September 23, 2010
An upland hunt delivers more than expected.
Now my eyes were locked on a crouching cougar on the opposite hill as I reloaded my 20 gauge with the biggest shot size I had with me — copper-coated number sixes. These weren't quite the slugs I was to have carried. Right then I felt under-gunned and pretty dumb for not following through on my intuition.
Readying my gun, I yelled at the cat but he was unimpressed. He just glared from the other side of the draw, crouched and ready to pounce. As a last resort I decided to fire a warning shot.
Before that point in the day my attitude had been one of relaxed contentment. I was hunting late-season Huns and quail with my German shorthaired pointer, Ruger. The eastern Oregon wind was blowing up the faces of the hills that reached out of the river gorge. Ruger and I hunted the high flats for Huns and they were holding nicely.
Ruger was at the top of his game and could be counted on to range wide and hold his points until I showed up to take pictures and shoot. Ruger's first point came quickly — he was a liver and white speck on the horizon holding his head high. Thirty yards beyond him I put four Huns up and one down.
Covey number two was similar. Walking to Ruger I admired his staunch point and snapped photos. This time 10 Huns went up and two were retrieved. As I took time to water Ruger, I took it all in — open country, gentle breeze, and a pointing dog doing his thing.
Coveys three and four limited us out, so we went looking for quail. A few hundred yards over a saddle and down the steep hill was the quail draw we had worked two weeks before.
The moment I could see over the saddle my eyes were naturally drawn to a small patch of gold color on the far hill. That color did not belong there, so my eyes fixed on it as I continued.
The voice in the back of my mind whispered "cougar." Then I thought, "No, cougars are so stealthy people don't see them — that must be a rock or a deer bedded down in the sun." The color patch stayed put as I walked straight toward it.
The big cat was still and crouching as if getting ready to pounce.
As I got closer I expected the object to run away as most wild things do. I strained my eyes to make out a deer head as I started my way down my side of the canyon. Between us now was the steep decline and the precipitous drop into the thicket-choked drainage. Whatever it was, the gold spot was positioned on the opposite side of the draw just above the quail thicket.
At 70 yards I could see that the head was round, not angular like that of a deer. The ears were round too. Cougar. No doubt about it. I started snapping photos and called my dog. The big cat was still and crouched to pounce as he had been the entire time I had seen him. I reasoned that he was not stalking me, for I had walked hundreds of yards straight at him.
He seemed to be looking down into the canyon. An adrenaline surge slammed my heart. Maybe he was looking at me? I couldn't take my eyes off him. I took pictures and inched forward. From what I had read, cougars were reclusive animals that shunned human contact. Hoping to catch some footage of him moving, I hollered, but he stayed put.
At 60 yards it hit me. He knew I was there and he was not running. If he were going to leave he would have already done so. My heart pounded harder as I realized he could be on me in seconds. I should be the one leaving. Unfortunately my hillside was steep and covered with snow because it faced north.
I could risk resembling fleeing prey by turning away, or I could risk falling by backing up the slippery slope. Falling, I reasoned, would be catastrophic. My plan was to take a few steps, pivot to cover myself, take three more steps, and so on.
It was time to go, but first a warning shot. The shotgun blast sent Ruger lunging forward, looking for a falling bird to retrieve. "HEEL!" I yelled. The cougar gave my warning shot as much attention as my shouting — he never moved a muscle.
Glaring at me was something big enough to eat me and I was about to turn my back. Fear gripped me as I turned. After the third step I spun around. What I saw then surprised me more than the sight of the cougar in the first place and more than the fact that he had never run away.
A second cougar bounded down the hill toward me roughly 50 yards laterally from the first. This sight of the second cat brought a moment of admiration as I saw it stream down the steep incline, its long tail giving balance. He was smooth and graceful as he glided down his side of the canyon. Cougars are beautiful creatures in magazines, on television, and at the zoo.
Ruger was at the top of his game that morning, ranging widely and holding his points well.
Up close in the wild they are all of those things too, but the experience is much different. My awe soon turned back into fear. These big cats were unafraid of my dog or me and quite capable of making us their lunch. Now there were two cougars — two that I knew of. I had been so fixated on the novel sight of the first cougar that I had closed off the rest of the world. How many more were there?
The running cat veered slightly away before disappearing into the crevice. Maybe they had a deer cornered in the crevice the entire time? The original cougar remained couched. Where had the second one gone? I turned, took three more steps and turned back around. Now I had a new problem--not only did I need to turn my back on the cat I could see; I had to make my way through head-high sagebrush without getting ambushed.
Despite the proximity of Ruger and the author, the cougar remained crouching on the opposite hillside.
Three steps, turn, check the crouching cat, repeat. I made my way through the sage as quickly as I could without appearing to run
, and 30 minutes later Ruger--who had remained at heel, fortunately--and I were back at the truck.
I have been in such a situation and my preference is that these reclusive creatures revert to being reclusive. During my "incident," I was first impressed and then unnerved by the sight of a cougar. But even that paled in comparison to how I felt when I saw the second cat bounding toward me — the cougar I'd never suspected was anywhere around.