The snow was deep, the mountain air cool, the ridge frighteningly steep in places and my sweat was pouring. Fresh mountain lion tracks in the snow and the bawling of the hounds ahead urged me on even as I wondered how smart it was to bring my 8-year old daughter along. One look at Sydney’s flushed cheeks and excited smile, though, dismissed that question and refocused me on the task at hand…catching up to the hounds that were bawling “treed” just up the canyon.
The day had started like any other at our house. I had just gotten off a night shift at the Fire Department and the kids were plowing through their home studies when the phone rang. It was a local rancher who had lost much of his stock and surrounding deer herds to cougars. He and his crew were going to try to tree one of the cats and wondered if I wanted to cut a track with them. With less than five hours before I had to be back at work I knew that our chances of success were slim, but figured we’d have a memorable time trying. An argument ensued over which of my three girls would get to go on the hunt with me and Sydney (a.k.a. Tigger) prevailed.
We quickly packed our gear, fueled up and hit the road. The ride to the mountains was filled with Sydney’s excited jabber and questions. “Do you think we’ll get one? What will the mountain lion look like? What kind of dogs will we use?”
Cat hunt stories I’d heard over the years commonly referred to all-day treks through the mountains chasing hounds on the track. Cold temps, deep snow and treacherous terrain would take their toll on both man and dog and, more often than not, the cat would give the hunters the slip. So, hot track or not, the odds were clearly stacked against this rookie cat hunter with a 4-hour deadline and an 8-year old daughter in tow.
Before we knew it we were meeting our friends and their blue tick hounds. The dogs went crazy at the smell of the track and took off through the bottom, across the river and up the other side of the drainage into the steep stuff.
The crew took off after the dogs as Sydney and I set our own pace across the partially frozen river. As we began the steep ascent, I could hear the dogs barking and bawling “treed”. The sound echoed down the canyon through the thin mountain air, confirming the incredible truth…the dogs had treed a mountain lion within a mile of where they had been turned loose. Now Tigger and I just had to catch up with the others.
I was as proud of Sydney as I could be as she tackled that mountain with me. The snow was deep and slippery, and the canyon was steep enough to give grown men fits, but she trekked on like a veteran hunter. When we finally topped out, we could see the dogs around an ancient ponderosa pine with the rest of the hunting party waiting for us.
As we approached from below, Sydney confessed, “Dad, I’m a little nervous, but I really do want to see the lion.” I did, too, so we finished the climb and got our first-ever look at a mountain lion. The cat was 40 feet up the tree, lying on a massive branch and looking down on us with an insolent glare. Being that close to a creature with such power and stealth left me feeling small and kicked my adrenaline into overdrive.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the cat turned and gave me the angle I needed for a good, clean kill. At the shot, she came uncorked, flew out of the tree and hit the ground running. The shot was true, though, and proved quickly fatal as we found her 100 yards away.
Sydney and I were stunned by the beauty of the mountain lion up close. Her striking tawny hide, long black-tipped tail, daunting fangs, and razor-sharp, retractable claws were a graphic reminder of the efficient predatory skills of these top-of-the-food-chain cats.
Watching Sydney helping to pull the lion through deep drifts and down the mountain brought a tear to my eye. Not only did we hike up a steep canyon through the snow, play with the hounds and make new friends, we killed a magnificent cougar…a mountain lion for Tigger. It was an extraordinary conclusion to an unforgettable afternoon and a memory we will have forever.
See you on the Mountain.
Shane and Syd “Tigger”