The Last Word

In Like a Lion:
A Personal Experience Essay

by Mike Splain

Editors' Note: We first Published Mike Splain's mountain lion experience, including his original photograph, in the Fall 2004 issue of the Double Cone Quarterly. This essay is an expansion of that original article, which included very little text.

Mike Splain's original photo of the lion leaping the creek.

Just how long will it take her to notice me? And good God, why did I have to wear sandals? Sure, these twenty-odd river fords are a hell of a lot smoother without the shoes-off-hobble-across-barefoot, shoes-back-on rigamarole. But standing here knee-deep in the brisk Carmel, my thoughts continually return to the nasty proposition of a fight. Bare-legged and vulnerable, I won't stand much of a chance if things escalate, but then to run would be suicide. Stand your ground, they always say. A steady breeze thick with the bitter fragrance of Alder, the cloudy pollen of Live Oak and the mildly unsettling nuance of wilderness surely carries my own scent far down the canyon to be lost among the depths and thickets. So there's a chance she'll pass by upstream without ever knowing I was here, without ever sensing the gaze of this digital camera I've trained on her sleek figure as she laps obliviously from an adamantine pool. Then again, smell isn't the only sense this formidable creature has going for her, a realization made all too clear by her reaction when my right foot stirs the surface then awkwardly plants itself on a gravel bar.

Eyes wide, ears twitching this way and that, tail writhing in irritation, the dangerously startled lioness crouches behind willow scrub to peer over driftwood from the opposite bank. It takes every ounce of determination I can muster to suppress an instinctive flight response. Stand your ground, they always say. With a death-grip on my trekking pole, I stand my ground.

And to think that just a few short hours earlier, I had brewed coffee in complete darkness, warmed the truck amid spellbinding phrases of Coltrane and piloted on down the ragged coast. Not a hint of sunshine spoiled the perfect dawn until this side of Laureles Grade, where the ranches of Carmel Valley spread far below, glowing faintly like waning lanterns, sputtering woodstoves curling smoke from unseen chimneys. Butterflies seemed to caress my stomach then, imparted as much by anticipation as the rich swigs of black sweet java indulged between hairpin turns. Breakfast was well-earned, only after an hour of paved road and another on the stony, haggard ruts of Tassajara, only then did hunger override the priority I'd placed on beating daylight to the trailhead. Soon satiated and eager to make tracks over Terra Incognita; as the last stars faded from sight I relished a thought — seventeen solo miles beneath a cloudless sky! So voraciously I had devoured this Vernal Equinox. That hopeful anxiety, that ignorance was truly bliss!

Lighting out on the gated jeep road, wafts of blossom-scented springtime overwhelmed my sense of disgust at the dark corpses of birdshot-riddled Pigeons scattered about a vacant hunting village. Stopping only to brandish a good luck feather (which in retrospect hadn't served its previous owner so well), I had carefully followed painted arrows that marking the scarcely-used route. Meandering from driveway to use trail to shotgun shell-strewn causeway, in short order, I'd passed an artificial lake and the last vestige of human inhabitation, save the very path itself. Premature blooms of Lupinus, Dodecatheon and Castilleja blanketed high green ridges, in stark contrast to dark Pine and Fir forests across the Miller Fork. Very few had followed this trail of late, and much of the morning was spent retracing tread lost beneath last year's foliage. Time and again I'd stop to consult the map, convinced I'd strayed onto some narrow, slumping deer path, only to find that my concern was in vain, as the dotted lines, elevations and contours would testify.

This tedious cycle of hunting and pecking had begun to grate on my patience, if not the very core of my inspiration. This trail was best surrendered to nature, I'd muttered more than once. It must have been near eleven by the time a dilapidated sign beckoned a descent into the narrow gorge below. After the first three wet fords I'd thought better of boots and traded them for the relative convenience of these water-proof sandals, but how could I have known what lay ahead?

Eternal seconds pass and still we stare. She lies crouched, as if to pounce at a moment's notice. I stand quivering in a quagmire of reason and anxiety. The river's incessant roar has since faded beneath the pounding of a nervous heart. Beads of perspiration collect high on my brow, dripping and stinging my eyes as if in mockery of this volatile whirlwind. Evidently, it is the anticipation of death. The noon-day sun is warm, indirect, anything but sweaty hot. What silly trimmings, these synthetic layers, this pack loaded with stove, sleeping bag, sunscreen, clean socks. She traipses ten or twenty square miles with nothing but teeth, claws and stealth; subsisting, even rearing litters with scarcely more. For her, every day is survival — feast or famine; an opportunity at best to cull a meal from the herds, more likely to lie with pangs of hunger in shady repose, at worst to die slowly, gored by a belligerent stag, gunned down in cold blood by some inebriated redneck.

Daring not to turn my back and resisting foolhardy urges to snap another photo, my mind begins to wander. Funny that all this equipment won't help now. Ironic that my survival kit has become a potential hazard, an encumbrance to be cast on the wayside should things get ugly. Eventually the rangers would notice my abandoned pick-up and send out a search party. By then I'd be little more than scattered bones and nylon, the meat wholly returned to a food chain from whence I'd come. What good is technology, really? Man fancies himself a master of his surroundings, but now that the "predator" has become the prey, the tenuous thread sustaining mankind's dominance hangs all too plainly in view. In essence, the roles are reversed and I've achieved what recovering alcoholics reverently identify as a moment of clarity. Without the primitive places over which this mama cat presides, the master will not only cease to exist as such, he will cease to exist.

Of course, forward-thinking humans have removed some of the highest, wildest, most formidable mountainscapes from the matrix of Manifest Destiny. But without connections, corridors, easements and integration, these remnant islands decay, isolated museums of genetic diversity, unable to communicate their wisdom to the grand conversation of evolution and in no way suitable for the vast habitats necessary for wolves or grizzlies; no muse or inspiration for our grandchildren's grandchildren. Will this mountain lion be relegated to the realm of fantasy like so many of her extinct brethren? Will every remaining indigenous place be chewed up and spit out for the financial benefit of a few short-sighted generations? Or will we wise up and take steps to ensure that great wild creatures continue to populate our forests and our dreams?

Abruptly drawn back into the present, the tension nears breaking point. She shivers with agitation, seeming certain that I will turn tail, but as I back away, using caution not to jostle or slip, she pivots, scans the slopes behind and beats a hasty retreat up the near vertical riverbank. It's as difficult to walk away as it was to stay put, but several hundred yards later, peaceful headspace returns and the gravity of what's just happened begins to sink in.

Strangely, a party has pitched camp not a quarter mile beyond my encounter, and passing their cached gear I weigh the options of sharing details versus simply keeping my mouth shut. Should they panic, evacuate and tell the wrong person, a forest matriarch would certainly be in danger, overzealous hunters on her track. On the other hand, were one of them to become dinner, I'd never be able to forgive myself. A mile upstream we cross paths. Returning from a remote swimming hole, their resolves are high and the couple takes the news quite well, overcome not so much with fear as fascination. It's good to know that I'm not alone.

As dusk falls, I rendezvous with friends at our pre-appointed destination, a circle of Ponderosa Pines on the fringe of a sprawling mountain meadow. The spicy corn chili they prepare is a godsend. Alone, I'd likely lose consciousness hungry and cramped on the cold damp grass. Instead, we laugh and cajole one another around a toasty fire and somehow I withhold my "war story" until dinner is gone and dishes are clean. No one is much surprised, really. It was bound to happen to one of us sooner or later. In spite of a rainy season that never came, Spring has managed yet another dramatic entrance. Gazing up from a down-laden cocoon, stars glisten and shimmer between gently swaying Pines, their trunks made grand in fiery reflections. Occasionally, branches touch and a pitchy vanilla freshens the breeze. Marveling that I'm the last one awake, a grateful sleep bears down as a glorious day on the trail concedes to darkness.