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“Whoa,” I shouted. “Hey, that was the real thing.”
I don’t know who I was talking to. Nobody else was around while I trotted down the Upper Water Ditch Trail, about three miles below Shasta Dam, the weekend before last. It was only me … and the mountain lion that had just crossed the trail.
The cat had ambled across the trail about 30 yards in front of me and then stopped in the brush just off the dirt pathway. I halted in my tracks. The mountain lion was between me and my car, which was about six miles away at the Walker Mine Road trailhead.
As I clapped my hands and yelled, I heard the cougar head down into a gully off the trail. It was not moving quickly, but it was moving – and in the right direction. I slowly approached and eventually reached the spot where the cat had crossed the trail. I peered down the hill into the bushes and spied an approximately 50- to 60-pound feline standing in the shadows. It was a good 25 yards away and, although it was looking right at me, it was not demonstrating any particular interest.
I slowly continued down the trail, clapping and shouting as I went. I walked for a few minutes before I broke into a run once again. My head was on a swivel for 20 minutes, and I’ll admit the rustlings of a lizard stopped me at least twice. Eventually, I relaxed. No wild animal was going to knock me off the top of the food chain that day. Heck, with the late morning temperature inching into the 90s, no sensible critter was doing anything other than dozing in the shade.
I’ve spent innumerable hours over the past 20 years running solo on trails in the mountain lion country of the West. I’ve been lucky enough to see everything from black bears and bighorn sheep to tarantulas and great blue herons. I’ve encountered about half a dozen bobcats – including a roughly 15- to 25-pound feline with a short, curly tail. But I had never seen an honest-to-goodness mountain lion until my recent morning run on the Upper Water Ditch Trail.
I know plenty of runners and hikers who are scared to death of mountain lions. I never have been, and I’m still not. I’m not brave and I’m not foolhardy, I just know the statistics. Although we hear a lot about mountain lions, there have been only 13 confirmed attacks on humans – three of them fatal – in California during the past 24 years, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. There have been only four attacks – one fatal – since 1996. Depending upon how you want to crunch the numbers, it’s safe to say that you are at least 2,000 times more likely to be killed in a car wreck then by a mountain lion. You’re 10 times more likely to be killed by your own dog than by a mountain lion.
It’s not that mountain lions aren’t out there. In fact, the DFG estimates the state has 4,000 to 6,000 cougars. They just don’t want anything to do with humans. A state park ranger assured me years ago that plenty of mountain lions had seen me while I was running through the woods. “You could be 15 feet away from one and wouldn’t know it,” he said.
NOT the mountain lion the author was unafraid of, but a photo illustration.
It’s very difficult to get an accurate count of mountain lion sightings, according to Marc Kenyon, the DFG’s mountain lion coordinator. People mistake bobcats, dogs, even raccoons and domestic cats for cougars, he said. Still, Shasta County has a lot of good mountain lion habitat, so it’s possible for people to see one of these majestic creatures.
I’ve returned to the Redding-area trails since my mountain lion encounter. I haven’t been back to the Upper Water Ditch Trail, but I wouldn’t hesitate, because mountain lions have ranges of about 100 square miles. It’s highly unlikely that I or anyone else will bump into that same cat in that same area.
Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and figures he won’t get to see another mountain lion before 2030. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.