, “If mama comes back she is going to be very unhappy and Homer can just run away and that means mama gets me!” Fortunately, she never came back so we just left. The other time I was afraid a bear could maul me was when Homer took off into the woods chasing something and I assumed it was a rabbit, deer or squirrel. Then just moments later I looked up and a big Black Bear was running straight at me at full speed. Just thirty feet away he spotted me and came to screeching stop and starred at me. Apparently Homer had been chasing him and chased him straight back to me. When he ran into me he could have been ether terrified of Homer, or so enraged he just wanted to kill anything in his path. I got lucky and he was more scared of Homer than he was angry because he quickly ran off another direction as fast he could.
Rattlesnakes: Because I’m only in the desert in the winter I’ve only had a few run-ins with rattlesnakes. Fortunately Homer showed a natural fear of snakes so he was never a problem and Cody has never seen one. However there was one time when I was walking along in the desert and passed a creosote bush with a snake sunning himself on the other side of it. Just as I walked by the snake started to rattle just three feet from me, plenty close enough for him to strike me. Snakes usually warn you when you get too close but apparently I woke this one up because I had no warning until I was right on top of him. I think it was just 50/50 whether he struck and that was my lucky day. My other encounters with them were scary but not dangerous because I saw and heard them in time to easily avoid them.
I tell you all that so you’ll know that I am no stranger to dangerous encounters with wild animals and when I tell you that on July 5th, 2015 I thought I was going to die you can be sure I had a basis to think it. To give you an idea of my state of mind, while I was waiting to see if Cody came home I tried to go about my business as usual which meant answering emails. I’d gotten a letter from my girlfriend Judy (who is back east helping her daughter with a soon-to-be new grandbaby)asking me about our plans to meet up in September so I wrote her and told her what had happened to me. Here is that email:
Right this second all my plans are in a state of flux. I’m pretty sure Cody was eaten by a mountain lion this morning. Those are words you never, ever think you will say.
We went out for our morning walk and everything was normal. I didn’t see him during the last half of the walk home but that is fairly common, sometimes he returns to camp in the woods hunting. He wasn’t home when I got back and that isn’t ordinary; usually he beats me back to camp. It’s happened a few times but not many. I assumed he was chasing a squirrel and would be back. After an hour I was worried so I started calling and whistling for him. After another hour I decided to go backtrack on our normal walk and call for him. The forest here is thick and on the side of a mountain so there is no way to go into the woods to search for him.
I walked out to our normal turn-around point and then headed for home. On the way back (at about the same spot where I saw Cody last) a huge mountain lion stepped out of the forest onto the road about 30 yards in front of me. We both froze and just starred at each other for a long time while he decided my fate. My mind searched for a way to protect myself, but there was nothing I could do, I was totally defenseless. The best I could do was pick up a rock. It finally occurred to that if I was going to die I would at least get some pictures of the animal that killed me and so I pulled out my camera, turned it on and got two pictures of it.
Finally, he decided I could live and turned and walked away down the road like nothing had happened.
It’s been 5 hours since Cody disappeared with a mountain lion within 1/2 mile of here so I think there is very little chance he is alive. I’m afraid to go outside and will not walk away from the van. I’m actually a little afraid to go outside and pee.
I’ll stay here another day hoping against hope that somehow he eluded the lion. He is a very fast little dog and his size would have been an advantage in the thick forest. I was going into town today to get ice but I’ll wait and go in tomorrow and get it and also check with the Police and dog shelter in case someone turned him in. Then I’ll come back here for another day to wait.
If he is gone, and I think he is, I don’t want to be alone so I’ll change my plans. I’ll finish exploring Wyoming then go back to Arizona. The guide book I’m working on will just cover Wyoming and Colorado or I’ll just shelve the whole thing.
It all seems very surreal, these things don’t happen anymore. If I go to bed and he isn’t here tonight, then it will really sink in.
Fortunately I’m a pretty level-headed guy who really isn’t in touch with his emotions so I wasn’t actually very upset yet. However, as the day wore on I got more and more upset and had a few crying bouts. Worse, I started to doubt myself and I was plagued with questions:
- I’ve always been so cavalier about the risks I take by living wild and free. Now that death had been a distinct possibility was that the real attitude of my heart, or just bravado?
- The saying, “Live free or die” took on new meaning; am I willing to die for the free life?
- Should I chuck this whole life and move back somewhere I could be safe?
- Should I own a dog? I had put Homers life in danger numerous times and now Cody had probably been killed because I had him out here off-leash. Does that make me a very bad dog owner? Should I vow to never get another one?
About two hours after I wrote that letter to Judy I got an email from the West Yellowstone Police Department that said they had him. That may have been the best email I’ve ever gotten in my life!!! I quickly broke camp and headed down the mountain to get him. The officer in charge said he had been picked up and dropped off at the Station and that he was a very good little dog! I have a tag on his collar offering a reward for Cody and my phone number. I didn’t have cell reception but when she called the voice mail picked up and the message I left on it says to try email and has my email address, so she had emailed me.
I’ll never know exactly what happened, but my guess is that Cody had gotten the scent of the Mountain Lion and took off in terror, just like Homer had; possibly the Lion had even chased him but his speed and size allowed him to get away in the thick forest. He ran a long ways and got away but by then he was lost and couldn’t get home. The other possibility is he just got lost, but I think that’s unlikely, I’ve never had a dog that just got lost within a ½ mile of camp.
What I know for sure is that another guy had been out for a walk a few miles from my camp and Cody had just come running up to him. Where he was walking was so remote there was no one around so he just took Cody back to town with him and dropped him off at the Police Station.
While it’s possible there is no connection between Cody getting lost and me seeing the Lion that seems very unlikely and highly coincidental. It seems much more likely that my guess is right. If that’s true, a lot of things had to happen perfectly in this story for both Cody and I to live, enough that I’m certain that someone or something was watching out for us:
- I have to think that Cody was a distraction for the Lion and he probably saved my life. I think the Lion came across Cody and chased him away from me, otherwise he would have stalked me.
- What a stroke of luck that Cody got away from him at all! Mountain Lions are such stealthy hunters and extremely fast that it’s hard to imagine Cody getting away.
- When I think about the timing when I came across the Mountain Lion on the trail, I’m amazed and very grateful!! If our paths had crossed another few seconds later the Mountain Lion would have seen and smelled me before I saw him and he could have watched me and set up a stalk and easily leaped down on me from above—which is their normal method of attack. Being unarmed and unprepared, I would not have survived that. But instead, the wind was blowing away from me and he stepped out on the trail 50 feet away and I saw him before he saw me.
- There are very few roads on this mountain and even fewer people out on them. The odds of Cody finding the other road and their just happening to be a guy out for a walk on it are astronomical. I have to see a guiding hand in that.
- Finally, the guy who found Cody had to be willing to give him up to the Police, which is hard to do because Cody is such a very good and pretty little dog. My biggest fear for Cody is someone finding him in the woods or on a road and deciding to keep him for themselves. This guy did the right thing and turned him in.
I believe that if we will let it, out of our greatest fear and our greatest pain will come our greatest faith and our greatest joy, and that is what this story has been for me. But it’s gotten too long so I am going to wait till my next post to tell you some of the lessons I’ve learned and taken away from this near-tragedy turned into triumph.