Lycanthrope near Rattlesnake Flats
I usually avoid Montana De Oro for the simple reason that dogs are not allowed. Georgia is not only my side-kick, but my security blanket for those desolate and remote spots where I often roam. Not this time, I’d run her pretty hard over the weekend. It was Tuesday July 4th and the family and I decided to explore some less beaten MDO tracks.
Off we went to the far end of the park and started down the Rattlesnake Flats trails intending to make a loop through Coon Creek. Almost immediately we crested a rise and found ourselves very much alone. The trail was significantly more remote than most trails out here… and that’s a good thing! The coastal fog was burning away under the heat of the relentless sun. The jagged mist-shrouded peaks inspired an almost primal sense of awe and wonder.
We passed several long-abandoned camp sites and pushed deeper into the mountains. After thirty minutes of hiking we reached the spine of a ridgeline and the mostly overgrown trail beckoned us higher. Soon we crested a spectacular pass and began the descent into a deep gorge.
After dozens of slick and gravely switch backs we joined the slightly more populated Coon Creek trail and took a well-earned break at the intersection. This was the furthest point on the hike and we’d begin making our way back towards the car paralleling the stream. As we rested, a couple passed us with an amicable “hello!” and at a quick pace headed down Coon Creek in the same direction we were going vanishing into the tunnel of trees ahead. This particular trail was claustrophobic with vines, brambles and poison oak completely encasing us in a cocoon of greenery. The stream nearby gurgled loudly drowning out most sounds.
Disclaimer: I’m going to try to describe the events as they happened with no embellishment or hyperbole. Judge for yourself!
The three of us found ourselves once again alone on the trail, the other hikers long gone. The eerie twilight created by the dense canopy created an odd sense of unease. We found ourselves inadvertently whispering as if we were exploring an old cathedral. We had several miles to go to complete the loop back to the car past a landmark called, “Lion’s Den.” Every few minutes we crossed little wooden foot bridges that zig-zagged over the stream.
We came around a corner where the path straightened for about fifty yards vanishing again around another turn. Standing at the far end was the couple who had passed us fifteen minutes before. She was looking apprehensively back towards us while he stood just ahead of her peering intently down the trail away from us. She raised her index finger to her lips as she continued to glance furtively over her shoulder. I gave her a questioning thumbs up and mouthed, “you okay?” She waved her hands frantically and mouthed back, “NO!” So, being the heroic sort that I am (ok, so I’m going to use just a little embellishment and hyperbole, it’s my story!), I quietly ran over to them, my family right behind. As we approached I could see that she was visibly pallid and her hands were shaking. She was so clearly freaked out that my eleven year old was the first to whisper, “Are you guys okay? What happened?” She very quietly responded, “mountain lion on the trail just ahead of us.” The other hiker confirmed saying, “it just trotted around the corner on the path a second ago!” The undergrowth on either side of the trail was so thick as to be nearly impenetrable. I imagine that a 150 pound plus wild cat would have made quite a ruckus if it has tried to leave the path. I did my best to calm the group saying that we’d all just stick together and that as a group of five, no self-respecting mountain lion would want anything to do with us.
Since I’m no moron, I let the other guy go first and we proceeded as a group down the trail. (In retrospect, we should have made a ton of noise and done our best to scare the creature off, but I’m not sure any of us were thinking straight). As we crept ahead, I looked for tracks on the trail, but it was in a thick carpet of leaves and I couldn’t find anything. We tried to listen for sounds in the underbrush, but the creek made it hard to hear anything. Onward, single file, hands on shoulders. Remember Ridley Scott’s ‘Aliens?’ Yea, kind of like that except we were much less well armed! Blind corner after blind corner we quietly advanced, every second expecting to see the creature. …5 minutes …10 minutes nothing. We all began to relax. The lion must have left the trail and was probably long gone into the hills. We all awkwardly laughed, shook hands and they took off again. We took a moment, drank a little water and gathered our wits. It was at most one mile back to the car.
Several minutes later, it happened again! We nearly crashed into the couple on the trail as we came around a corner. The guy was pointing at prints on the ground clearly visible in the dust. They said that seconds before they had startled the mountain lion in the middle of the trail and it bolted ahead. Now, I’m no tracker, but I know what Georgia’s ninety pound footprints look like and these were MUCH bigger. Take-two! As a group we quietly crept ahead towards the turn in the trail. Five yards from the corner I nearly jumped out of my skin as a middle-aged lady came walking around the corner towards us! What? What? What?!! “Did you just see a mountain lion??!!” I almost shouted.
“What are you talking about,” she asked with a fairly thick European accent? She had wavy black hair, some kind of dress and very ornate beaded sandals. Hardly hiking attire and she was out here alone. We explained that a 150 pound cougar had just turned the corner towards her a moment before she came around it. She insisted that she’d seen nothing and was shocked that, “such a beast existed here in California.” She explained that she was on holiday touring the West Coast. She insisted that she walk back to the cars with us. We all agreed. As a group of six we slowly hiked the last half mile to the parking lot with no further excitement. Once we got into our car my boy sheepishly asked me what we were all thinking. “How was that possible? Is there such thing as a werelion?” *smirk*
Of course not…