While you’re probably anticipating the beginning of spring, I’ve been reminiscing about past winters. My Memory Lane journey started because Madoqua of Have You Ever...made a comment about a recent trip to Germany and how the, “snowy scenery was picture book perfect – most was undisturbed except for occasional animal prints”.
I love seeing animal tracks too. It’s a bit like reading a little mystery novel. Can you figure out who went where and what they were doing? Often it’s all that you see of the elusive, secretive megafauna that inhabit the woods. With all of the time I’ve spent outdoors, I’ve been fortunate to have had many elk, moose, mountain goat, big horn sheep, bear, bobcat, fox, and coyote sightings. Out of all of those I’ve only had a couple of scary-too-close-for-comfort encounters. Both of those were with black bear, and frankly, the bear seemed more afraid of me. Then there was that Polar Bear at the museum in Norway…
Anyway, there are times when you see a track and your heart jumps. One such occasion happened while I was cross-country skiing at Bohart Ranch just outside of Bozeman, Montana. Bohart is one of my all-time favorite XC ski venues. The trail grooming is impeccable, the scenery magnificent, the trails virtually empty most days. On this particular day I was out early, ski-skating solo on one of those bluebird days. The snow was perfect, it was cold (but not too cold), the sky was clear, and I was the first skier making tracks on the fresh corduroy of the groomed trail. I was essentially following the groomer who was still finishing off a few trails on his morning rounds. In my book, it doesn’t get much better.
I’d decided to go long, and headed out to one of the more remote trails, and one of the hillier ones too. I reached the lip of a small canyon crossed by the trail. Wanting to build momentum to help me up the other side of the canyon I flew down the descent – and they say XC skiing is boring, HA! As I reached the incline on the other side of the canyon, I shifted to the center of the trail, adjusted my pace to “climb” and started up the hill. That’s when I saw the tracks. There was no mistaking the fresh prints of a large, VERY large, cat crossing my path. Sometime in the last hour (when the groomer passed through) a cougar had walked right across the trail. But when? Was it 55 minutes, 40 minutes, 10 minutes, or mere seconds ago?
Now, if you’ve ever seen anyone ski skate up a hill, you know that no matter their skill level, it doesn’t look exactly graceful. It looks nothing like a typical walking or running stance. In fact, to a hungry cougar it might even look like a wounded human floundering along. That was the first thought that crossed my mind, right after the thought of how dense the cougar population is in the Bridger Mountains.
The Bridger range is known for its wildness and boasts bears, wolverines, and one of the highest-density cougar populations in the USA. Well, at least I’d read that fact just a few months before this fated day. During hikes in the range the previous fall, I’d suddenly had that eerie feeling I was being watched, looked around nervously, called my dog to heel,and remained on edge for the remainder of the hike; I was certain some large kitty cat was eyeing us. I knew that the we’re out there, hiding, watching, waiting…
My third thought was that there was no quick retreat-either direction was UPHILL. So, knowing the cougar could still be around, I stopped, except for my heart which was pounding from a little exertion AND lots of adrenaline . Should I go forward up the long climb where I was a sitting duck? Or turn around and climb the other hill and still be a sitting duck. It was a quandary but my gut told me to get moving so I quickly decided to keep going as either way I chose would be equally risky. I have never put more grace and effort into climbing a hill. I flew up that climb faster than I’d ever gone. Later that winter I called on that feeling during a race, and I must say it helped propel me again.
You can see I lived to tell the tale. I wasn’t attacked and I never did see the cat that made those tracks. But it was by far one of the scarier encounters with wildlife, I’ve ever had. All because of some animal prints in the undisturbed snow.