On a recent trip to Moab, I had the pleasure of doing something that I've wanted to do for years: riding Slickrock Trail at night. Unfortunately, none of the other guys that I was biking with had light systems, so it was up to me to go it alone. When my boys passed out at 11 p.m. or so (wtf calls it quits at 11 on an all-boys' camping trip), I packed up some extra clothes, my light system and some water and headed down to Slickrock.
Since it was late, pitch dark and my first time in the area at night, I decided to stick to the 1.7-mile practice loop rather than the entire trail. I started pedaling, and after a few mandatory light adjustments, I was really taking to rolling over slickrock in the dark.
I rolled onward into the welcoming abyss, to the point of no return, and took a moment to take in the beautiful stretch of endless stars that hung above me. As I held a mesmerized stare with the sky, I suddenly had a blood-chilling thought: "What if a mountain lion was watching my every muscle movement at that very moment?" The beast could have been stalking me, considering the many ways in which he could enjoy the subtle tastes of my various body parts, and I'd have had no idea he was even there.
Immediately, I began to spin my head in paranoid-schizo fashion, lighting up every section of the empty wilderness in search of the mystical big cat that might soon pounce my bones. Nothing. Yet.
My unfounded lunacy continued for the entire ride. Visions of freakishly large mountain lions gnawing straight through the Easton aluminum on my bike danced through my head and I pedaled as hard as I could. I was elated when I finally made it back to the trailhead.
I was alive. My body was in one solid piece. And I was headed back to the campsite for a beer. Life was good, and the lions would have to find their meal somewhere else.
While enjoying that post-ride beer, I contemplated the ride and realized I really wouldn't know the first thing to do if a mountain lion approached and/or attacked me. Compounding this problem, it occured to me that mountain lions and other big cats are one of the best examples of nature's cruel injustice. They're muscular and powerful. They're among the fastest creatures on Earth. They can see at night. They have an intense sense of hearing. They can climb. They can leap 40 feet and pounce on their prey. They have razor-sharp teeth and claws. And they have natural camouflage to blend into their environment. Outside of debilitating venom, big cats have about every possible killing advantage that nature has to offer. So the least you or I can do is know what to do when crossing through mountain lion territory.
Mountain lions (also called cougars, pumas, panthers, catamounts and a small army of other names) weigh 80 to 275 pounds and are six to nine feet in length, according to the National Forest Service. They are pale brown or tan and are one color throughout with the exception of a few marks on their ears and tail. They are carnivorous and hunt prey that is readily available from dusk until dawn. Some common prey include deer, cattle, raccoons, rabbits and birds. The predator roams the wilderness from lower South America to the Canadian Yukon and lives primarily in areas of dense growth and high deserts with broken terrain (i.e. cliffs overlooking low ground where they can watch their prey).
According to National Geographic, there are only an average of four mountain lion attacks in the United States per year. Only one of those is a fatality. In 1991, Paul Beier did a comprehensive analysis of mountain lion attacks in Canada and the U.S. since 1890 and found only 53 true attacks over the 100-year time span. While attacks have seen a rise in more recent years, the mountain lion is not statistically a significant threat to humans, and mountain lion attacks remain a rarity.
What the National Park Service Says: "Hiking in a small group is best. Particularly in areas where cougars have been sighted, avoid hiking alone."
How I f'ed it up: Not only was I traveling by myself, I didn't see another car in the parking lot or another soul on the trail. While it was pretty epic having one of the most well-known trails in the world all to myself, I made myself a pretty helpless piece of white meat.
What the National Forest Service Says: " Avoid areas and times cats are likely to be most active: dawn, dusk and during evening hours."
How I f'ed it up: I'd say midnight is about as much the "evening hours" as it gets.
If you encounter a cougar, leave it alone. Pick up small children, but do so without turning your back to the animal or bending down. Don't turn your back and run from it, as you'll appear to be prey. Instead, back away slowly and calmly. Stand tall, open your jacket, make noise, yell, throw sticks and rocks and make yourself look larger and more intimidating than ever before--especially if the cougar approaches you. Show the animal that you're a force to be reckoned with, not a big piece of delicious flesh pie. Avoid bending over or exposing your back, neck or head to attack.
You might not have the instincts or natural predatory endowments of a mountain lion, but if you get attacked, summon all the fight instinct that you can and fight back viciously. Grab a rock, stick or other weapon and fight the animal off with all your ability. Stand up if you fall and stay upright. Mountain lions are prone to go for the neck so keep the neck away from the animal.
When you get back, report the encounter to the appropriate wilderness authority for the area (i.e. National Forest Service, State Park Commission, etc.).
As the numbers indicate, mountain lion attacks are very rare. There are many other factors in the wilderness and everyday life that pose a greater threat than these beautiful creatures. However, it doesn't hurt to know a little about them before traveling into their world.