I have hiked in Arches National Park in southeastern Utah dozens of times during the off-season. Back in the later 1970’s the park was nearly deserted in the winter months. Every time I was there, I either heard cougars (mountain lions) or saw fresh tracks, sometimes right through our campsite. The big cats are very solitary, reclusive animals who rarely chance an encounter with humans. But, those chance meetings are usually deadly for us.
My intent was to venture into a very remote area of Arches known as Klondike Bluffs. It is only accessible by a long 4-wheel drive road, and I had never been to that area. I had checked the weather reports numerous times the previous two days. Thursday’s report now showed rain Saturday afternoon, but the forecast details showed the storm moving in later in the afternoon and only 0.08 inches of rain – a drizzle. By Saturday morning the skies in Moab were really overcast, and it was chilly, much colder than the previous day. The forecast was holding, so I decided to go for the adventure. I left early Saturday morning to be off the trails before the rains.
There was not a single other vehicle on the dirt road. When I arrived at the trail head, I saw another SUV parked there. I met the owners, an Italian couple touring the Southwest. We had a nice chat, and they left in their vehicle as I started up the trail.
My destination was to see Tower Arch. The trail starts out pretty rough and somewhat technical. It actually involves some hand and foot climbing to get up the cliff face. With the rainstorm threatening, I was very concerned about getting back off the rocks before they got wet. The sandstone “slickrock”, as it is known, is very grippy when dry, but is really slippery when wet. Given the situation, I decided to push along quickly and forego the photography until I made it to Tower Arch.
Once I made it up the cliff, the trail became much easier. The terrain was rocky with a lot of undulations. Other than the stiff breeze and the sounds of my boots on the rocks, there was total, absolute silence. After a while I began to realize that I was out here totally alone. From the top of the cliff I had a clear view to the east from which had arrived; there were no signs of any other vehicles. For all I knew there was no one within at least 10 miles.
I noticed a lot of deer tracks in the sandy areas, and soon I was thinking about the numerous times that I had seen clear signs of the big cats. Fortunately, I saw no cougar tracks. As I got further into the bluffs, the terrain became more rugged with the rock fins closing in. The trail got more challenging with quite a bit of scrambling up and over rocks and small ledges.
The wind had picked up a little more, and the temperature was dropping. I knew my time to get to the arch and back down without weather was growing short. I also realized that the winds were masking other possible sounds. I kept checking for predator tracks, and then I saw the paw prints.
They were fortunately longer front to back than side to side. Upon closer inspection, I saw the marks from the toe nails. Whew! Cats do NOT make tracks with toe nail marks. The tracks were either a dog who had accompanied another hiker, or possibly a coyote. I drew a sigh of relief.
It had started to drizzle lightly, so I knew I had to see that arch soon or turn back. I still had to get down the cliff. I kept checking the trail for tracks – more deer tracks and the same dog prints.
And then I saw it! Another set of paw prints, but these were different. These were wider than long, with no toe nail marks. A chill came over me. This was a cat, a mountain lion.
The cat tracks looked to be at least a day or so old. They followed the trail I was on. The terrain was very rugged here with lots of high rock fins, ledges and alcoves, exactly the type of terrain that cougars prefer. The rocks offer them great cover.
Just as I arrived at Tower Arch, it started to rain. Not hard, but it was more than a drizzle. I snapped a couple of photos, put my camera away, and started back down the trail. So much for the weather reports. Now I could see more cougar tracks; they were all around the trail.
I was absolutely alone, yet I was not. Somewhere not far from me was a big cat. And I might become his next meal. OK, now I was scared. I knew that I was completely isolated, and was too far from the trail head to even contemplate help.
Big cats are the ultimate land predators; They can stalk their pretty in absolute silence. They almost always attack from behind and almost always bite the head and neck first. Right now, I had two big problems – the cat and the rain.
Was I being watched, and if so where would the cat be? I needed to just stop for a moment and think. Just ahead I found a nice alcove under a really large rock fin. It was far too high for any cat to jump from, and it provided me a little cover from the rain and a great view of the area. Cats stalk their prey under cover. A few hundred yards away, the trail took a large open, sandy path down the hill. I took a big drink, put the rain cover on my pack, switched back to my brim hat, and decided to push on as quickly as possible. I knew that there was a good chance I was already being watched. And yes, I was food. Out here we are NOT the top of the food chain.
That was an interesting feeling. It was quite exhilarating. I have seen cats in the wild twice before; neither time did I feel threatened. Once I was at a river washing out my breakfast dishes, and I looked up and saw a large cougar drinking from the other side of the river. We saw each other at the same time. I was not alone, however, and the river was pretty wide and flowing fast. The other time was in the mountains near home. The cougar just came walking across our trail while we were eating lunch on some rocks. It saw us, gave us the look of “oh no humans”, and took off into the woods.
The only time I heard a cat, it gave a loud scream to my friend and I. We were in Arches in March back in the 1970’s. And, we were alone. It was the most frightening sound I have heard. It chilled me to the bone. We must have gotten too close to a den. That scream was a warning! We heeded it, and got the hell out of there.
But now I was totally alone; in absolute solitude. I have heard no scream, no warning. This means either I have gone unnoticed, or that I will be this cat’s next meal. The odds are 50-50. What to do? I did not want to run; that would be too tempting. I must appear large and intimidating. I have a bright red backpack; that will help. The bigger, brimmed hat will help too. I decided to start talking to myself loudly. That should help. If the cat was there, it might think that I was not alone after all. I walked quickly and purposefully. But in my mind, I knew I was food, nothing but food. Not a man, not a husband, not a father; no, I was simply food.
I had now made it to the sand path. Now I could really make some serious time. But at the bottom of the sandy hill was a wash with lots of brush and rocky fins. Good cover for the cat. I thoroughly looked around everywhere, and I made it past the wash. I also had to keep watch of the trail markers as I was back on the slickrock. I was really getting hot from my coat, but I figured it made me look bigger.
For over 30 minutes I trekked onward, ever closer to the cliff. Now it was wet, and I had to get back down on wet sandstone. Not good. I kept watch and listened intently. I was quite aware of everything – the breeze, the rain that had now become snow, the sounds of my feet on the trail, and the sounds of my pack flexing as I walked. So far, no growls, or no other sounds. Good, or not. Was I being stalked? I would only know for sure in the split second before it was on me. The adrenaline was pumping. I could hear my heart pounding. It must be close now. I had to stay composed and keep thinking. Watch everything around me now.
And there it was, the sharp descent of the trail down through the rocks. Now it was snowing and starting to stick. The rocks were wet, and very slippery. One bad step, and the cat would not matter. I stopped before the descent, and gathered myself once more. I looked for every possible advantage – tree branches, roots, rock holds, anything. Step by step I progressed downward to a steep rock slab. I saw a large, solid tree root. The rock was too slippery and wet to hold my footing alone. But with the root, I could brace myself and inch downward. I made it, and no sign of the cat. He could take me here as I would be an easy mark – unable to fight off an attack and nowhere to go. A few more feet, and I was back on a flat ledge with just large steps and rock scrambling to reach the bottom.
I made it! Down at last, and there was my truck. Now I just had to contend with the snow and slick trail road, but I am an experienced off-road driver. Whew!
So, was I stalked, or did the cat already have a full belly from a deer? I will never know for sure, but the fact that I am writing this means that likely the cat was not interested. There was still no one else at the trail head. Yes, I was completely alone, in total solitude.
I should have known better; I have many years of back country experience. I put myself in a potentially bad situation, and I got lucky.
Solitude. Make of it what you will.