Through all my hiking and backpacking, the only wild animals I’d previously encountered have been little scavengers sneaking into camp looking for scraps. This was my first time coming across a large predator in the wild, and it was nothing short of terrifying.
Dan and I had set our sights on Kings Peak in the Uintas, Utah’s highest point, and our schedule meant that we would have to hike in Thursday night after work. With a three-hour drive from Salt Lake, we were starting off on the trailhead around sunset, and by the time we got close to our intended campsite, it was fully dark.
Generally, I like hiking at night – it’s cooler, it’s quieter, there’s hardly ever anyone else on the trail. But this little adventure is making me seriously reconsider.
Our first clue that we might not be alone out there was a dead animal just off of the trail, about a mile from Dollar Lake. Pretty much all that was left was the fur and a few bones, and we speculated that it was a marmot. Whatever it was, it hadn’t been there too long, and something had obviously eaten it.
Once we reached Dollar Lake, we veered off the trail and made our way through a thick pine forest, looking for a good spot to camp.
It was then, in this dark, creepy forest, that Dan stopped ahead of me and said, “There’s something watching us.”
I followed his gaze, and sure enough, about 50′ ahead of us, there were two extremely bright, glowing eyes staring right at us. We stood there, in a staring contest with some mystery creature, and quietly debated. Should we turn back? Should we keep going past it? Should we veer away back toward the trail? Should we run or back away? Should we shout at it and try and scare it off? Whatever it was, it was large, at least human-sized, and we both could just barely glimpse the outline of a rounded head and rounded ears.
It stared at us, dead still, for so long that we started to think it might not be an animal at all. Maybe some reflective material someone had left stuck to a tree, or some other illusion that just happened to look like eyes. Slowly, we started walking forward, giving it a wide berth, and after a few minutes, just as we had started to think there was no way it could be an animal because it hadn’t so much as blinked in at least 5 minutes, it turned and silently disappeared back into the brush.
We kept moving, deciding the best thing to do was put as much distance between us and the creature as we could. About a quarter mile further around the lake, we had calmed down a little bit and were walking up and down the sloped forest ground looking for a level campsite, when I caught a reflection in my headlamp.
“Um….babe? It’s back.”
Those same two bright eyes, ahead of us again, stared at us unflinchingly.
Dan slowly made his way over to me. We made an immediate executive decision that the ideal place to set up camp was anywhere far away from that thing, and that the sooner we got the tent up the better. Maybe it was just a false sense of comfort, but we both felt a predator would be really unlikely to bother a large, bright yellow tent.
We made our way back up the slope, putting as much distance between ourselves and the creature as our exhausted legs would allow. We finally found a reasonably flat spot to camp. As I set up the tent, Dan stood guard with a hiking pole and a knife.
“I bet this is what the Zombie Apocalype would feel like,” I speculated.
Even though we hadn’t had dinner, neither of us had much appetite for the ramen we’d planned on making once we got into camp. We hiked up the hill together to find a spot to hang up our food bag, this time with me standing guard, swinging a hiking pole around and pretending I was a Jedi.
We weren’t exactly sure what it was, but narrowed it down to a bear, a pack of coyotes, or a mountain lion. If it was a bear, we figured we would have heard it crashing through the forest as it moved, since bears don’t have a reputation for being the quietest creatures. If it was a pack of coyotes, we almost certainly would have heard them howling at some point, since coyotes are very vocal. We also think a coyote wouldn’t have moved as silently and smoothly as this thing did. Even though we only saw its eyes and a faint outline, we both got a distinct cat-like impression from the way it moved. Which meant it could only be one thing: a freaking mountain lion, following us around the lake.
We settled in for a somewhat restless night, slowly slipping downhill and wondering if we would be eaten in our sleep.
While we never found out definitively what the creature was, we both agreed that based on its behavior, its size, the dead animal, and the total silence when it moved, the most likely explanation was that we were being stalked by a mountain lion. The fact that less than a week earlier, a hunter had been attacked by a mountain lion in the Uintas made it even more plausible.