Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Outdoors guest column: A mountain lion attack


It was warm. Way too warm to be expecting any big game to be out feeding in an open meadow. But here I was, expecting exactly that, sitting with my back against an aspen tree, watching the small meadow in front of me, in anticipation of an elk or mule deer showing up.

My occasional glance back over my shoulder, to make sure none of the critters might be trying to sneak through the cool, quiet fern growth behind me, had been uneventful. But wait, what in the world is that? It can’t be ... not possible. ... But it is, unmistakable. Standing right there within 15 feet of me, meeting my stare, not flinching, not showing a sign of life or aggression, until. ...

The temperature had been ranging in the mid- to high-80-degree bracket ever since I had arrived in Colorado in early September 2005. My friend, Roger, who lives in Littleton, Colo., and I had been planning this hunt for nearly a year.

This was to be the year that was going to be “the one.” Roger had done the early season scouting and had a few choice spots all picked out. I would be hunting with my new in-line muzzleloader. Roger would be hunting with a bow. I just had a feeling that this year would prove to be a special one. I had no idea just how “special” it would turn out to be.

Even with the unseasonable heat, Roger was confident that we would be successful. We would alternate hunting the lower elevations in the mornings and then hunt back in the timber as the day warmed up. Roger had permission to hunt on private property in the “high plains” south of Denver and we would spend at least the first morning there, in search of mule deer and elk.

We arrived well before sunrise and I got settled in at my spot, with Roger heading out for his own spot, a few hundred yards away. Just before leaving me, Roger cautioned me to be watchful for a couple of things on our hunt; rattlesnakes and mountain lions.

The weather had been unseasonably warm and the snakes were still very active. Great. Here I was, hiding in a patch of oak brush and the temperature was going to be in the 80s again today. Snakes, I could do without. He said to watch for the cougar; although it was very unlikely we would see one. Not that they aren’t plentiful, but the cat would likely see us long before we saw it and be gone, without us even knowing it had been there.

As the sun began to rise, I admired the scenic view of distant Denver, with the first rays of sun striking the tops of the tallest buildings there. It was breathtaking. As the landscape around me began to take on shape in the morning sun, I saw a group of mule deer coming in my direction. This was going to be too easy. The deer were oblivious to my presence and as I continued to “glass” them, I saw what I was looking for. ... Antlers!!!

He was no trophy, but I am a meat hunter, not an “antler addict.” I continued to watch the group as they slowly made their way toward me. I was atop a small mound, looking down on the mule deer when they stopped abruptly and began looking uphill to their left. All of a sudden they were fully alert and nervous. I followed their gaze to find the object of their interest; another hunter, standing atop the next mound over from me, his back to the now alert deer and binoculars to his eyes, looking out toward the city of Denver; obviously admiring the view, as I had done only a few short minutes ago.

He never saw the deer spook and begin running toward me, out of my sight around the base of my mound. I quickly jumped to my feet and began running to the far side of the high ground, in an attempt to get there and get settled for a shot before the deer could pass through. As I got settled into a prone position where I thought I would be able to get a shot as the deer passed, I brought my rifle to my shoulder and tried to calm my nerves and breathing.

I would like to think my labored breathing was solely due to the short, but fast, run I had just made, but I was anxious to get that buck mule deer in my sights. Just as I had anticipated, here they came!! They were still running, but not nearly as fast as they had been when I last saw them. I easily picked the buck out and found a spot where he would clear a patch of oak brush. This would be an easy shot, about 50 yards away. A shot I have made many times back home in Pennsylvania.

As the buck was just clearing the clump of oak brush, I led him what I felt was just the right distance and pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing. I cocked the gun to try one more hurried shot. He was rapidly getting out of range. Click. Again nothing. He was too far out now for a running shot. I angrily kicked the primer out to see that the firing pin had not even made contact. I looked up to see the deer had stopped out in the distance, about 250 to 300 yards. That’s a long poke with a muzzleloader.

I resumed my prone position, glassed the deer until I found the buck and then waited for him to clear the doe he was running with. I had not practiced at these ranges and could only guess on how far over his back to hold. I pulled the trigger and the rifle fired. I hadn’t come close enough to scare any of the deer too much and they slowly trotted over the next rise and dropped out of sight. A short time later Roger found me and told me the deer had ran right past him at about 40 yards, too far for a bow shot, but the buck showed no signs of being hit, and he found no blood.

Well, that was certainly not the way I had planned for the hunt to begin. My mind went back to Pennsylvania to the time when I was shooting the new in-line to work up a good load for the hunting trip. All of my previous hunting with muzzleloaders being with flintlocks, it did not concern me too much when I would experience the occasional misfire with the in-line. I was beginning to question this whole in-line deal. I should have stuck with my trusty flintlock. I convinced myself that the misfire at the buck was not going to dampen my enthusiasm for the rest of the hunt.

We continued hunting the rest of the week, seeing plenty of mule deer, no bucks and no elk. Around mid-morning of our last full day we were hunting again on private property that bordered Pike National Forest, southwest of Sedalia, Colorado. By chance I had “wandered into” Roger. We had both been still-hunting in different areas and I chanced onto him a short distance from our base camp.

He had arrowed a doe mule deer earlier in the morning and I went with him to find the animal. We butchered the doe where she fell, leaving the carcass for bear bait. Roger would return the following week, after my return to Pennsylvania, to try for bear.

After we packed the meat back to camp it was getting into the early afternoon. I decided to resume my still-hunting and work my way back up the drainage to a small meadow that ended at the tree line.

Heavy cover and timber surrounded the meadow, going uphill in three directions. I found a small aspen tree grove that jutted out into the meadow and the heavy fern growth in the grove offered excellent cover and concealment from anything that ventured out into the meadow. It was already early evening and this was to be the last night in the woods. Tomorrow we would be breaking down camp and heading back to civilization. The following day I would be on a plane headed back for Pennsylvania.

It looked like this would be another Colorado hunt that would put no meat in our freezer. But the weather had been gorgeous; much warmer than I would have preferred, which surely had an impact on the limited amount of game we had seen, but just being out here in God’s creation was something to be grateful for.

These were the thoughts that were going through my mind as I sat with my back up against an aspen tree, watching the meadow before me. It was cool and quiet in the aspen grove and I would occasionally glance back over my shoulders to make sure no critter was trying to take advantage of the quiet fern cover and sneak through behind me. On the last of these backward glances I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. That wasn’t there before. ... Can it be?? It looked as if someone had taken a paper cutout of a cougar head and mounted it on a stick and was holding it up above the fern cover so only the head showed.

The cat wasn’t more than 12 to 15 feet behind me, over my right shoulder. Perfectly still. Not a muscle twitching. To say that I was scared would be totally untrue. My first thought was, “Wow. That is really neat.” I wanted to get a better look at the cat, because I was certain it wouldn’t stick around long and hold that pose.

As I started to shift my weight and twist around to my right to get a better look, the cat came to life!! It laid its ears back against its head and let out a loud, angry snarl, baring its teeth and then dropping out of sight. The snarl brought me to my senses. I could see by the fern movement that the cat was coming toward me in a slow stalk.

I swung my rifle up over my right shoulder and stuck it out to my rear, at an awkward angle, in the direction I had last seen the cat. The safety was off and my finger was on the trigger. I had started to roll to my right, with the intention of getting onto my stomach and bringing the rifle up to my shoulder. I never made it to my stomach.

As I was about half-way through my roll, all of a sudden there was the cat. ... Ears still pinned back to its head. ... Close enough I thought I could have reached out and touched it. It was still coming. All I could do was pull the trigger. There was no thought about the rifle misfiring again. I just pulled the trigger. I had no time to aim or to even get a “controlled point.”

The cat was too close. The rifle went off and I immediately jumped to my feet and ran out into the meadow, reloading as I ran. I wanted to put as much distance as possible between myself and the cat ... not thinking that if I had missed the cat my running would have prompted an attack from the rear which I would likely not have survived. As I reached the center of the meadow, with a fresh load in the rifle, I knew I needed to get Roger up there, to probably track a wounded cat. Our pre-arranged signal for him to come looking for me was for me to fire two shots, in rapid succession.

I pulled the trigger again, for only the fourth time on this trip, and the rifle went off. I reloaded with another 295 grain slug and cautiously approached the aspen grove. With rifle to my shoulder I stepped into the trees to see the cat lying dead in the ferns. The slug had hit him dead center in the chest and he dropped in his tracks. Surely the good Lord had his finger on that trigger and he was aiming that rifle when the big cat’s head popped out in front of me.

Later measurement would show that the cat had dropped exactly one rifle length away from the end of the muzzle when the rifle went off, a distance of 43 inches!!!

Later examination by the Colorado Division of Wildlife would estimate the cat’s age at 2 to 2 1/2 years old and his weight at 125 to 150 pounds. The cat was an adult male and the necropsy showed his stomach to be completely empty. I believe he intended for me to be his next meal!! The following day was our last day in the mountains and we were packing up for the trip back to civilization.

I took my muzzleloader out a safe distance from camp to fire it, unloading it for transport. I cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. Nothing. I cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger a second time. Nothing. The rifle did not fire until the fourth time I pulled the trigger!!!!

Some of the readers of this tale will ask, “Well, that’s interesting, and must have been very exciting, but what does it have to do with us here in Pennsylvania?” I can tell you that since I was a youth, growing up in the hills of Potter County, the woods have always been my second home. I have always felt very content, safe and comfortable whenever I was in the woods. It was a time that I felt “at one” with my creator. Since my experience with the mountain lion, I have lost this feeling of safety and contentment. I find myself watching every stump and clump of bushes, avoiding the same heavy fern cover that I used to love to lie down and relax in. Often falling asleep and napping. It is my personal belief that there are mountain lions inhabiting Penns woods today.

While I have yet to experience my own Pennsylvania sighting, I have friends and relatives who have seen the big cats here in Pennsylvania. There have been trail cam photos taken near my home. There have been reported sightings within one mile of my home. These photos and sightings are coming from people like myself, who know the woods. They know what they are seeing. They know what a bobcat looks like and they know the difference between the two cats.

There have been reported sightings within 100 yards of an elementary school play ground, supported by sightings in the same area by an archery hunter during the 2006 fall archery season. Could this be the same cat. ... Do ya think??

I tell my story for one purpose. What happened to me in Colorado could very well happen to the reader of this article. Whether you be a hunter, a hiker, a biker or just enjoying your rural back yard, these cats are here. These cats are predators. They are opportunistic killing machines. They plan their attacks and pick their victims. As beautiful and majestic as they are, they are extremely dangerous animals and if I can influence even one reader to be just a little more cautious, a little more observant, a little more pro-active on the issue of mountain lions in Pennsylvania, then I have accomplished my purpose.

Enjoy the beauty that God has blessed us with here in Pennsylvania. Go about your everyday business and hunt, hike, bicycle or whatever your outdoor enjoyment is. Just be careful out there. Use some common sense and don’t go out alone or unprotected. I believe that when I turned around and found myself face to face with that cat in Colorado, it wasn’t just a coincidence. I don’t believe that fatal shot, at such close range and under such uncontrolled circumstances, was accidental or lucky, especially after the number of misfires I experienced the very next morning. And no, I do not still own that particular rifle!!! I often think about what might have happened had I not turned around at the time I did. I often wonder how long it will be before someone in Pennsylvania is faced with the same situation.

Note from Jim Collins. This story is true and has been verified by several independent sources. Dave Williams resides in Roaring Branch, Pa., Tioga County. He is a lifelong hunter, angler and outdoorsman. I have spent time with Dave in the outdoors and trust his word and his judgment.

http://www.thedailyreview.com/site/index.cfm? newsid=17299861&BRD=2276&PAG=461&dept_id=465049&rfi=8

http://www.thedailyreview.com/site/index.cfm?newsid=17302220&BRD= 2276&PAG=461&dept_id=465049&rfi=8

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