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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cats on the prowl at dawn

My day started early with a pre-dawn mountain bike ride. As I readied my bike, the dogs, who were still in bed, erupted into furious alarm barks. I'd intended to leave quietly without awakening anyone because the dogs don't go on pre-dawn rides with me. Their furious barking heightened the slight nervousness that I always feel when heading out into the completely dark woods.

As I rode away from our door, my bright head light picked up a pair of silvery white eyes about 20 yards away. In my experience, only cat eyes reflect a silver or green color. Coyotes and deer eyes usually reflect some red. At least I now knew why my dogs were barking.

The eyes stopped me dead in my tracks, and I pulled out my large pepper spray cannister that projects 30'. As I rapidly assessed the eyes, I thought that they seemed too low to the ground and too close together to be a lion. I guessed that they were bobcat eyes. However, I needed to be certain before riding off into the darkness leaving myself vulnerable to being stalked from behind. I decided that if it was a lion, I'd slowly back up into the house. If it was a bobcat, I'd go on my ride.

I slowly walked my bike toward the silver eyes, trying to get the animal to turn sideways so that I could see him in my light. I had a stab of pure fear as the animal took a step or two toward me. We both paused, and then he turned to his left and walked across my path. He had a short tail, splotchy tan and black fur, and a small stature. He was probably about half the size of a Labrador. With a flood of relief, I decided that he was definitely a bobcat, and he was leaving.

I stood paralyzed in the dark trying to decide if I still had the guts to head out on the trails or if I wanted to start on the roads instead. I convinced myself that the odds of being attacked by an animal were much smaller than the odds of being hit by a car (despite my great lighting system). Having re-found my courage, I clipped my feet into my pedals and rode onto the snowy trail.

During the bobcat encounter, I was too preoccupied to try to snap a photo of the eyes but the one on the right shows how brightly my light illuminates the trail and also bobcats.

After I overcome my reticence to go out in the cold darkness, I love my dawn rides. The world changes before my eyes as the sun rises. At the instant when I took the photo on the left below, the reddish rocks next to me were a glowing deep purple color, as they reflected the colors of the sunrise. Gradually, the view to the east became even brighter and the sky itself was shades of purple.

About ten minutes later, I encountered a magical sight - the elk herd spread out across a meadow with a snow-capped mountain awash in alpenglow in the background.After riding across a frozen creek and along some dark trails, I pedaled eastward up a hill and the sun was like a beacon shining in my eyes while illuminating a rocky ridge behind me.

Shortly later, I spun by home and picked up my Labrador, K, for a short ride. All of the spookiness of the trails had evaporated in the light of the sun. As we left the house, K ran directly to where I'd seen the bobcat and sniffed his tracks. I wish that I could discern scents with a dog's power for just a day - it would be amazing to be able to know so much from scents alone.

I don't think that my preoccupation with lion encounters is unfounded. I see lions about twice a year, and I see signs of lions more often. When I searched a website that tries to list all human-lion encounters that are reported in the media, a remarkable number of the Colorado encounters occurred close to my home. In fact, an entire book, 'The Beast in the Garden', is dedicated to human-cougar interactions on the Front Range, and several of the reported incidents took place within a few miles of my home. Given how much time I spend in the woods, I strive to be lion-aware without letting lion fear control me.

I truly love living in the midst of a forest full of animals, even if some of them might view me as prey.


  1. A) I'm beginning to think you never sleep.


    B) You're braver than I am about wild cats in the dark (or even in the light for that matter).

    Tom saw his first bob cat recently. He was very excited, but bummed he didn't have his camera because it sat there looking at him for the longest time ... maybe next time.

  2. Thanks for the beta re: silver eye reflection = cat. I never knew that, and I too ride solo often at dawn, so I'm glad to know it.

    I get the sense from your blog that the incidence of cougar encounters/ sightings in your area has increased since I lived in the Front Range (1995.) Is that the case?

  3. Watcher,

    I moved here shortly after you left, and I started spotting cougars almost right away. However, at that time, I had two very elderly and slow-moving dogs, and I'm told that it's not surprising that a cougar will hang around watching for a chance to pounce in that situation.

    I think that my friend in the Div of Wildlife would say that the encounters have gone up. It's probably partly due to the increase in population and trail users.

    If you remember downtown Boulder, you'll be surprised to hear that a cougar ran through the Canyon and Broadway intersection last summer.

    I should add that I am definitely not a typical trail user. I'm literally out on the trails everyday, even if only for a walk. The trails around my home are relatively desolate. There are no trailheads or maps of the trails. So, they're good places for cougars.

    I'm thinking of printing out the eyes for the back of my helmet that you have on your blog!


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