Yesterday was my birthday and I took my traditional long hike. I love hiking and Virginia is one of the greatest locations for hikes in the United States. I decided to re-hike the Little Devil’s stairs, a demanding hike in the Shenandoah that starts with two miles of climbing up the side of beautiful waterfalls. The end of the hike however proved to be one of the more memorable conclusions to a hike in over 30 years of hiking. These are some of the pictures that I took, but it does not include the one picture that would have settled a debate over the long rumored mountain lion in the Shenandoah.
I had taken the blue trail and finished the arduous over eight mile hike when I took a wrong turn and ended up climbing another mountain. Near the top I came around the corner and came face to face with what I would swear was a mountain lion. I am used to seeing black bear and bobcats in the Shenandoah. This was a large tan cat that looked every inch a cougar. I backed away down the trail to give him space. Ten minutes later I returned and the cat returned. I slowly went back down again and stopped and listened. When I started to descend again, the cat was now behind me. I walked back up the mountain and stopped. I then saw the cat moving opposite me in the forest. It seemed to be circling. Unfortunately, my cellphone was almost dead (after dealing with some problems on the blog ironically). I was able to reach a ranger through Leslie at home who told me to remain still and that a ranger was being dispatched. I stood there contemplating the curiosity of being killed by a mountain lion — something that would make the standard Hallmark card condolences card rather difficult for family and friends.
When the ranger arrived, he told me that the assumption was that it was a very large bobcat who was angry at my stumbling upon a den or cub. That could be, but I have to say that the markings and size were nothing like any bobcat that I have seen. It was pure tan with no other markings or spots and three to four times the normal size of a bobcat. It looked very much like a mountain lion which are found in Virginia but not normally in this part of the Shenandoah. However there have been a series of reported sightings from hikers of a mountain lion in the area — prompting the placement of cameras and bait to try to solve the mystery.
I told the ranger (who was a wonderful professional) about scat that I had spotted down the trial with what appeared to be deer fur. I was able to take him to it and he collected it for testing. I also described seeing very large cat prints down the trail. As I accompanied the ranger on this impromptu lion hunt, I learned a huge amount not just about the animals but the park service. These rangers do a remarkable and inspiring job. We are incredibly fortunate to have these men and women patrolling our forests and rescuing and protecting hikers. Whether it was a huge uncharacteristically aggressive bobcat or the long-rumored mountain lion, it was still an exciting birthday hike either way.
Obviously, the whole Shenandoah is safe and indeed our national parks remain one of the safest forms of recreation. These parks are also the most popular federal programs and the worst funded in the federal system.