by PattyHodapp | on September 20th, 2011 | in Features
LAST NIGHT, Ali Carr Troxell, Outside’s associate managing editor, her two dogs, and I stumbled upon a mountain lion—or, rather, Ali’s dogs did. We rounded a bend on a single-track ridge a mile and a half up the Tesuque Creek trail, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was just before dusk around 7 P.M. The breeze shifted, and the dogs—Rio, a German Shorthaired Pointer-Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, and Odin, a Boxer mix—took off howling after a new scent towards the creek bed 20-feet below. Rio sprang. Odin yapped. Something growled.
“Sounds like they treed something,” Ali said. “Reeeoooh, Ohhhhdin, let’s go!” she called. The growling grew lower. Odin’s barking went up an octave.
“That doesn’t sounds like a squirrel,” I said, scanning the treetops. I saw it—a colossal, golden-red, eight-foot-long lump of fur with green eyes arched upward on a tree branch. I thought it was a deer. It didn’t make sense. Then it dawned on me.
“Oh my God, Ali, that’s a mountain lion!” It looked like a lioness from a zoo, except that there was no Plexiglas wall between us.
We looked at each other. And we did exactly what you’re not supposed to do. We ran like hell.
“Rio! Odin! Let’s go!” we both screamed, over and over again. The dogs wouldn’t stop barking or clawing up the tree. Fifty yards down the trail we stopped. White faces. Shaking. Out of breath.
“I don’t know what to do,” Ali said, “should we go back for the dogs?”
“No way, run!” I gasped. We took off again, jumping over rocks, boulders, wooden beams, half-buried roots. My Asics shoelace untied. We didn’t stop. The dogs, realizing we left, chased after us. We ran harder.
“Talk loudly, keep talking!” Ali yelled up ahead.
“OK!” I yelled back, “How big do you think that was? At least 300 pounds, maybe 350!”
“Keep going! Keep running!” she yelled.
Beads of sweat—the product of exertion and fear— dripped down my temples. Invisible knives scraped out my lungs. I contemplated chucking my heavy aluminum water bottle so I could run faster. My mind spun in circles.
I’m too young to die.
It could be stalking us from the treetops.
Oh, God, that’s a big rock.
I’ll never be late to work again if we can just get out of here alive.
I wish I had my phone to tweet about this.
Chancing a backward glance, I expected to see a flash of golden-red before three-inch claws ripped out my throat. We ran at a full sprint for 13 minutes back toward Ali’s Volvo. When we got there, we opened the hatchback to let the dogs in, and jumped inside pulling our doors shut. Then we started laughing and swearing.
TODAY I CALLED Outside’s former building manager and resident lion expert, Peter Romero, to find out how lucky we’d been. Romero, who’s 42 and lives in Pojoaque, New Mexico, is a professional hunting and fishing guide and has “harvested,” as he puts it, dozens of the big cats.
In his entire 20-year career as a guide, he has never seen a lion that he wasn’t pursuing with a pack of trained lion dogs.
“You are lucky to have seen the lion, but it was a very dangerous situation,” Romero tells me. He said mountain lions generally attack from behind, so most people don’t actually see the lion before they’re dead.
“You’re pretty lucky you ran away from a mountain lion and it didn’t attack you,” he says. Romero likened lions’ behavior to that of house cats who kill mice for sport. “Running was the worst possible thing you could have done,” he said. If the lion hadn’t been in a tree with dogs barking at it, our movement might have triggered it to attack instinctually. “You’re supposed to hold your ground, scream, make loud noises, ring a hiking bell, and even urinate,” says Romero. “Human scent is the most threatening thing to wild animals.”
If we had stuck around any longer, and the lion had decided to pounce, Ali and I both would’ve peed our pants.
Romero doesn’t think our current drought is bad enough to make the local lions resort to man eating, but he also thinks the dogs saved us. Rio is part Rhodesian Ridgeback, a breed specially selected to hunt African lions, and Odin is built like a prize fighter and kicks some serious butt.
Romero has never seen a lion attack one of his dogs unless it’s cornered. He thinks the dogs’ holding the lion at bay gave us enough time to escape.
“I’m serious,” Romero said. “The dogs probably saved your life.”
AFTER WE MADE IT back to Ali’s house, I drank a Heineken tallboy and dialed 911 to let Fish and Game know that there was a blood-thirsty lion loose in the woods. At 3 A.M., when I finally relaxed enough to fall asleep, I dreamed I bought two dogs, bear mace, and a gun. A really big gun.