Hey, Wait, That’s No Deer

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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.

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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.

Happy trails.

shigley-mugshotPaul 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 pauls.anewscafe@gmail.com.

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has been a professional journalist since 1987. For 12 years, he served as editor or senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a statewide trade publication for land use planners, real estate development professionals and attorneys. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter or editor at newspapers in Redding, Grass Valley, Napa and Calistoga. Shigley's work also has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Planning magazine, Governing magazine, California Law Week, National Speed Sport News and elsewhere. In addition, he is co-author of Guide to California Planning, a college text and reference book, and is currently working on a book for the American Planning Association about the Bay Delta and California water resources. A graduate of California State University, Sacramento, Shigley has contributed to A News Cafe since 2009. He and his wife, Dana, live in western Shasta County.
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7 Responses

  1. Avatar Tammy D says:

    A rare privilege to see a large wild animal in their natural habitat. Lucky you! I have only seen tracks in our rural area and am always jealous when a neighbor indicates that have seen the real deal!

  2. Avatar Kathy says:

    I saw a beautiful, young mountain lion early one morning, last month, on our property in Igo It was as my goats and I were taking our daily walk. When I saw it we stop and stood still trying to see if it noticed us. It was about 150 feet away and it definitely noticed us. We just watched each other for about an hour ( ok, so it was really less than a minute but it seemed like at least an hour) and then it leaped over the fence and went on it's way. Even if I'd had a camera I won't have been able to take the picture. It was thrilling and scary all at the same time.

    I grew up in the So. California mountains and we had them all over. The signs were obvious but I never saw one. I saw bobcats and every other kind of animal but never a mountain lion in nature. It felt like such a gift to see this one. Amazingly the goats never even noticed ;^)

  3. Avatar pmarshall says:

    Well, Paul, I don't think I could ever go on a trail by myself, and not 6 miles from my car! Good story, however, and maybe you were lucky.

  4. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    Growing up in Montana I have all kinds of great and even true bear stories. Once a friend of mine from the football team were camping in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He has seen a bear down by the creek and wanted a photo of it. I grab my camera and he grabs a hatchet. We chase the bear for fifteen minutes along the drainage. Finally I yell Barry, what are we doing chasing a bear? We stop and walk back to camp laughing at how stupid a couple of bullet proof teenagers are.

  5. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    How thrilling! I've seen bobcats, fishers, bears, otters, bald eagles and osprey since I moved to this area years ago. I have yet to see a cougar. (Unless that big cat with the long tail racing across Hw 299 counts.) Thank you Paul for a great story. A few of us women carry pepper spray when we're out in the hinterlands. We have a greater chance of being attacked by men than by big cats, but it might work well on a cat who sees a runner as moving prey.

  6. Avatar Ronnieboy says:

    This past March I was pedaling my mtn bike west on Walker Mine Rd about 45 minutes before sunset. A resident of the area stopped me and warned me about a mountain lion that he'd seen in the area multiple times around dusk. Perhaps the same lion?

    I saw a mountain lion once while riding alone at Whiskeytown on the Valley View Trail near Carr Powerhouse. I had surprised the lion, it hadn't expected me to come barreling around the corner so quickly. We stared at each other for about 10 seconds, then the lion lost interest in me. It turned back down down the trail for a few yards, then jumped to the bank above the trail and disappeared into the forest. I waited for a minute, then pedaled past the spot I'd last seen the lion, yelling at the top of my lungs and standing on the pedals to (hopefully) make myself as intimidating as possible. I vividly remember the thick, rope-like tail and sinewy body.

  7. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    Just thinking that a 50-60 pound mountain lion is very much on the light side. Most seem to be in the 90-120 pound range. Maybe this one was very young and not a good hunter or just curious.