The March day in western Colorado was crystalline clear. North-facing mountain slopes held up to a foot of snow; the south faces, however, were bare. I made my way up a favorite isolated mountain valley along a stream of beaver ponds. I saw no beaver, but I did see a small mountain lion track. It's a common experience: My cougar sightings have all occurred close to beaver activity. I stopped to rest on a log in the sun as a raven checked me out from on high, and a flock of chirpy cedar waxwings worked the aspen catkins. The air brimmed with the exhilaration of spring. When I decided to go higher, the wind was in my favor; perhaps I'd see an elk.
I rounded the high overlook and continued a few steps when I suddenly noticed that the hair on the back of my dog's neck stood on end. I peered into the valley below and saw nothing. Then I followed Teak's eyes. Thirty yards directly below us was a mountain lion.
I watched as the lion, intent on putting distance between the dog and me, leapt a small stream and disappeared into the thick forest, tangled with downed debris. Then, another lion appeared. It, too, walked the bank of the stream, jumped over it and disappeared. I couldn't believe my eyes. I stood spellbound when danged if a third lion didn't come into view. Within a few seconds, after this one disappeared, the mother finally appeared, dwarfing her yearlings, which, until that moment, had seemed huge.
She was magnificent. Having assured the triplets' safety, the lion strode upstream about 10 yards and climbed onto a trunk snag that bridged the stream. She was halfway across when she looked back at me, let loose with a tremendous snarl revealing razor-sharp canines and sprang to the other side as if propelled by the thickness of her powerful tail.
My body, frozen in awe, eventually relaxed, as my breath returned. I moved up a few yards and looked back on the spot where the family had been. It was a dry, south-facing slope, hidden under a slight rock overhang. I imagine that they were lazing in the spring sun, relaxing in these quiet weeks before the backcountry opened up to throngs of hikers. I would have missed it all had it not been for Teak's keen nose and our good luck in being downwind.
To witness the wild is to step into an extraordinary space. I wonder why that mother didn't feel threatened by either the dog or me, and act on her fear by charging us. My response to our encounter was just as surprising: Avid photographer that I am, I never thought to reach for my camera. I simply watched in fascination as my body received information that lay far beyond the reach of my conscious brain. That is why I didn't flee; I stood my ground and sent out whatever nonthreatening and nonverbal vibes take over at a time like that.
I had a similar experience once above timberline in the Canadian Rockies when I met a mother grizzly and her three cubs. I rounded a corner and there they were, moseying across the mountainside, turning over huge rocks in search of insects. I grabbed the dog and stood still, watching, until the mother noticed me. She could have been on me in a nano-second. Above timberline, there was no place to run, no trees to climb. I directed every drop of energy I had toward her presence, trying to communicate the fact that I meant no harm. She looked at me, stuck her nose into the air and, as if by magic, her cubs gathered around her. They all stood still for a moment, then turned on a dime and headed down the mountain, the three cubs following like the tail on a kite. A few moments later, they reappeared on a mountainside farther away.
I want to find meaning in these encounters that left me breathless and yet unharmed. Even though lions and bears are fierce predators, when they noticed me watching them, they suddenly seemed vulnerable and alone. I was privileged to see those two mothers make the wiser choice, protecting their young not by confrontation but by their decision to move on. I, too, was able to walk away, deeply humbled by the experience. I knew that I was the intruder, forcing wild animals on their own wild turf to react to me. The imperative of wilderness weighs heavily on us all.
Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is on the road promoting her latest book, Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey.