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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lions and elk in the gulch

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.


  1. Please stop me if I've used this word before but


    The orange and purple sky...

    The 'khytty' khat tracks...

    Some of the most inkhredible sky shots...

    Thanks again!

  2. Love your blog and plan to visit regularly when we return home...sounds like we share a love of nature and Labs!

  3. The tracks in the snow didn't scare me, but the darkness at sunset certainly did. It was pretty dark out there. I don't like hiking outside that late even here, much less where you have even larger wildlife.

    That said, I'm glad you took the lovely photographs of the sky. Just beautiful.

  4. That's awesome. You must have nerves of steel to ride through the forest every day.. but, as I can see, it is so totally worth it!

    P.S. - Marge, like K, always thinks other people have better treats than I do, thanks largely in part to the fact that lots of other handlers at class would help me out in the beginning and feed her so as to make her more comfortable. It must be the Labrador in them, though!

  5. Kia ora KB,
    Such amazing shots of the sunset, those majestic purples and blues just always choke me up. I love the words you write about learning from your canine friends about living in the moment. The way we should all live. They are very wise.

  6. That scenery looks amazing! And what great fun sharing that country with your dogs as well!!
    I do sled dog sport with my lab, he loves it! They all need a job to do!

  7. Hey there KB
    You got my heart racing too this time! It reminded me of a time - about 15 years ago when I was treated to a bike ride - in the Kruger Park - amidst our large African lions, but which I never saw on the ride.
    I will never forget that particular adrenalin rush. The interesting thing though was that, although it was dangerous, the risks are lower when you are on a bike, since your overall profile (bike and rider) is more threatening to them than a person on foot.
    This is the same reason that it is not dangerous to ride in an open backed game drive vehicle - the lion doesn't recognise you as human. Being 'on foot' however, is a totally different story.
    (Obviously I am speaking from an African point of view. Your situation is totally different)

  8. Oh, so what Khyra said - your photos are just so spectacular. Those pups are so beautiful in their orange - and we love the synchronized posing.

    woos, the OP Pack

  9. Hi there, I so love visiting your blog and seeing what wildlife you regularly see(or signs there of)on your rides. You are braver than I am because we came from Ca. where people were routinely attacked by mountain lions and there were you go girl but please be vigilant in your watching for them.

  10. Great tracking, KB! I love the story about seeing the "kitten." Your sunset was mind-boggling. I'm in Breck - the sun is shining on a dusting of overnight snow. I'm alone - hubby stayed in Denver. Such a NOW moment! I'm going for a walk in the forest (with camera, of course!).

  11. I would love to see a mtn lion youngster ... as long as both of us were safe.

    Neat little tracking adventure you had. I tried to shoot some lion tracks I saw last week, but they didn't work out.


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