Running with a mountain lion

Eastern folks like me have no choice but to acknowledge that the West has cornered the market on outdoor sports.  We’re known for enduring longer-than-average commutes to our urban-centered jobs, while they’re known for their above-average fitness, trans-rocky bike races, daredevil alpine athletes, and the ability to run 50-miles in a single day.  And the West is still wild, forcing Western-state athletes to contend with terrain that simply does not exist back East, as well as with predators that have long ago vacated our wilderness-turned-suburban-backyards.  All of this make East Coasters like me seem a little soft. Never mind that Vermont is filled with ultra marathon types and Olympic skiers, or that upstate New York is home to more than a few difficult trail races, including the Escarpment Run and the Whiteface Sky Race.  Nevertheless, our brand is a bit softer than theirs.  After all, when I run on the trail that cuts through my town, my primary concern is to avoid bikes and the elderly. The only animals I see are deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and friendly dogs. Occasionally I see a coyote. Whatever.  I don’t worry about being eaten, hunted, bitten, or stranded without help.  When we’re outside on the East Coast, we’re still at the top of the food chain.

But this changed for a little while during June of 2011.

I was at work, killing time on Twitter, when I noticed an article posted by @lohud reporting an alleged mountain lion sighting in nearby Greenwich, Connecticut, the well-appointed haven of people who have more money than most nations.  When you drive around Greenwich, you don’t see BMWs and Audis, you see Bentleys and Aston Martins.  It’s crazy posh, and while it has its fair share of cougars (if you know what I mean),  actual mountain lions don’t live there. The citizens of Greenwich occasionally claim to see mountain lions from time to time, but many of them spend more time on private jets than in the woods, so these sighting have always turned out to be coyote or bobcat.  This time, however, it was the real deal.

Greenwich mountain lion spotted (ABC 7/DEP)

I  was training for a marathon at the time of this news, so I was spending a lot of time running on the local trails, and generally found myself between 20 and 30 miles from Greenwich, well within what Google told me was the daily travel range of a mountain lion. That made me a little nervous, because the next thing I learned was that they are  the world’s fourth largest cat, about 8 feet long and weighing around 140 pounds; mostly muscle, claws, and teeth. I obviously was not about to stop training.  I had to run, and I figured there was a very small but real chance that I could see this guy while I was out there. I found this thrilling and terrifying.  I became obsessed with the story and read everything the Internet would report.   Not one to go down without a good fight, I also read about what to do if I saw him.  Most counter-mountain-lion tactics amount to being big and loud, not crouching, and staying on your feet if he attacks, because if a mountain lion attacks it means you’re on the menu.

Needless to say, my runs had a new feel to them.  My eyes darted deeper into the woods.  My ears registered and analyzed more sounds.  Sinister shadows prowled around the corners of my eyes.  My wife was training with me and she didn’t seem phased at all, but when we ran I made sure we stayed close to one another (mountain lions are less likely to attack a group), and I scanned the ground for sticks and rocks I could use as a weapon, although I couldn’t quite figure out how to pick them up with out bending over or crouching – a death sentence when facing down a mountain lion.  I read stories of runners and mountain bikers out west who had survived encounters, and I read about some who didn’t.  I watched footage of mountain lions on YouTube, and imagined myself trying to fend off an apex predator.  These imagined scenarios often ended with me being dragged into the woods, head-in-mouth.

Still, despite my nervous preparation, I was developing a fondness for this visitor.  Where did he come from?  With the nearest established populations in Florida and Missouri, the authorities thought he was likely an escaped pet, although the authorities insisted all pets were accounted for.  Some insisted this was proof of a local population of mountain lions in Connecticut (no evidence suggests this).  Wherever he was from, he was not home. I started to feel sad for him. I worried about him at night. Did he know where the deer were? We have a lot of deer, but you’ve gotta know where to look. Was he hungry? Thirsty? Lost? I was no longer bothered by my demotion on the food chain, and my runs felt peaceful again.  I wondered about this mountain lion instead of looking out for him.  I hoped he was okay.

I almost cried when I read about his death; hit by a car on a highway in Milford, CT. We never met, but I had come to like him. I liked that something so wild could infiltrate the East. I liked that he was the king in a part of our country where everyone fancies themselves to be just that.  He represented the power and unpredictability of nature in an area that had long ago been tamed by money and modern society.  Mountain lions used to roam the United States, but the urbanization and sprawl of the East Coast drove them away.  Were they staging a comeback? Was this the first one sent to reclaim the wilds of the East?

An investigation by the Connecticut DEEP revealed that this mountain lion was not an escaped pet.  Neither was he from Missouri or Florida. This cat was not from nearby, but traveled from the Black Hills of South Dakota, more than 1,500 miles away.  A wild, western mountain lion took the trip of a lifetime; the trip of his lifetime. His journey was reported to be more than twice as long as any other of his species had undertaken, and he gave me a taste of how it feels to be vulnerable outside.  I was prepared to rely on my cunning and intelligence had I met this lion one day in the woods.  I would have no walls or weapons to protect me, only my instinct for survival, and this made me feel not only less soft as an East coaster, but more legitimate as a human being.

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