I could see the disbelief on my face as I looked at my own reflection in his yellow eyes.
A huge tom (mountain lion) was about to pounce, and there was nothing I could do about it!
It's moments like these that get your heart racing, they are ones that make you second guess your habit of hunting alone. It's a fall down a steep slope, the ankle you twist while crossing a boulder field, or the cold breath stealing shock of icy cold water after you loose your footing in a rain swollen river. It's when you realize your survival depends on your next move.
I technically wasn't hunting alone in this story. My hunting partner and I had each taken a different ridge as dawn began to lighten the central Idaho mountains. We were archery elk hunting and had left his house a few hours earlier.
We had climbed close to a thousand feet in elevation while hiking up the main drainage trail. Winded and sweat soaked, we shared a breakfast of trail mix and refreshingly cold water while changing into dry shirts, hoping our scent wouldn't betray our presence. I whispered, "See you back here about 10?" In the dim glow of my head lamp, I could see his head nod, agreeing upon our quickly made game plan. I immediately walked away, eager to move and warm up my now chilled bones.
Of course, now with the mountain lion well within pouncing distance, I wished I had left my sweat-soaked t-shirt on so he would have smelled me and realized I was not an elk.
After leaving my friend, I had walked another 30 minutes along a well-used game trail. It was here, where a small rocky meadow divided two drainages, that I met "him."
I had bugled from the meadow and heard the throaty reply of a bull elk drift up from the deeper of the two draws. The crisp early morning air was still flowing down the drainage and I knew I would have to wait for warmer air to move up the draw before I could go after this bull.
As the sun crested the ridge, its warm glow fell upon a rockpile in the middle of the meadow. The warmth of the sun against the rock drew me like a moth to a flame. I was eager to rest my tired legs. Before heading to the rock pile, I sprayed some elk scent into the down draft and a little on my hat for good luck.
I quickly settled into the warmth of the rocks, placing a flat stone on the ground for a seat. My pack laid next to my bow on my left side and a book to pass the time on my right. I let loose a soft cow elk mew from my diaphragm mouth call. As it drifted down the draw, I heard the bull call back, not closer, yet not any further than where he was before.
I opened my book to read a few pages. I knew the elk would likely make their way up the draw over the next hour. If I kept the bulls' interest, maybe I would get to make a move on him.
20 minutes later the sun was full in my face. I pulled my hat bill down low and turned another page in the book and then just as quickly set it down.
My wrist watch alarm was suddenly going off full blast. "Beep beep, beep beep, beep beep." It sounded like a garbage truck backing up in the stillness of the mountain meadow.
I quickly shut it off, making a mental note to cancel the 8am alarm. I was hunting, not headed to work. As I looked up from my watch my first thought was, I am seeing things!
I shook my head and looked again. This was no hallucination. I was looking straight into the eyes of the largest mountain lion I had ever seen. He was sitting on his haunches, his front legs straight, his ears cocked forward, just like a dog begging for a treat. Only this was a huge male mountain lion and he was looking me straight in the eyes.
His posture seemed to say; I have never heard that "beep, beep" sound before, especially from an elk. It quickly crossed my mind that he smelled elk, heard elk, and likely saw me moving even though I was fully camouflaged.
He was certainly close enough to pounce on me, less than 10 feet away! As I stared at him, I could literally see my reflection in his eyes! When I put my hand down to jump to my feet, I noticed his front foot was as large as my spread hand. They were both together in my field of view, and that meant he was way too close!
As I jumped to my feet, the large cat crouched and snarled. It was about now that reality set in. This was the make it or break it moment. I yelled at him, "You don't want to do this, get out of here!" I stood as tall as I could and waved my arms, wishing that the pistol in my gun safe would have been on my hip.
The large lion slowly walked away, still crouched low to the ground with his ears laid back against his head. He was not happy about me not being the bedded elk he had expected to have for breakfast.
He had likely belly crawled the twenty yards or so accross the open meadow, and was set to pounce. The sound of my alarm going off had pulled him up short. It was only by the grace of God that my head hadnt stayed down reading my book, providing a perfect neck shot for his strong jaws.
As he was leaving, the cat still crouched low, slinking along, looking over his shoulder and hissing at me. When he reached the trees at the meadow's edge, he stopped. I realized somehow my bow was now in my hand. I instinctively nocked an arrow and came to full draw, never taking my eyes off of him.
This magnificent animal was now broadside at 25 yards. As my 20 yards pin settled on his shoulder, I began to realize just how fortunate I was.
A lion's canines are spaced perfectly to seperate the vertebrate of the spinal column when it bites into the neck of its prey. A short leap and a quick bite and my life would have been over. Even after my alarm went off, he easily could have been on me before I could react.
As this thought sunk home, my arrow slowly slid forward and I let off the tension on my bow. He had all the opportunity in the world to jump on me. In my heart, I knew it was only by the grace of God I wasn't on my way to being a pile of mountain lion scat, buried amongst the rocks of the meadow.
The cat snarled one more time and then vanished down the draw. It was then that I felt the tremors in my legs as the adrenalin left my muscles. As I took a deep breath of cool mountain air, I wondered when air had ever tasted so good.
I sat down on the rock pile. Keeping my head up and on a swivel this time. I picked my book up where it laid open on the ground. I folded the top half of the page over, closed it, and tossed it in my fanny pack.
As I walked back to meet my hunting partner, I said a prayer of thanks, out loud to God. I felt alive, like I had cheated death once again. It wasn't my time.
It was a week or so before I got a chance to unpack my hunting gear. As I cleaned out my day pack, the book I had been reading brought to mind how fortunate I was. It was a pocket sized, "Heart of the Outdoors" bible I had been reading that day. It opened to the page I had bent down in the meadow. The bent page was in Second Peter, even with verse 5:8 which reads:
"Be Alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."
I can still recall the tingling on my skin as I read that. I was in awe that God had used that cat to drive home His message. Talk about the Holy Spirit's prompting! My friend calls them "God winks." All I know is that is one bible verse I will never forget!
It was close to Christmas when my hunting partner called and said, "They killed your cat." A hound hunter had harvested a massive tom in the same drainage in which I had encountered him. The photo in the paper left no doubt. The article said the trophy cat was nine feet long from his nose to the tip of his tail, what a lion!
To this day, I honestly don't remember setting my watch alarm for 8am prior to that morning. What I can tell you is I left the alarm set at eight for the next year. Everytime it went "Beep beep, beep beep, beep beep," it made me reflect upon that day. It reminded me to praise God for keeping me safe. To be thankful for the beautiful earth He gave us. To be thankful for the desire we have to hunt the animals and the fishes He gave us dominion over. It runs in my blood, and goes deep within my heart.