Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Just as the early morning darkness blushed to light, my uncle Victor hollered under his breath, urging me to get up, right now. His excitement led me to believe we might have a bear in the kitchen, but that would have been the simpler scenario.

Instead, we watched a lynx slowly cross the open space below Vic’s house, its ruffled winter fur and long legs sending chills up my spine. At that time, the last known Colorado lynx sighting had been documented by a wildlife officer named Terrell back in the 1940s, and the Department of Wildlife wasn’t coming off its official stance, even if we had seen a lynx that morning in 1970. (Curiously, a lynx was illegally trapped at Vail in 1973.)

Science and anecdote are two parallel but different methods of thought to get to the same end result, neither one particularly trusting of the other. But who cares until much later, after you’ve witnessed the unusual and are trying to explain it.

The trail in front of me was mostly nonexistent, unless you’d traveled it many times before when it was a vital cattle trail through the mountains. Now, some years after the demise of the cows, the path has become overgrown and partially blocked by down timber, and it’s mostly used by guys like me who cherish the unique and seldom seen terrain it bisects.

That area above Woody Creek has never been logged, and as my horses and I cut into an old-growth evergreen forest adjacent to the trail, we left a sunny, blue-sky day and emerged into a dark, dank section of wildness. Little sun penetrated the thick fir branches and the ground, covered with murky plants, was soft under the horses’ hooves. Suddenly, we were upon a downed, rotting hulk of a tree, the other side of which displayed a panorama of brutal wonderment. Laid out, like cord wood, were the partially covered carcasses of elk, starting with scattered bones on the right. As my eyes scanned to the left, the four or five partially eaten corpses became more and more fresh, until furthest left was a recently killed elk, perhaps only days old.

It was a kill cache, if you use that sort of terminology, and it prompted a quick look around on my part, to see if there was a pair of ambush eyes watching me. Some people attribute such sustenance storage methodology to mountain lions, although it appears to be difficult to get anyone in the official world to acknowledge such a phenomenon. Cougars are not particularly known for scavenging, so it doesn’t make sense that a mountain lion would store such a large supply of food.

If not a cougar, and clearly not a black bear, what could have been behind such a piece of work? A crazy old hermit, maybe, but that’s too far-fetched. Just like the unacknowledged but palpable lynx, perhaps another predator, officially listed as endangered in Colorado, was responsible for the stash. “Ol’ Grizz,” the silver-tipped hero of so many fearful stories, could have been stocking up on elk as a matter of DNA-enhanced behavior impossible to thwart. The last known grizzly kill in Colorado occurred in 1979, at a time when officials thought such bears to be nonexistent in the state.

Maybe it was a mountain lion, stocking up on protein for a litter of cubs, but doubtful, or perhaps it was the monster of the mountains, a big, old Ursus horribilis, ready to defend his cache at any cost. Some longtime residents with impeccable credentials as naturalists claim to have seen lynx, grizzly and wolves from time to time in the local national forest. I know it to be possible.

So, when you head out into a forsaken, seldom traveled neck of the woods for a little solace, remember that contrary to science, all may not be as it seems. And as you recall this anecdotal column, try to sleep with a good-sized rock between your back and whatever’s out there.

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