Monday, April 18, 2005

What we saw…

We went to hike on a new-to-me trail, a nice 4-mile loop called Gregory Canyon. While we were getting our bearings at the trailhead, we overheard a woman calling the Open Space Department, saying, “the lion cubs were right by the trail, you might want to close the trail.” When she got off the phone I asked her what they had seen and she said they saw three baby lion cubs about a quarter-mile up the Amphitheater Rock trail, right there, about a quarter-mile away from where we stood.

As amazing as it would be to see mountain lion cubs, I didn’t want to go anywhere near them. It was enough to know we were close. Their mother would not be pleased by any intrusion and I didn’t want to get in between her and the babies. So we headed out another trail and kept our distance from the Amphitheater Rock trail.

It was a beautiful climb up the granite canyon, and we saw lots of wonderful spring flowers. There was an especially dramatic one that was sort of pale purple and unfolded out of what looked like nothing. I think it is called the Pasqueflower. An older woman on the trail said she hadn’t seen so many Pasqueflowers in 30 years. Though we had left our map in the car, the plan was to take a trail that would eventually loop around back to the parking lot. We asked a few people we passed if the trail looped around, but they weren't sure. I told some of them (like the ones with the small beagle puppy) about the mountain lion cub sighting down below. When we finally reached a map on the trail, it confirmed that we could loop around; only, the trail back joins the Amphitheater Rock trail about a half-mile from the parking lot. That is where the mountain lion cubs were spotted. Still, there were lots of people out on the trails, lots of dogs. We figured the risk was small and it would be a shame to backtrack after coming so far.

The second half of the hike, we see many fewer people. I wonder if maybe they have closed the trail and no one is coming up it anymore. I wish there were some joggers or dogs ahead of us and behind us so that we would seem relatively unattractive to any predator. About halfway down the trail I pick up a big, pointed stick and Greg acquires a walking stick. Just in case. I see some large, fresh footprints on the trail. “Those are very fresh,” I say. “Those are dog,” Greg says. About 30 seconds later we see a dog ahead of us on the trail with his jogging owner. Between the two of us, Greg and I are proving to be excellent trackers. The dog and jogger head down the trail ahead of us. I feel a bit better.

We get to the join with the Amphitheater Rock trail. Two hours ago, about a quarter-mile down the trail, is where the people we had talked to saw the cubs. I thought if we see the cubs, they would be cute for about one second and then I would want to get out of there, fast! Two more joggers pass us and head on down the trail. I think of warning them, but then think it wouldn’t change what they’d do anyway, so they pass without incident.

About a quarter-mile later I can see what great dens the rocks at this part of the trail would make. The forest has closed in and there are lots of craggy, weathered rocks. My senses are heightened. I want to see and I don’t want to see. Greg is following closely behind. This is the place, I think, it was here, and Greg stops and whispers sharply, “Jen!” He points. There near the trail we see three pairs of tawny ears that quickly turn into and a pile of wrestling furry young animals. Sleeping next to them, curled up in a ball, is the mother…fox.

It was so cool. We stayed and watched for a bit. The people we had talked to earlier meant well, and had much of it right—the number of babies, the location on the trail—just the wrong genus of animal. They were kits, not cubs. And the mother fox didn’t seem the least bit concerned or interested in us. The babies did look like kittens, and if the mother fox hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have been immediately apparent what they were. Without much information you could easily fill in the blank with your worst fears. This must be how rumors get started. I didn’t even question what those people had seen until I saw it myself.

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