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A Track In The Snow

By Brian Payne

The track was there in the newly fallen snow, plain as could be. Had it been any fresher, we likely would have spotted the cat that made it.

The mountain lion was likely a big tom based on the size of the track. He had probably heard us coming on the snowmobile and bounded off through the burned-out timber. The tracks seemed to show that it had been hunting through the river bottom. Maybe he was after a deer moving to its winter range. Our dogs could smell the cat. Their bawling broke the still silence of the morning and reverberated up the canyon. They were pleading to be let loose, hungry to begin the chase.

Like a shot, the pack leapt from their kennel the moment its door opened and were immediately working out the trail. My guide, Travis Bullock of Mile High Outfitters, and I watched as the hounds fought their way through the snow, up the steep slope and eventually over the top of the ridge.

“They’re on it! Let’s get going,” Travis said as he stepped out of the heavy coveralls that helped to keep him warm on the ride in and tucked them through the handlebars of the snow machine for later.

The Salmon River country we were hunting, just on the edge of the Frank Church, River of No Return Wilderness, was steep, and we needed to go quickly with a light load. I shouldered my rifle and was on Travis’ heels as we crossed the little creek and pushed through the thick brush leading to the hillside the lion had climbed.

I was climbing as hard and as quickly as I could, but there didn’t seem to be any way to keep up with my guide’s pace. The hours I had spent on the stair-stepper for conditioning suddenly felt like it hadn’t been enough. It was difficult to keep pace with someone who chases hounds up and down mountains, day in and day out, as lion guides do.

So, as I reached the top of the ridge, I was alone and took a moment to catch my breath. Far below in the distance snaked a river I knew to be the Salmon. And, even farther still, was the Sawtooth Range partially shrouded in clouds. How rugged and foreboding they looked. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to stand atop one of those craggy spires.

Travis and the dogs had gone to the southwest, so I followed. I could no longer hear the barking of the hounds but was sure the cat must be treed somewhere up ahead. I pressed on, trying to reach that place as quickly as I could. After another hour of walking and climbing, I was starting to have my doubts. Another hour still and I was positive there wasn’t going to be a treed cat at the end of this trail. My concern now was knowing whether I should continue on in my guide’s tracks or turn back to meet Travis where our chase had started. I found a comfortable log where I could have a break, eat a snack and think it over.

I was startled out of my daydream by movement in my peripheral vision. At first, the dark form that slipped through the trees brought wolf to my mind. I tensed as my senses went on high alert. The big canines were often spotted in the area and had wreaked havoc on local deer and elk herds. Quickly, though, I realized it was just an exhausted dog coming toward me. Another 30 yards behind it was Travis.

“They lost it,” he said simply as he drew nearer, shaking his head.

How the dogs could lose such a fresh track I didn’t know. I think Travis was a little baffled, as well. But, at the same time, I was happy my hunt wouldn’t be ending on the first day. We started the long hike back toward the snowmobile.

The next morning at breakfast, Travis told me there was a big cat just a couple miles up behind the house. He had decided to get up earlier than normal to have a look at the canyon near his home. He had cut the track of another large tom. My excitement was short-lived, though, as Travis said that it was going out of his area. But if it turned around and came back, we could hunt it.

Instead, we headed back to the general area where we had unsuccessfully chased the tom the day before. One of the assistant guides found another fresh track up a small draw. Travis said there was a good chance it was the same lion.

The cat had stayed in the thick, brush-choked bottom of the draw as it climbed higher, which would have been tough going for both humans and dogs if it had stayed there. Luckily for us, it didn’t and crossed the road higher up. We turned out the dogs on its trail.

 Everything seemed right. The track was fresh, the dogs were hot after it and the cat had gone across a relatively flat area.

“The GPS is showing the dogs are treed!” said Brandon, one of the assistant guides.

Without wasting more time, we were off after our lion.

Eight hundred yards from where the dogs had treed the cat, Brandon stopped and studied the GPS tracker. “The cat must have jumped the tree,” he said. “The dogs are moving again.”

A short time later, the dogs once again seemed to have the cat treed. But, as before, the lion jumped from the tree and was on the run again while we were still a good 600 yards away. Twice more the same scenario played out without us ever getting close enough to the tree to see the lion or the dogs.

We started seeing wolf tracks the farther into the canyon. Then, faintly in the distance, we heard them. Wolves and hounds aren’t a good mix, and Travis was concerned the day might end with the wolves killing his dogs. Brandon had gone on ahead and was able to catch a fleeting glimpse of a wolf or two as it ghosted through the trees, but the dogs had been able to stay out of the their way. The wolves seemed to have caused them to give up the chase, though, and our hounds were done for the day. After making my way back to the truck through a long, narrow draw filled with downed timber, I was spent, too.

It had been two long, cold days so I readily agreed with Travis the next morning when he suggested I wait in the relative warmth of the truck while he looked for fresh tracks down another old road. He would return for me and the dogs if he found a fresh track. The loop he planned to make was a long one. As the lights of Travis’ snowmobile disappeared around the corner, I reclined the truck seat and settled in for a nap.

I was surprised out of my dozing just minutes later by the sound of the snowmobile returning. There wasn’t any way Travis could have driven as far as he planned to go in such a short amount of time, so I was sure he must be returning with good news.

“Get your things and let’s go,” Travis said with a bit of a smile. “There’s a really fresh track just up the road a bit, and I think it’s a tom.”

Quickly, we put tracking collars on dogs and stuffed a few spare items in our packs. This felt right to me. It felt like a day to be successful. That feeling pushed me on a little faster than normal as we struggled up the steep slope the cat had climbed after crossing the road. The dogs seemed to feel it, too, or at least their senses were telling them the lion wasn’t too far ahead of us. I just hoped nothing would happen this time to cause them to lose such a fresh scent as they had done the first morning.

By the time we had side-hilled around the first major ridge, the dogs were far enough ahead of us that we could no longer hear their barking. The GPS tracker showed they were still climbing higher toward a rocky outcrop. Travis thought the cat was likely to bay there so we pressed on quickly.

Along the spine of the next rise, we stopped again to listen for the dogs. The rocky outcropping wasn’t too far away so we should have heard them had they been there, but we couldn’t. Another look at the GPS showed that they were still going and had passed the rocks as they climbed higher. Travis was surprised the lion was running so far without treeing or baying and decided to send Brandon, who was younger and faster, on ahead to see if he could at least hear the dogs and get a feel from the sound of their barking how close they might be to the cat. In the meantime, Travis and I would rest a bit and warm our hands by a little fire we built in the shelter of a few trees on the slope. Exposed as we were, the wind had been bitter and the fire, though small, was a blessing.

“I think they’re treed,” Travis said as he studied the little screen of the GPS. “Looks like they’re just around that next big ridge,” he said as he motioned to the west. After making certain our fire was safely out, we shouldered our packs and pressed on up the slope.

We climbed quickly. As we neared the top of the slope, we could finally hear the dogs and met up with Brandon.

“It’s a good-lookin’ tom,” Brandon declared as he met us. My heart rate surged with excitement at the prospect of seeing, let alone taking, my first mountain lion.

“Okay, sit here for a minute so you can catch your breath. Then we’re going to ease over the top and get into position,” Travis whispered to me.

Brandon had said the cat was on a limb high up in a pine and was looking downhill at the dogs, so we should be able to come in behind it undetected. Moving as quietly as we could through the thick brush and struggling to avoid sliding down the steep slope, we closed to within 20 yards of the pine.

Our plan to come in undetected behind the lion worked, and I was finally able to catch sight of the cat as it glared at the dogs. For nearly a decade I had wanted to pursue a tom like this, but between poor snow conditions that had canceled hunts, or family obligations, it hadn’t happened until now. It was thrilling to see such an animal so close. He wasn’t snarling or baring his teeth as I expected him to be, but even so, there was a presence to him of strength and cunning, and I wished I had time to admire him a little longer. Travis was worried, though, that he was going to jump the tree, and we might lose him. I readied for a shot.

 Because of the position of the cat and the surrounding brush and branches, I would need to shoot from a standing position. The hillside was steep. It was difficult to find a stable place to take a shot without losing footing and sliding down the slope. Kicking out a small ledge in the gravel and snow just big enough for my feet, I was able to steady myself enough and settle my sights behind the tom’s right shoulder. I squeezed the trigger of my .30-06.

At the shot, the cat fell from the tree and slid 200 yards down the incline. It would have likely gone farther but hit a log.

As I slid my way down to the lion, I felt a mixture of relief and elation. Relief because I didn’t have to climb those mountains again tomorrow! And elation because, despite being tired and cold and enduring a couple of difficult days, I had finally realized my dream of hunting and taking an animal as magnificent as a mature tom mountain lion.

Travis had assured me it was a large cat, but I didn’t really get a good sense of how large until I kneeled next to it and admired paws as big as my hands. It was apparent by the size of his body and hide that he should have been a heavier cat than he was. Looking more closely, we found that a sizeable chunk of wood had become embedded in one of his front paws, which must have prevented him from hunting as efficiently as he normally would. With an injury like that, the winter would have been a tough one for him and his ability to catch prey.

The lion’s skull qualified for the SCI Record Book. Having the chance to experience a spectacular place and an animal as magnificent as the mountain lion was even more important. Admiring the cat, I couldn’t help but smile that we had found that one track in the snow.

Brian Payne is an SCI Life member.

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