Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Two minutes from our door is a wild place, where it’s a good idea to look over your shoulder. The deer are down from the high country, bedding under the pinyons. The bighorn sheep are gathered in tight herds. Bald eagles are fishing the Fryingpan from tall cottonwoods. Mountain lions are hunting along the ridge tops.
Hiking with my wife up a game trail last week, I caught something in my peripheral vision. As quickly as I could turn, we were met by a full-curl bighorn ram barreling down a steep slope beneath red rock cliffs. He dodged past us like a slalom skier and jogged off across a contour.
The Seven Castles were bone-dry, dust rising with every step as we scrabbled our way across cliff bands, the valley falling away below us. The sun was warm. There was no wind. It felt like a slice of Canyonlands in springtime.
We navigated a short rock climb and stepped onto a narrow isthmus of rock 3 feet wide with big drops on both sides. Rock pinnacles and sheer fins rose up from far below. We looked over the valley for a while and then followed the ridge higher through ancient pinyons and junipers. Where the trails are usually marked only by cloven hooves, I began noticing another set of tracks.
The dirt was soft and held the clear imprints of a lion – a particularly big lion. The paw prints were larger than my closed fist and larger still where they crossed patches of snow. The tracks followed my usual route, which had me thinking about my relationship with that lion. The tracks looked a couple of days old, and I had been up that route about then.
I had once vowed to buy a handgun for just such an occasion as meeting a full-grown mountain lion. I never bought the gun and instead carry a stout staff fashioned from a juniper branch. Not that a stick is going to do much against an aggressive lion, but at least it’s something to have in hand.
The gun idea came about after a ski tour up Capitol Creek a few years ago where a dead bull elk lay next to the trail, its innards ripped out, blood speckling the snow. Cat tracks were everywhere, and the meat was still fresh. The thing I noticed most were the prongs of the antlers, several of which were snapped off during what was a fight to the death for the elk.
We continued following those lion tracks for a mile or so on the narrow ridge, our senses piqued for every sound, any movement. That’s how the senses ought to be in wilderness, so I was grateful to that lion for making this hike count more than others.
My wife and I talked about that lion during our walk, wondering how it chooses its prey. “I think I’m too scrawny for a cat,” I told my wife after she admonished me not to hike alone when the deer are low and the lions are prowling. “You’d be like a mouse with a tomcat,” she said.
The next morning, I was up early at dusky first light. While pouring pancake batter onto the sizzling cast-iron skillet, I noticed something in the backyard. I moved over to the window and saw, not three feet away, a four-point buck deer munching grass like a domesticated cow.
But this was no cow. It was regal, powerful, competent, agile, swift, graceful. It was every admirable adjective I could think of as it displayed a lethal rack, a thick, muscular neck and a sleek, dense coat. The ears were about a foot long, and they swiveled whenever I made the slightest sound. I looked into its dark brown eyes and recognized a thinking, calculating animal fashioned by evolution to thrive here, where lions also thrive.
It might seem foolhardy to follow lion tracks into wild country, into their natural habitat, with nothing more than a stick. But this is my chosen neighborhood, and it just happens that it’s populated by a wild mix of neighbors – the magnificent buck, the stout bighorn, the elusive lion. I’m just another itinerant resident, a walk-through with a juniper staff and an open heart. Blessings on them all.
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