September 2, 2012

Stealthy predator makes hike along Salmon River one to remember

The sound of a snapping twig alerted me to movement along Devil's Peak's forested slopes, with the Salmon River below. I spun around and peered through the darkness of the deep forest in early morning, focusing on two deer nervously wading through the fern laden forest floor. It was as if Mother Nature had snapped her fingers, directing my attention toward the jittery does and away from the grisly matters playing out in the small canyon below.

After studying the two deer for a few moments, I turned and began my descent into the canyon. Here, in the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, tree sized branches extend from the trunks of giant old growth Douglas fir, blocking what little light the morning sun projects. Even on dry days, dampness survives in the lush forest, nourishing monstrous sword ferns and thick salal carpeting the forest floor. As I neared the canyon's swollen stream, its sound echoed off the canyon's walls, replacing the forest's hush.

The creek had swallowed up any stones from which a dry crossing could be made. After a short bushwhack upstream and tiptoe across the creek on some favorably placed boulders, I waded through knee deep vegetation back down toward the trail. That is when something curious caught my attention and stopped me in my tracks. Patches of deer hair were strewn about the trail.        

Deer hair, for whatever reason, is common along Cascade Mountain trails. Every now and then I've come across these hairs in the excrement of a predator whose digestive system fails to break it down. Fortunately, you don't have to look very hard to often see white bone fragments in the mixture - testimony to some predators' ravenous dining habits. But there was something different about these rather large clumps of hair scattered along the trail. The hairs were fresh, not as if they had been processed through an animal's body. In addition, the humus covered trail had been torn and raised as if someone had taken a rake to it. I bent down for a closer look, unaware of the eyes watching me closely.

Suddenly, a commotion from the nearby vegetation grabbed my attention.

My eyes quickly rose from the trail and latched onto a dark object streaking across the canyon wall. The critter didn't bother bounding over vegetation. Instead, it tore through it, obviously trying to put as much distance between it and myself as possible. Within a few seconds it had found a tree trunk to hide behind. In less time than it took for me to catch my breath, the animal sprang from behind the trunk and ran up the slope, where it disappeared over the canyon's lip.

"Was it a small black bear," I asked myself. "No," I answered. Its movements were too quick. It moved more like a cat. Was it a bobcat or lynx?

As I retraced the route from the canyon's rim down to where the animal had burst from the brush, I recalled the deer hide strewn along the trail at my feet. It was then, as I looked toward the trail, that the serenity I had come to expect from the outdoors was supplanted by nature's harsh reality. Only my eyes could move, as I began to study a dead deer lying near the trail.
This ravaged carcass, with empty eyes staring out across the creek, belonged to a young doe. From its arched spine hung ribs picked clean of all flesh. Meat had been torn from its front haunches while its hindquarters appeared untouched. White streaks crisscrossed the head where the voracious killer's teeth had raked the deer's hide away, exposing the skull. 

The conflict in this deer's struggle for survival seemed clear. Sometime at night or early morning (the kill was very fresh), the deer stepped along the trail and into the canyon. It had most likely been browsing the forest floor for food during the early hours of the morning and became thirsty. Somewhere along its route, the killer chose it from the menu.

As the deer stood along the stream bank, unable to hear any movement over the stream's roar, its stalker crouched low within the canyon's vegetation. A great weight then crashed upon the deer's back. Chunks of hide were ripped from the deer while the killer struggled to grasp its prey. It was quite a battle judging by the ravaged forest floor in the vicinity of the fallen deer. The killers jaws likely found the deer's neck, effectively ending the struggle. 

I was probably spotted by the predator while standing along the canyon's rim, watching the two deer I had passed just moments earlier. Feeling uneasy, the animal then sprang from its banquet and hid in the brush only a few feet away from the trail. My encroachment on the meal then forced it to flee. All the clues led to one predator - a cougar.

But more questions still lingered. Was the cat I saw large enough to take down that deer?  Was it mature enough to hunt for itself ? Could such a small cat devour so much in one morning?

I had a long hike left - three more miles to my destination with a 9 mile return trip. I figured the answers to all my questions could be found at the library, so I started up the trail once again. As my legs propelled me up the sloping canyon wall, I devised a plan whereby I would quietly approach the canyon upon my return trip. I could then perhaps watch the cougar devour its meal if it was to return. 

As I neared the canyon rim and my vision extended out into the level forest above, all the questions I had asked within the canyon were suddenly answered. No more than 50 feet away, two eyes, alive and piercing, looked right through me. They were the eyes of a large adult cougar. She quickly crouched into a stalking position, her belly touching the forest floor.

Her blood-stained mouth indicated I had intercepted her as she was returning to her kill. Perhaps she thought I had left the scene and that it was safe to return. Or maybe she was instinctively returning to her cub left behind. Either way, I was the intruder. The only question left was what she would do about it. There I was, standing between her and her meal.

A rush of adrenaline naturally shot through me and my fight or flight mechanism kicked in. I knew I would put myself at risk of being caught from behind if I ran. I knew that, from reading about cougars, my best option was to fight back if it did decide to attack.

Suddenly, the cougar sprang. Her body stretched taut over the earth, muscles rippling while hurdling through the crisp mountain air. The last thing I saw was her tufted tail as she disappeared into the forest.

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