Predator Encounter: Lions of Winter

On his walk back from an elk stalk, the author encounters a haunting sign left on the trail

Photo by Daniel J. Cox/Corbis

The lions are all over Montana. I like finding their tracks in the snow because it means there are still deer or elk on the mountain. The lions are not as likely to dink around if there’s nothing to eat. I can’t count how many times I’ve been following an animal—an elk or mule deer, usually—and have joined the lion’s tracks, the two hunters converging.

Last Year, an oddity; a real odd oddity. I was hunting new country, had picked it out on a map as looking pretty elky, and was experiencing that wonderful satisfaction, the supreme good luck, of guessing right; there were elk up there. Lions, too. I didn’t think much about it. They know where the game is. All I wanted was one elk. I wouldn’t get in the lions’ way, much.

There was a creek-side trail that traversed the base of the mountain, and though the elk knew better than to use the trail, where hunters might find their tracks and follow them then to the end of the earth, there was a lion that appeared to not mind much one way or the other and traveled it freely. Sometimes the lion’s tracks would be going up the trail, other times, down. Sometimes I got the feeling the lion wanted to be sure its tracks were seen. I don’t know why it might have felt that way. Cats are curious creatures.

Each morning, I would leave the trail after about an hour and hump up the steep slopes, where, almost every day, I would encounter more lion tracks, two smallish sets and a larger one, which I didn’t think was necessarily the tracks I’d been seeing on the trail. These tracks—a mother, I assumed—were larger. The lion down on the trail was mature—a young male, I guessed.

Four lions, then? Each day, the young male stayed far below, while mother and young worked their way toward wherever I was going. Each day, I eventually found elk tracks—sometimes a lone animal, other times a herd—and I followed the elk around, up to the top of the mountain, down the ridge, over, and back around again.

I was getting in good shape, following those elk. Sometimes I’d see one, a cow, or cow and calf, trotting ahead of me, not quite knowing where I was but nervous.

One morning I started out earlier than ever. An inch of new snow—perfect. As before, I encountered the tracks of the mother and two young, heading where I was heading—straight up—but I hadn’t found the elk yet.

And then I did: one wandering set of tracks below a ridgeline. A scout? I followed those tracks to the ridge, with the wind in my face, moving slowly, quietly, watching that ridge, where I imagined the animal had bedded—where it might even still be bedded, if I was early enough—and once on the ridge (big old Douglas fir trees, well spaced, good thermal cover), I found what every elk hunter is chagrined to find, chagrined and pleased both, proof that there were elk on the mountain, a lot of elk, but, dammit, they’d had a major freak-out. The snow was torn up everywhere from where they had leapt up off their beds, the thin black soil tossed in clumps in all directions. A whirlwind of elk, and the signature not of peace and contentedness, but terror.

It scrambles the mind to come upon such chaos. The elk themselves are chaos-struck, and like them, you have to absorb it all at once: not the fright of one animal, but of 10 or 20, or however many, and with each leg, each hoof, a fourfold signature; a hundred such signatures then, in even just that first leap from the icy casts and glassine scallops of their snow beds, their ridge nests. Taking flight. A hundred signatures in the second bounding, and the third, and so on, down the ridge, up the ridge, into the trees, across the rocky slope—thousands of signatures in all directions, then tens of thousands, and your poor little mind bent over the swirled and shattered jigsaw of it, one cloven hoofprint at a time, trying to unscramble the scramble.

Winter Wapiti A herd of elk pushes on through a snow squall. Photo by Donald M. Jones

Eventually you find the central thread, and you too—quietly, though not that it matters, now—join the exodus, the conduit of churned-up snow-electricity that is their fear.

Amazingly, they don’t always run far. Their alarm dissipates after about a mile, is absorbed by the forest—the feathers of every branch, and the slope of the mountain itself—the rise and fall of each and every contour like the crenulations of the brain, elk running across and through your brain as you follow them, integrating yours with the mountain’s. The electricity of hunter and hunted stimulating the mountain with its old yellow light, refreshing the mountain, and keeping the world turning. And after about an hour of your so-quiet tracking, if you’re lucky, you’ll see where their single-file flight has settled down enough that they begin to unbraid, disentangle, with the one deep trough of their unified, thundering flight becoming two sets of tracks, then four, then 16, and so on, as cows and calves disentangle and go their own way, in parallel but not lockstep, and young bulls likewise—the elk herd beginning to move through the forest with some return of calm; and though that’s always a good sign, showing that they’ve slowed from a gallop to a trot, and then to a walk—soon, you will be back among them—it has a serious downside, which is that all those eyes will be looking back. And only one of them has to detect you in order to set the whole elk-bomb off again.

But if you are very lucky, you will see one of them—one of the trailing ones—before it sees you. A slash of yellow rib through the trees; four shins, dark as charcoal, poised in the timber for a moment. The chocolate mane, the dark-brown eyes, sun-wet; an ear, or the pumpkin-orange of rump, moving slowly away; and just like that, you are back in them, and you look quickly, everywhere else, for antlers, tuning out all other sensory input, searching only for the glint of bone, the branchlike curvature of them.

If it’s your luckiest day ever, you see them, then, on top of the head of the bull that is motionless, staring at you with some concern and disbelief, and even as you see the electricity connecting in his mind, telling him to run, run again, you are lifting your rifle and aiming true, and your meat for the year is secured, he drops, even as all the other elk are launching once more into flight, orange-and-yellow elk erupting, blossoming, blooming from the snow, and departing, while one remains behind…

This particular day, I did not see any of that. That herd of elk stayed in single file forever. Hell, they might still be in single file, somewhere up in the Arctic by now; or perhaps they’ve settled in with a nice herd of caribou. I followed them all day, and not only did I not ever see them, they never even broke out of single file. Never in my life had I experienced such a thing: such unending flight. And not only did they stay in single file, they traversed the wildest country, paying no attention to contour lines whatsoever, but instead galloping due north, true north, only north: up and over cliffs, and down through backside talus, rather than skirting it; cows, bulls, babies, all, running as if it was not merely the disturbing scent or sight of man that was after them, but instead, hounds from hell.

I followed them until the shadows across the canyon turned blue and then purple, and then I turned around, beaten and mystified—how I hated to leave a hot trail—and followed my own tracks, and theirs, backward: rewinding to the beginning, and making better time, now that I did not have to skulk.

Heading Back

Fine Impressions A Montana mountain lion leaves a trail for hunters to follow. Photo by Denver Bryan/Images on the Wildside

I hurried, with dusk moving faster than I was now—it would be nice to be off the mountain and down to the trail, or nearly so, before full darkness, though I knew that was unlikely. Still, now that I had quit the herd and was committed to returning, I wanted to make as much distance as I could, up in the harsh rocky country, before blackness came in—and I settled pretty comfortably into that steady walking-out gait of not--hunting. Not a gallop but a good pace. From time to time I would look down at the now-icy casts of both my and the herd’s prints, and bound up like that—melted in passion but refrozen by the coldness of the day—they seemed to have been laid down much longer ago than they really were. As if a day were really a year. And it might as well have been, for all the elk meat that I did not have in my pack.

As the light pulled farther away, I decided to shortcut, dropping down through a ceanothus field to aim more directly for the trail, which still lay far below; and as I did so, I caught a glimpse of movement below me, something big and slow moving through the brush, coming my way, upwind of me and unaware.

How quickly the mind works, and how eerily accurate our primitive brains are, in our fleeting first assessments. What I saw in that shuttered glimpse had been elk-colored but had not been an elk. I had seen only a millisecond of it before the brush had swallowed it again. Was it a human hunter? I wondered. It had definitely been elk-colored but had been moving super slow, like a hunter, not the hunted. I crouched and waited for another look. I did not get another look. Nothing emerged. I rose and moved toward where I had seen the animal, walking carefully and quietly, ready for anything. Ready for luck.

I saw the lion before I saw its tracks. It was above me now, sitting in the last trape-zoid of sunlight on the mountain, 35 or 40 yards up the slope. Blue sky above it, the last of the day’s sun in the lion’s eyes. Long whiskers, mascara, the whole lion thing. The most beautiful lion ever, and so big; swag-bellied. It looked like it was wearing a lion bathrobe, super bulked-up, and super warm, in that big cold.

There was no blood on its muzzle. It was immaculate; but so full of something. Fat and muscular both, somehow. Huge.

I didn’t have my camera. All I had was my phone. I pulled it out, switched it to the camera setting, and started slowly toward the lion, wanting to get closer, for the best photograph: drawn by the lure of beauty, the lure of the magnificent.

The lion—she, I would come to believe later—watched me with some interest, thinking, perhaps, How easy is this? But before I could get much closer, maybe another 10 yards, she turned and went straight up the mountain, not in a hurry, but going vertically, clearly wanting to put distance between me and her, and I chose not to hassle her with pursuit.

I went back to my tracks, and sidehilled on out. I had not gone far in the bluing dusk before I came upon an aggregation of tracks I had not seen before, an explosion of elk like I’d never seen; elk running uphill, downhill, blasting out in all directions as if from one nucleus—as if, for once, they sought not to catch a central current and establish a centerline of escape, but instead desired to present and portray chaos, and unpredictability—and then I saw why.

Smaller lion tracks were in the midst of all those elk.

This was what had spooked them, early that morning, not my considered approach. I must have gotten to the ridge a minute or two late. All this must have been going on just a little above me, while below, I had followed the lower, lesser half of the big herd.

Up here, it was nothing but an elk rodeo. It was easy to see—the young lions had run this way and that, trying to make up their mind, leaping and slashing, trying to get any elk they could, as elk rushed past and all around and then away from them—and I stood there in the crater of tracks, contemporaneous with my own, just a short distance down the ridge, and didn’t quite know what to think.

And that was before I found the head.

Warning Sign

It wasn’t a human head, but it sure looked like one in that first moment, and I almost stepped on it; it had been placed in my tracks. The lions had definitely had their fun with it—a yearling elk—and not only were the eyes gone, giving it a macabre Halloween quality (along with the fact that the whole rest of the body was missing), but the muzzle had been chewed off too; my guess was one of the young lions might have grabbed hold of it during the attack. I was remembering the tracks, the chaos; it had not been a neat and surgical operation.

There was no way that head had rolled down the mountain and found its angle of repose in my frozen tracks. Every hair on my body was electric, and I looked all around in the dusk to see if the gang of lions might even then be advancing on me, teeth gleaming and bright eyes shining.

There was nothing, but that didn’t help, much; it just meant the lions were hiding.

The damn head looked like a soccer ball. Where was the rest of the body? Despite my unease, my anxiety—I won’t quite say fear—I wandered around looking for the rest of the body, driven by a naturalist’s curiosity, wanting to see more. It had to be around here somewhere. I wanted to know how much of the rest of it had been eaten, where and when and how.

I looked pretty hard, even as night was flooding in, pooling around my ankles. But I couldn’t find it. Had they hung it in a tree like leopards do in Africa? Was it cached, also in the trail, farther ahead, so that I would stumble over it in the darkness? Finally, still certain that the lions were somewhere nearby, watching me, I switched on my weak little headlamp and plunged straight down the mountain, heading for the well-worn footpath below, where the other lion, the young solo male, had been so careful, earlier that week, to place his paw prints precisely in my boot prints, and going in the opposite direction, so that I would have to walk past where he had already gone, and where he might be yet.

I got out fine.

I don't know why they left that head in my boot prints. There’s so much I don’t know. How wonderful to get to see it, sometimes—all the things you don’t know, will never know, and all of it so gorgeous, so terrifying.