To escape the crowds and noise on Independence Day this year, I headed up to Mt. Spokane State Park that evening. I picked up two burritos at Atilanos on the way up—one for me and one for my dog, Grouper. At the trailhead just above the ranger station, I loaded Grouper’s pack with his carne asada burrito (no onions please) and water, and off we went. The trail climbs and winds through forest, bear grass, and huckleberries all the way to the summit. In the fading light the friendly ranger said he was closing the gate and bid me a happy 4th. Just like that Grouper and I had the whole place to ourselves.
As the sky darkened, the flashes of fireworks became more visible across the horizon. We could make out the lakes, particularly Coeur d’Alene, as dark patches surrounded by brilliant flashes. We enjoyed our burritos (still warm) and beer (still cold) in the chilling wind and watched the last light disappear in the western sky. Bundled up and refueled, it was time for the descent.
The bright headlight mounted on my handlebars showed us the trail entrance from the summit parking lot, and down we went. Swoopy, fast single track through the alpine by headlight is a completely different experience than during daylight. Your field of vision narrows, and your focus follows suit. In straight sections the light floods the sides of the trail and you can take in the whole scene, but around corners is a different story. Just like driving a car on sharp corners you are committed to the turn before your headlight can fully illuminate the terrain. A blind curve. It was at one of these corners where my ride got interesting.
Only 10 minutes in to our descent, Grouper and I were flowing down the trail into a sharp left turn. My eyes were glued to the light in front of my bike. I turned past the beam of light, whipped around the berm and, as my light caught up to shine in front, it illuminated a large, airborne mountain lion. No more than 5 feet squarely in front of me was a big cat, jumping from my left to right, over the trail. A stump on the right side obscured its head, but there was no mistaking the burly front shoulder, white underbelly, and muscular thigh outstretched, having just launched itself downhill. The tail of the mountain lion was remarkable. It was thick and a beautiful amber color with a dark tip that seemed quite distant from the creature’s rump.
It had left my field of vision by the time I came to a stop, and the first thing I did was grab ahold of Grouper and quickly leash him up. I put my bike up on my shoulder, screamed like a crazy person, and scanned back and forth with my light into the woods. Nothing to be seen.
After a few minutes of lung-emptying banshee screams, I took some deep breaths to calm myself and started walking down the trail. With my bike shouldered and Grouper on a short leash, we made slow and uneasy progress. A series of switchbacks cut directly below the path the cat likely took, and we still had 6 miles and about 2,000 feet of descent to the car. Also going through my head was the recent account from the west side of two mountain bikers attacked by a cougar—one fatally. I thought about what my best bet would be if the cougar came back on the offensive. Do I go for the eyes? Swing my bike at it? Choke it? I didn’t like my options.
I walked for about a mile with my bike held high to get past the switchbacks and then began pedaling with Grouper still on leash. Finally, where the trail changes aspect on the mountain, I let him off and we made haste down the trail, hollering all the while. The strong winds swayed the trees, and I jumped at the occasional creaking of the timber under stress, convinced it was the cat.
We made it back to the car after 11 p.m., and I felt a relief like I hadn’t experienced before. After living and recreating in Alaska for years, I had become accustomed to encounters with large-toothed mammals. Brown bears while hiking and sea lions while diving were commonplace; however, this experience, here on our local ski hill, tapped into a rawness that was equally frightening and refreshing. I have a restored appreciation for our wild lands so close to town. We are lucky people to be sharing these woods with such amazing creatures. // (Henry Hagood)
Henry Hagood is a lover of all things outdoors, including backcountry burritos. This is his first article for Out There.
[Feature photo: 4th of July sky from the summit of Mount Spokane. // Henry Hagood]