My “Almost” Lion Encounter

*First off I’d like to start by saying if someone would like to prove me wrong and tell me this is a paw print from an extraordinarily large dog, please do so! Otherwise, after comparing to many pictures online, and from the sheer size of it in person, I’m going to go with what I know and say it’s a mountain lion print.

Today I decided I wanted to take Bella on a nice long hike. It was another beautiful day here in Denver, not to mention I’m going up in to the mountains this weekend for Winter Wondergrass, and unfortunately Bella cannot join. So, I wanted to get her outside and have a nice fun filled day before the weekend. I had been wanting to check out the Beaver Creek Trail out of Genesee Park, so without much thought we jumped on 70 and headed west.

To give you an idea of where my head was at, a few days ago, Bella and I did a quick hike up in Golden, to the top of Lookout Mountain. I ran into a couple guys before we started the trail who had been hiking up from the lower Chimney Gulch trail. They stopped me and asked if I knew about the mountain lion advisory as there were several signs posted in the gulch about a recent sighting in the area. I replied, “Nooo… but running in to a mountain lion is a big fear of mine.” We talked for a minute and decided we would all kind of shadow each other on the trail, just in case. The walk was uneventful and Bella and I climbed down by ourselves after I was fairly certain there was enough foot traffic and actual road traffic sounds to keep any animal from wanting to make its presence known to a human. A few days later we hiked up in Pike National Forest, the story of which I’ll save for another post, but here I came across a rather large paw print. If you’ve ever seen my dog’s paws in person, you will know she has rather large ones. So, for her paw print to look “tiny” is saying something. I didn’t have cell service at the time and was unable to look up what a mountain lion paw print looks like, so we just rerouted our hike to a more open and populated area. Later, when  I got home I looked up all the details on identifying mountain lion tracks and signs that they could be in your area.

Any way, needless to say I had already had mountain lions on the brain, so when I saw the sign at the start of the trail saying that the trail was in a known mountain lion area- pretty much every trail has a sign that says watch out for lions but this one was a little more specific- and to leave the pet at home- even though pets are allowed on the trail- made me very uneasy. Here I was again out all by myself, which is what every tip on hiking in lion country says not to do. From where I had parked, it was a .4 mile walk to the start of the trail head…I think I walked maybe half a mile in to the actual trail before my anxiety and nerves got the best of me.  I paused for a bit, made a phone call to a friend complaining that I didn’t know if I was psyching myself out or what, but ultimately decided I wasn’t going to have fun no matter what at this point, so I might as well just go back. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to hike a strenuous up hill climb, you better be having a damn good time. Oh and the fact that a few minutes before we turned around, Bella wouldn’t stop staring in to this one section of the trees and growling. I couldn’t shake the anxiousness, so I stayed on the phone with my friend, checking behind me and around me as we walked out of the woods, until we got to the open dirt road area. I thought alright we’re good, we just have under half a mile to the car. Bella brought me a giant stick, we played fetch for a minute and started up the road. No sooner had we walked 20 yards from where we were playing, we came to this iced over section of the road. I veered over to the left side where I had came down 30 minutes earlier and saw a massive, what I’m assuming was a deer leg, that had been completely stripped to the bone. That was not comforting. About another 20 yards later were the paw prints. They were probably 3-4 times bigger than Bella’s and perfectly matched the descriptions and pictures of tracks I had read about earlier in the week. I wish I had snapped a picture of Bella’s paw print next to these prints, but I was in a hurry at that point to get to the car as quickly as possible. The bone, nor the prints had been there before, of that I’m mostly certain. I typically walk with my eyes on the ground; it’s a habit from looking for snakes back in Florida when I’m out hiking. I noticed both immediately, so I’m 98% sure I would have not missed them the first time around. Bella also came running over to inspect the bone before I reached it, so I doubt she had missed it the first time around either.

After I had reached the safety of my car, I thought it would have been really cool to actually see the lion. Although, for human safety, I know it’s a good thing it never made itself visible to me, as long as it wasn’t stalking me that is. I don’t know too much about mountain lions, the only ones I’ve worked with were pretty lazy and docile. They would hang out in their dens and generally keep to themselves, unlike the other big cats who would stalk the sides of their enclosures when someone walked by. Mountain lions are also the biggest feline that can still pur, which is a pretty cool thing to witness. However, out here in the mountains and from stories my family in Canada have told me, they definitely take on a much more menacing vibe. I definitely do not want to ever have an issue with one of these powerful creatures. So for now, I’ll try to remain comforted by the fact that this lion kept hidden and seemed to want nothing to do with Bella nor myself, and that my encounter remained an “almost.”

 

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In another track I found, you could see the 3 lobes at the bottom of the paw pad, like in the drawing above. However, I was not concerned about picture quality at the time I took this. If you do look closely you can kind of see where the ridges of each lobe are. One toe is supposed to be slightly longer than the others (like a middle finger for us), but I think the deep mud kind of distorts that aspect of the track. I think the mud may also be why you can kind of see claw marks in front of the toes.

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These tracks made Bella’s big ole paws look tiny in comparison.

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Camping and Car Accidents

My drive from Colorado to Florida was much less eventful than my trip back to Colorado. After a pit stop in New Orleans (and an unfortunate missed turn that had me stuck behind a celebratory and rambunctious crowd of Mardi Gras parade watchers) to see a couple friends, I headed out to Texas. My goal was 13 hours away, Palo Duro Canyon State Park. I wasn’t going to get there until about 11:00 pm, another late night arrival to a campsite I had never been to before.

I called ahead to reserve a campsite and the park ranger gave me the gate code so I could get into the park later that night. That day of driving was miserably long, but thank god for podcasts. I started listening to True Murder…why I do these things to myself, I have no idea. Of course the first and second episodes had cases that took place in Texas. By the time I arrived it was frigid outside, an icy 23 degrees. I was decently prepared for cold weather, having packed my sleeping bag, a fleece blanket, and a down comforter when I had originally left Colorado. Blankets and pillows are a must have for me when on a long road trip. Bella also has a really comfy dog bed which I had layered on the back seat for extra sleeping comfort. After a few trials, I am starting to get the hang of making a decent sleeping spread in the back seat of my car; although I’m still hoping for an SUV asap.

My campsite was 5 miles from the entrance of the park, where an electric gate opened up after I punched in the correct code. There was not a cloud in the sky or any light pollution from the city of Amarillo. The stars were breath taking as the crisp air seemed to make them appear even brighter. We saw several mule deer fawns running across the steeper sections of the canyon roads. It was eerily dark around my campsite and I was the only one camping out there. The first spot that I pulled up to seemed like a nice spot to stop. That is until I got out and something screeched at me from the bushes. Yeahhh that wasn’t going to work. I drove a little bit farther down the road, found a suitable site with no screeching critters, and prepared for our wintry night in the car. Under the safety of my blankets and with Bella lying right next to me, I slept fine despite the below freezing temperatures. We awoke to frost across all the windows, and a still cloud free, beautiful, blue sky.

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I drove up to the visitors center to acquire a park map so we could do some hiking before heading back to Denver. The guy behind the counter was friendly and we had a great conversation before I hit the trails. I wanted to see the popular “Light House,” so that’s the trail we hiked. It was 6 miles through the bottom of the canyon up to this beautiful stone pillar. Bella was having a blast and making lots of friends, they were shocked to see her climbing some of the rocks along the trail. I chuckled to myself and explained that this was fairly mild compared to what she’s used to doing back in Colorado. By this time it had warmed up to a very nice 55 degrees and there were a lot of people showing up as we headed back towards the start of the trail. I was impressed with the amount of younger people who were there. I like seeing young kids and teens out exploring and enjoying nature.

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On our way out of town, I was going to make a pit stop at Cadillac Ranch. However, I never made it over due to the large truck that came crashing into the side of my car. It was a very minor accident, although the right side of my car will need to replaced and I cannot currently open my front passenger door. The police took 2 hours to get to us, pushing my arrival time in Denver to 10:00 pm, which was midnight back home in Florida. I was exhausted and hungry and couldn’t wait to get to my bed. We did make finally, the third installment, the absolute saddest story I’ve heard in a while, of the True Murder podcasts, kept me awake for the end of the drive.

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My First 14er

I decided I had to hike my first Colorado “fourteener.” It was something that was very personal for me, and I figured I had done enough steep incline hikes that my body could handle the physical challenge.

That morning, Bella and I woke up early so we could get to Mt. Bierdstadt in time to complete the hike before the afternoon storms rolled in. The drive up Guanella Pass was beautiful and I was shocked to see there was snow covering the entire area of the mountain! It was so warm and sunny when I had left Denver. At the start of the hike it was 30 degrees and I couldn’t believe there were people in shorts doing the hike. However, about an hour into it, I had gotten so hot, I was wishing I had a tee shirt to layer down to.

Everyone on the trail was so friendly and always stopped to ask about Bella and how she was handling the hike. I laughed each time and responded, “A whole heck of a lot better than I am!” It was hard. A lot harder than I expected. I have been uber sensitive to altitude my entire life but still managed to underestimate its effects on me at 13,000+ feet. I was also worried about the storms that were supposed to hit in the early afternoon. I had read plenty about how weather at high altitudes comes in quick and about how several people had been struck by lightning at Bierdstadt a few months ago. I thought very seriously about turning around and how no one would know because I was by myself. The problem was, I would know.

So I sat down and snacked on a Clif bar and some apple slices to regain some energy. A fellow hiker, who had already passed me once, was on his way back down and assured me I had plenty of time to make it to the top and back down. So I got up and put one foot in front of the other. Bella and I made it to the rocky summit a little bit later. I had to help lift her over ice and snow covered rocks. It was a great experience in trust for the both of us. At the top, I popped opened a beer, which proceeded to explode everywhere, in celebration. I was so proud of myself and so excited of what I had just accomplished. Not many people can lay claims to an achievement such that.

People have a tendency to quit things when they’re by themselves or on their own. There’s no one there to motivate them or push them to accomplish their goals. On my way down the mountain I had a revelation of sorts. This move of mine across the country had taught me how to persevere through hard times and to be confident in my abilities to fend for myself. I truly believe everyone should do something that scares them at least once in their life, completely on their own. It doesn’t count if you do it with another person, because you will always have that crutch, that safety net of having someone you know by your side. Do something by yourself and make it challenging. Travel somewhere far on your own, move somewhere new, hike a scary mountain by yourself, start a new hobby or take a fun class on your own. If it makes you nervous or scared, that’s a good thing! You will discover so much about yourself when it is only you that you can rely on.

That day, I hiked a 14,000 ft mountain by myself in a state where I knew next to nobody. I struggled with my thoughts, telling me I might not make it, but I did. I trekked straight up that mountain side, through a foot of melting snow, crawled over frozen rocks, lifted my 90lb dog up some of those icy rocks, and even fell flat on my back on that slushy, muddy trail. And I cried. I cried and I laughed and it was amazing.

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Royal Arch Trail

Exhausted. That’s the only word that could possibly describe my mental and physical state going into this hike. It was a beautiful day and I was determined to stick to my goal of exploring different hikes on my off days from work. So, Bella and I began a very slow incline through Chautauqua Park. I’m not sure why I was so worn out, but I had to stop every couple stair style steps up and catch my breath. I was pretty frustrated but figured I had all day so I might as well take my time and enjoy the beautiful sights. The trail winded through many pine trees and up through red colored rocky formations. Towards the end, a section of the trail got to where you were really having to climb over some steep slabs of rock and Bella got a little nervous. It’s a beautiful thing, the relationship you develop during activities which require you to put your trust in an another living being. She was able to allow me to help her down and push her up some undoubtedly scary looking rocks.

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The views from the top of the trail were well worth the hike up and the frustration that came from being so tired. I could see all of Denver and Boulder, and the arch itself was something impressive to look at. As I was scanning the rocks for somewhere to relax for snack time, I noticed a small notebook was tucked into one of the crevices. It was beautiful. Someone had left behind a journal for hikers to write in as they so pleased. There was one story I found that really touched my heart.

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It was simple but inspiring. I had just moved across the country myself, something that I had always wanted to do, but had just now found the courage to do. It was so scary, yet here I was a couple weeks later, confident that it truly was the best decision I had ever made. I don’t know the person who wrote this journal entry, but I want to thank you. Your simple story made me smile and feel like I was definitely in the right place at the right time. So, I entered my own short inscription and put the journal away for another hiker to enjoy.

I broke out several different snacks for Bella and I.  I am a big advocate for dog snacks on trails, because if I get hungry, I know she’s hungry, especially since she does at least twice the amount of running around that I do. It wasn’t long before we were joined by two chipmunk friends. I couldn’t believe how unafraid they were! Bella just sat watching them run around and I offered them pieces of my snacks. I’m sure there’s something to be said for not feeding the wildlife, but they were so cute and cheeky I couldn’t resist. A fellow hiker took an awesome photo of my interaction with the chipmunk that he so kindly emailed me later.

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I gathered our things and we descended back down to Boulder to meet up with a visiting friend from Gainesville. It was a great hike and great day and I would definitely do this hike again, especially with friends or family from out of town. It is challenging, but it’s a wonderful spot to quickly get away and view the city from a distance.

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St. Mary’s Glacier

My first “weekend” (my weekend days are Wednesday and Thursday) in Denver made me fall in love. After hiking the decently challenging Chimney Gulch trail, a friend of mine, who had moved here a month before me, and I went to St. Mary’s Glacier. Both hikes were so close to my house, and so easy to get to. It took about 40 minutes to get to St. Mary’s and the drive itself was beautiful. That’s something I’ve learned about Colorado, any trip into the mountains doesn’t feel like it’s actually taking very long, because the views are incredible. We were lucky to see the beginning of the Aspens changing colors as my little car chugged along the steep incline to the roadside trail head. St. Mary’s has a 5 dollar usage fee, but you can also camp there if you so choose. My friend had brought her dog, Ruby, along for the day as well, so all four of us started up the rocky path to the main lake. The altitude had both of us humans feeling a little winded although the dogs seemed just fine. After a few stops, we made it to the lake and it was spectacular! The dogs sniffed around, running after sticks and each other for a few minutes before we ascended to get a closer look at the glacier. Both of our pups had never seen snow before so it was quite entertaining to see them playing in it. It’s as if someone had let them outside for the first time and said “Go crazy!” They chased each other around, pouncing and sliding through the snow with the biggest, goofiest grins on their faces. Since we were both a little tired and winded, we saved climbing to the very top for another day and ate a few snacks before heading back home. I definitely recommend St. Mary’s Glacier as a spot to take friends and family if they come in town to visit. The hike to the lake isn’t too bad and the altitude can be managed by  taking it slowly. The views are totally worth the trip.

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Chimney Gulch Trail

I loved hiking Chimney Gulch! It was a pretty challenging, steep incline to the Lookout Mountain (Windy Saddle) parking overlook. I was surprised by how hot it still was in mid-September. I think being from Florida made me assume everywhere else was freezing by this time and we were the only ones still suffering from the blazing heat. Bella and I had a great time on this trail and once we got to the top we further explored the trail to the right of the parking lot, which had great views of the city of Denver. On the way down I noticed a red convertible that had fallen a pretty long distance from the road above. We found a small trail to get up close and inspect the car a little more. It was awfully eerie, overgrown with weeds, with a tire several yards down the creek it was sitting above. All in all a fun, but busy trail. Thankfully, Bella is an extremely well behaved dog, so we had no issues moving out of the way of trail runners and bikers.

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Working with Animals and Hiking

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I got back into Denver from Wyoming just in time to start my new internship. I was (and currently am) interning in the polar bear and otter division, which is very exhausting, on your feet type of work. Animals are an incredible passion of mine, as is conservation of our planet, including all animals and our environment. Although I don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of zoo culture, learning about these animals, caring for them, and trying to educate the public about them and their precious habitats is something I wanted to gain experience with. Working with animals gives one an insight on how to connect with another being on a level that goes way below the surface of normal communication. These animals have very real personalities and feelings and ways of communicating those feelings with you if you pay attention. I have always found that when I’m working one on one with an animal, I am in a very meditative state. My mind is clear, I am in tune with my own breath and body and the vibes it is giving off… all so that I can be in tune with theirs. I had the opportunity to work with two bear cubs in Melrose, Florida at a wildlife sanctuary, called Single Vision. Being around those two rambunctious critters taught me a lot about myself and how to be patient, not to be fearful (which can be hard when a playful 40 pound bear cub is lunging at you with a mouthful of teeth), and to forget any personal issues I may have going on.

I find a similar state of mind when I’m out hiking. It’s such a peaceful time to reflect or forget. I get to be in tune with myself and my surroundings, responding to the environment to help me reach my goal. I always hike with Bella and there are times when I have to help her climb over rocks or jump down off of steep drops. This provides such a great bonding time for us, as we both must put our full trust in each other to keep moving forward. The point of this was to express how important being around animals and exploring nature are to me in my life. I feel so grateful to be in a place that allows me to combine both of these passions into aspects of my life.

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Garden of the Gods

My lovely mother joined me in my move from the East coast out West. We had a good time, listening to tons of old school jams and stopping in Atlanta and Missouri along the way. After we arrived in Denver, we got my room all set up and cozy at my new house and went to visit the popular Garden of the Gods, in Colorado Springs. It was a pretty warm day, making the park packed with visitors. So, we hiked a nice trail around the perimeter of the large red rocks and briefly walked through the main part to view the spectacular formations. While the garden is definitely fit for an assembly of the gods, I would recommend going on a weekday or time of day less frequented by tourists and visitors. Also, I would recommend that if you take your pup hiking here, that they should be comfortable in crowds, heat in the summer months, and that you keep an eye out for rattle snakes! Later, we drove back in to Denver and had a wonderful dinner and a couple beers at Highland Tap and Burger.

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FL>>CO

If anything can go well it will. On August 14, 2015 I found out I would be moving to Denver, Colorado approximately two weeks later for an internship with the Denver Zoo. That was two weeks to finish up work with my pet sitting company, find a place to live in Denver, move my home full of things from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, pack what I could fit in my little Mazda 3, and drive Bella, my 6 year old chocolate lab, and myself the 1,662 miles to our new home.

My excitement was undeniable. I had been needing a change and the mountains had been calling. Growing up, my family moved a lot. We had moved from Florida, to Iowa, to Tennessee, and back to Florida. After living in Tallahassee, FL for a number of years, I moved to Gainesville, where I got my degree in animal science from the University of Florida. I continued living in Gainesville after finding a post-grad job and moved to Jacksonville a couple years after that. While I will always consider Florida my home and location of some of my favorite people in the world, I had always missed living in the mountains of Tennessee. The mountains have a pull on my soul that is nearly indescribable There’s something so special about being lost in the tall, vastness of the forest and reaching the peak of a mountain after challenging yourself to make it there. I had only been to Colorado for skiing vacations in the past, but I had a feeling it was just what I needed.

So, I took to Craigslist and found a place to call home. It seemed like a good situation, pet friendly, month to month, fenced in back yard. Rent was decently cheap compared to the rest of Denver and the location was pretty ideal; in the middle of where I would be working and where the mountains were located. And the rest is history. I packed a few belongings in my car, bought an air mattress, and drove out west, not having the slightest clue what would happen when I got there.