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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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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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.