Vagneur: A chase captured in print, not on video |

Vagneur: A chase captured in print, not on video

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur

There’s a unique place in the red sandstone corner of the trail, a narrowness, a point, if you will, with a sharp drop-off on one side and a steep, rock-infested uphill bank on the other. It’s just wide enough to get a loaded packhorse or a mounted saddle horse through without issue. It’s there that we had a gate to keep the cattle either above it or below on the trail, depending on the grazing pattern, and without needing a fence to enforce its effectiveness.

Gramps reined his horse in and dismounted, readying to open the gate when he whispered to this 9-year-old kid, “See that mountain lion up there?” I wasn’t paying attention, was looking down at the tinkling creek far below, and Granddad poked my leg and pointed up into the cliffs high above on the left. “See him there, hunched down beside that rock, looking down at us? We probably spooked him, coming up the trail.”

That was the first mountain lion, cougar, puma, panther, I ever saw and it was almost the last, so far. Sometime in the late 1970s, might have been early ’80s, while four or five of us were drinking beer and telling stories on Tommy and Whiter Moore’s back porch, when we saw a well-tanned, fit-looking cougar crouched down near the corner of the hayfield behind the house, partially hidden in the tall grass and brush. We kept a close eye on the dogs, and then, somewhere, somehow, the mountain lion slunk away, unnoticed by our group.

All creatures, except maybe man today, are hardwired with an ancient instillation of survival tools, fine-tuned with each succeeding generation, to be the best they can be, at what they do. Mountain lions know one thing for certain – go for the neck first. If a cougar gets you by the neck, it’s fairly well over, in seconds; but, if the neck connection is not made, there is a chance of survival for the victim. There is one documented case of a jogger strangling a cougar to death. Believe it or not!

Corner a feral barn cat or maybe even someone’s house cat who doesn’t like you, catch it, and then daydream about all the ways you might be able to fend off a serious attack from a cougar. That’s about how successful most of us would be in such a situation — a daydream.

While hiking my favorite trail last spring, before the snow melted, I came across what could only have been a trail of death. This is a path, by the way, whose automatic trail cams document the presence of mountain lions on a regular basis.

In any case, it was the track of an elk, running incredibly fast, perhaps at a gallop, with its tracks fairly well obliterated by the much larger tracks of padded feet, also running quite fast down a very steep hill. If you are familiar with the running patterns of mountain lions and elk, the tracks made perfect sense. It was impossible to get a full imprint in the slightly slushy, disturbed snow, but it was clear the chase was on. 

Walking uphill, thinking all kinds of thoughts as one does when hiking, I discovered I’d missed where the chase had begun, so, on my way back down, I was looking for that spot in a most particular way. I was following a single elk track when, suddenly, there was the cat track directly behind, chasing it. Where the hell did that cat come from? 

Scouring the uphill bank, it was certain I’d see some disturbance in the snow but saw nothing. Clearly, the puma had jumped from that uphill bank, from further back in the grass and brush than I could see, and had dropped down directly behind the elk. Quite a fantastic jump, in my estimation. 

I followed the trail of the chase for about 100 yards, maybe a little more, when it suddenly veered off to the downhill side, down a very steep embankment. Although tempted, “Let it be” was my inclination, as going down was not really a very good option. Getting out of there would have been an ordeal of certain physical punishment. 

Two days later, heading up the same trail, my dog, Tux, took off through a low-lying clearing at the mouth of the draw, unusual for him, but I let him go to see what the urgency was. Almost immediately, he was toying with a partial elk hide, still unfrozen but clearly brutalized. 

That was the last piece of the puzzle concerning the chase. The puma had got his fill and left the carcass for the coyotes, who, in the way of coyotes, had dragged the partial hide of the elk out into the open meadow at the mouth of the canyon. Neither camera caught the action of the chase.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at