The sunset overwhelmed every other detail of yesterday afternoon's hike. As we hiked through the meadow, a orange and purple stippled sky rained down onto the hills.Shortly later, we hiked up a steep rocky trail to a higher meadow and caught a glimpse of the source of the kaleidoscope of colors. My jaw dropped as we watched the sun set behind the Continental Divide. The stupendous sunsets rank as one of my favorite things about winter.
This morning, the pups roused me early, and we rolled out into an alternately icy and dirt trail with an occasional deep snow drift. The dogs' enthusiasm for every little thing, down to the slightest scent in the wind, continued to teach me to immerse myself in the moment. If there is any single lesson to learn from a dog, it's how to live each moment, one by one, not obsessing over the future or the past, but just enjoying the present.At one point in the ride, both dogs stared into the forest, aligned in parallel, for a long moment. I often notice the duo moving in synchrony as they explore the forest. They remind me of the coyote groups that I've observed moving through meadows. They don't stay in a tight pack but they move in parallel, like a multipronged organism. My dogs do the same thing.
For the first time since getting about 3.5' of snow ten days ago, the dogs and I rode up to Hug Hill, our favorite lookout point. Clouds floated in and around the peaks, obscuring some of them.
The dogs hung out with me on the summit. What a great dog duo they make - although I have to admit that I still acutely feel the absence of our third canine.
After trying to tire out the dogs, an impossible task, I dropped them off at home and headed out on what I thought would be a short ride. From the start, the views awed me, especially the view of the giant that towers an hour drive away from us.
Today, I headed down into a gulch that some people call Lion's Gulch. In the photo below, the brown slope in the foreground plummets down to the gulch floor.
Ironically, as I started riding up it, I chuckled over the seemingly irrational fear of visiting this gulch expressed by many locals. They seem to believe that they'll be eaten alive by lions as soon as they set foot in the gulch. The photo below looks down the gulch with the creek to the right and high ridges looming on both sides.
I've ridden this gulch on countless occasions, at dawn, at dusk, and at noon. Yet, I've seen only one lion. It was a kitten, probably stashed by his mom while she hunted. It was a chilly early spring day, and the naughty kitten decided to leave his hiding place to lie on the sunny and warm 4wd road. My friend and I saw the kitten lope up the gulch wall and hunker down, in plain sight, under the low boughs of a pine tree above us. He was about the size of a bobcat but had the long graceful tail of a lion. We were entranced as we looked at him and he gazed back at us. If the kitten had not strayed onto the road but had stayed under the pine tree, we would have ridden past without seeing him. As we both grinned with goofy happiness, the thought of a nearby mother lion hit us at the same instant. We rode away, glancing over our shoulders, but zinging with excitement over our sighting.
Last winter, I rode this gulch in virgin snow many times, and I never saw a single lion track. So, today, as I set out, I wasn't even looking for tracks. I just feeling disappointed that I'd opted to ride my regular mountain bike with studded tires, a bad choice for deep snow, rather than my snow bike. As I churned along, a set of tracks brought me to a sudden halt. I'd seen this perfect pattern before, and I'd seen the paw shape before. A lion, no doubt.The tracks weren't the biggest that I'd ever seen. Each track measured about 3" long and 3" wide but the paw shape yelled "Lion".
By now, I was off my bike, the purpose of my outing (a bike ride) completely forgotten. I looked around and spotted where a troupe of elk had marched through the gulch. Each of their tracks was deeper than the lion's tracks but about the same length, heel to toe.
The elk brigade had dropped down to the creek and then climbed up the steep slope on the other side. The lion had followed in their tracks, almost exactly. In one case, the cat track overlaid the elk track. In the photo below, the stampede of elk tracks plus a set of lion tracks heads down to the stream and then up the opposite gulch wall.
As I closely examined and measured all the different tracks, I began to believe that two lions had walked in this vicinity. The larger one had the 3" by 3" tracks and the smaller one had about 2.5" by 2.5" tracks. They didn't walk shoulder-to-shoulder but went in the same direction separated by 10-20 yards. If I was right about two lions walking here, they were likely a mother and her fairly large kitten. Below, I photographed the slightly smaller tracks with a yellow bracelet that measures 2.5" in diameter.
After investigating those tracks, I figured that the wildlife show was over because all the animals had headed for higher ground on the other side of the creek. I hopped back on my bike to pedal up the gulch. I kept scanning the creek area for animals or tracks. Believe it or not, after a quarter mile, another set of lion tracks caught my eye.
The tracks had followed the creek before veering off, straight up a hillside, again on the tail of an elk herd's tracks. However, this time the lion tracks circled back to the creek before climbing far, and then followed the creek along its bank. This creek is a scary spot when I think that a lion might be nearby. Blue spruce, box elders, willows, and other shrubs overhang the creek, making it look like a tunnel of vegetation. There was no way was I going to investigate that dark area. It's a perfect ambush spot for a predator. In the photo below, the lion tracks descend into the abyss containing the stream.Elated with my tremendous luck in running across evidence of our wildest animals' escapades, I pedaled easily up the rest of the gulch and home. Nothing intrigues me more than glimpses, however tiny, of the lives of our resident wild predators. People ask me, "Weren't you afraid when you saw the tracks?". No, I wasn't. I was alert but the tracks didn't look completely fresh so I didn't think that the lion had just made them. Moreover, I'm certain that lions have peaceably watched me pedal past them, oblivious to their presence, on many occasions. I had no reason to believe that this time would be any different.
Thanks to the lions, it was a mountain bike ride that I'll never forget.