This is a story of an afternoon hike taken in December 1998 (I remember the date because I spent the morning working on drywalling my garage). The photo is not from Camp Creek, but of Cedar Canyon, a few canyons to the north. It was taken in November 2003.
My heart briefly stops as I look on the ground ahead. “Fresh tracks,” I think, “those weren’t here when I hiked in.” When I get to the tracks, I stoop to examine them closely. Sure enough, they’re fresh, less than ten minutes old since some of the paw prints are on the top of my boot prints. I stand back up; I don’t want to appear too small, and look ahead on the trail. I see cougar tracks leading up to this point. It appears something startled the beast, for the last tracks were dug in deeper as if he quickly hit the brakes and then twisted around. He headed back fast, taking only a few leaps before turning right and heading up the side of the canyon. “The cougar must have been tracking me as I hiked into Camp Creek,” I think to myself, “and now he’s in the rocks up on the canyon wall, watching.” I’m alone and my car is a couple miles away. Mine was the only car at the trailhead. It’ll be a long walk out.
Camp Creek flows through a box canyon on the north side of Zion National Park. There’s one way in and one way out. I do not make it all the way to the end, which according to the map appears to be a tight slot canyon. Before getting there, low clouds move in and a light sleet begins. It’s early December; darkness will come early to the canyon, especially with these conditions, so I decide to turn around and head out. I’ve not gone far, maybe a hundred or so yards, before I spot the cougar tracks.
The canyon is not as spectacular as Taylor or LaVerkin Creeks a few miles to the south. Those creeks flow under sheer bright pink Navajo Sandstone cliffs. Nor have I reached the tight slots that you find in Spring and Kanarra Creeks to the north. The rock in Camp Creek is less colorful, mostly a pale off-white or reddish tint. These are the Chinle and Kayenta formations. The layers of rock were twisted as they were pushed up by the Hurricane fault. Millenniums of water and wind have carved out these canyons. Along the section I’m traveling, it’s fairly wide. The walls of the canyon are steep, but they are not sheer until you get near the top. It would be quite a scramble for me to make it up the side, but from the appearance of the prints, the cougar raced up the side with little problem. Rock outcroppings, rising like minarets, dot the canyon walls. There’s plenty of hiding places for the cat. Sagebrush, mixed in with rabbit brush and Mormon tea grow along the canyon floor and up its walls. There are also a few pinions and junipers and some cottonwoods along the creek bed. At the higher elevations deep within the canyon and up on top are a few stately ponderosa pines.
I step up my stride. It’s cold and the brisk pace helps me warm up. I won’t stop to explore, I’ll keep moving, knowing that the cat is probably watching. Taking stock of my equipment, I realize I’m nearly defenseless. I only have a Swiss army knife, which I take out and open, but feel stupid carrying it. If a cat attacked, his outstretched claws would be as long as the knife blade. I close it partly and clip it by the blade on my pocket, so I can quickly pull it out and open it at the same time. It wouldn’t be much good against an animal that weighs more than me, but it gives me a plan. I don’t even have the whistle I normally carry. It must be on my backpack. I look around for a large stick. I find one, and test it by striking the ground; it’s rotten. I find another; it’s not as large, but sturdy. I clinch it in my hands. My best defense is to look large and to keep moving.
I continue walking briskly, occasionally hearing sounds behind me. I keep looking back every few steps, but see nothing. I’m sure my mind is playing games with me; but I’ve heard of cougars attacking joggers from behind and don’t want to be surprised. This is cougar country. Although I’ve hiked most of the canyons in this country, I’ve never seen one. Few people do. Within the park, their protected, but only part of this canyon is within the boundaries of the park. Outside the park, they’re not only hunted but because they’re a menace to the sheep herds, they’re trapped. They shy away from people. Occasionally someone catches a glimpse of one crossing a road. A friend who works for the Forest Service was confronted by a cougar one day along a trail, but when his radio squealed, the beast took off. Other Rangers have spent a career working these parts without seeing one. I’ve always wanted to see a cougar, but today I’m not so sure.
After an hour of brisk walking, I come to the end of the canyon. The sleet has turned to snow, covering all the tracks including my boot prints. I’ve not seen any more signs of the cougar. He now seems like a phantom. Did I really see those prints? Here, at the end of the canyon, the creek drops over an escarpment and flows out into a broad basin where it eventually evaporates under the desert sun. Instead of crawling down the cliffs by the falls, I take a trail which leads north and which connects to an old two track, that leads me back southwest and down to my car.