Monday, March 19, 2007

Hiking Camp Creek

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.


  1. Sounds like an adventure! :)

    I often thought it would be fun to see a cougar, too, when I was hiking out West. But I suppose if it feels like one is being tracked, it's a totally different feel.

  2. Great storytelling. I was getting anxious for ya. Although from your intro paragraph, I have a feeling that drywalling a garage was more stressful for you than being watched by a cougar.

  3. we have alot of cougars out in so cal too, so I always do bring a whistle, a pocket knife and a labrador!

  4. Sounds dangerous knowing you are being tracked like that. Good thing you were not attacked! Reminded me of Robert Redford in that scene from "Out of Africa", although it was a Lion in the movie. Well told!

  5. Never seen a cougar myself either though I have done plenty of hiking in their territories.

    There are some people who swear that they can be found in this part of Iowa but I have yet to be convinced. Too many people can't tell the different between them and a bobcat or fox, both of which are around here. Also, not many people can tell the difference between a feline track and a canine track.

  6. Tim, I still would like to see a cougar, and a grizzly, both from a distance

    Murf, drywalling is always more stressful

    Diane, one of the reasons that is often given for the increase in cougar attacks in places like S. CA (and even in the area north of SF) is that cougars are not hunted there and have lost their natural fear of humans. I don't know if that's the case, but in ten years of living in S. Utah, I only heard of one cougar attack and there are supposedly more cougars per square mile there than anywhere in the lower 48--but they have lots of sheep and deer to eat. having a dog is great protection from a cougar (but you will see less wildlife of all varieties).

    Michael, I saw Out of Africa 20+ years ago--will have to watch it again.

    Kevin, thanks

    Ed, There are people who swear their' in the lower part of MI too, but I'm not convinced. You're right, but those big cat paws are hard to mistake. I've seen plenty of bobcats in the swamps of Eastern NC and although I wouldn't want to tangle with one--I wouldn't fear for my life. But a 200+ pound cougar, most of us wouldn't stand a chance.

  7. Beautiful photo and scary story! A cougar! I'd have been terrified after all the cougar horror stories!

    I was a cougar btw. A Patrick County Cougar...they used to bring one in the gym once a year before those kinds of things were outlawed. It would roar and kids would cheer. Poor thing it was probably declawed too!

  8. Yeah if I had to fight a couger, I'd want something more substantial than my swiss army knife. That is unless I could get the corkscrew right in the eye on the first try.

  9. See, that's what's so great about not leaving home. I don't have to worry about cougars. :-)

  10. Great story! It sounds frightening to be tracked like that. I'd be terrified!

  11. "before I spot the cougar tracks."


  12. Your travelogues are very interesting.

    Despite the cougar tracks or maybe becos of it..:D

    BTW, that rock looks like a Temple.

    Just my observation.

  13. Deana, do you have pics of being a cougar, where you a cheer leader or just go to the school?

    Ed, if you didn't get him on the first try, they'll probably not be a second!

    Murf, you're right, but what will you see?

    undercovered angels, thanks for stopping by

    Karen, I'd seen cougar tracks before---even on this hike while going into the canyon, but these were "fresh"

    gautami--that's an interesting observation--many of the larger rock formations out there have "religious names" including a "great white throne" which has different meanins for different people (judgment throne or the type of throne college students often bow before)

  14. Obviously I see enough to write in a blog about and keep you and a few others semi-interested. :-)

  15. You know, it has gotten the point where I'm living my outdoor enjoyment through your stories. I HAVE to get out more!

  16. Murf, you do have a funny take on life, I enjoy reading your blog.

    Kontan, as Nike says, just do it! but then, I don't stay that often at plush resorts. :)

  17. Murf, you do have a funny take on life, I enjoy reading your blog.

    Kontan, as Nike says, just do it! but then, I don't stay that often at plush resorts. :)

  18. ...which explains why I don't do the hiking thing.

    When I was a teenager, I went to a summer camp that, as part of its programming, offered a 6-day canoe trip deep in Quebec's north.

    It was all fun and games until a bear happened across our campsite one evening. Our rucksacks were hanging, and there was nothing there for it to eat. But panic-running to the canoes and casting off while we waited for it to move on was one of the most nerve-wracking things I've ever done.

    I'll stick to National Geographic.


    Still, loved your perspective on this moment in time. You are so detailed in your memories.

  19. Great story, Sage! The closest I've come was on a camping trip with my grandparents. A cougar was sitting on top of a rock watching us as we walked in a group one evening. But there were six or seven of us, so he wasn't about to come down off the rock. It was still pretty scary.

  20. Nail biting to the end. I've only walked through two canyons in my life: one in NW Arizona, and the other in southern CA. No tracks, just beauty. Great write!!

  21. scary! Wonder how the story would have turned out if you had a confrontation.

  22. Cami, last year about this time I wrote a couple of "bear stories" Unlike cougars, I've seen plenty of bears.

    Jaded, wasn't it a magifinicant animal!

    Paul, aren't canyons beautiful!

    Peri, If it had attacked, you probably wouldn't be reading this--since you live in a neighboring sate, you may have read a blurp in the paper about my bones, having been picked clean, being found in the canyon.