Seiad Valley to Ashland :: 24 Hour Challenge

July 11, 2014

Start: Halfmile 1662.0
End: Halfmile 1727.0
Distance: 65.0 Mi
Cumulative: 1,767.5 Mi

As I see it, the Oregon border is the second major milestone after Kennedy Meadows. I stood there marveling at my achievement around 8a this morning. I could’ve sat there for hours, but I had somewhere to be. I was 12 hours into my 24 hour challenge and had already covered 37 of the 65 miles. But it had been a long night. I was tired. And I knew that I was likely to lose some pace as the day wore on.

Are you familiar with challenge goals? It’s an interesting idea where you have two goals. Your “guaranteed goal” is one that you’re quite certain you can reach; your “challenge goal” is one you believe you can reach but with considerably more effort and with the distinct possibility of falling short. Your guaranteed goal should be one you have to work toward; it’s not a gimme. The theory is that you can push yourself to your limit and beyond without ultimately failing. The trouble is that my challenge goal becomes the only goal I’m striving toward. But maybe that’s a good thing, because it means I’m leaving it all on the field (so to speak). If I can’t reach my challenge goal, it won’t be because I made up my mind to settle for less. I like the idea and often try to think in those terms when I’m aspiring toward something big.

My guaranteed goal was 24 hours. My challenge goal was a 3 mi/hr pace, which translates to 21h26m over 64.8 miles. Lofty but attainable, as per the idea. The guaranteed goal is like getting silver. Everybody wants gold. And nobody talks about second place. Still, a podium in the Olympics would be effing sick regardless of the medal you’re holding on said podium. And I look good in silver. Win-win, right?

Well, let’s go one better. Life is about experiences more than numbers. And I had the experience of a lifetime last night. It’s a helluva story, fantastical even – unbelievable. And I wasn’t sure I’d live to tell it. (Please excuse the melodrama.)

Last night around 11p I saw a cougar. It was dark, but the full moon aided my headlamp in defining his silhouette. He must’ve been about 60 feet away, as my headlamp range is only about 75 feet. I could see his eyes clearly. They reflected the light of my Black Diamond lamp and looked green to me, though I would’ve expected yellow. His silhouette was sharp, crisp like a nice photo. I surprised him. He looked up at me from just above the trail. There was very little cover for him. He looked away toward the crest, then back at me for a brief moment before crouching low and silently slipping away. The trail paralleled the crest, so he was moving perpendicular to my direction of travel, which allowed me to see those movements very clearly. I could see his long tail seeming to float behind him. I could see his huge paws rise and fall fluidly. His head was so low I could almost swear that I saw his shoulder blades shift with each calculated step.

In a moment, he was gone. He’d disappeared behind a huge rock outcropping that towered just above the trail. I immediately picked up a rock and shined my light directly on the outcropping, hoping to discourage him from taking that offensive position. When I passed, I could see his eyes watching me from the crest. He was too far away to make out his posture, but it seemed his eyes were so low to the ground that he must’ve been peering at me from the other side of the ridge. Hard to say for sure. He was beyond what I would consider my range; I’m a soccer player. Still, I wanted him to know that I knew that he was out there, and furthermore that I knew exactly where he was…that I could see him. I threw the rock convincingly enough to drive him off, though I’m certain I didn’t hit him.

I’d been shouting since I first realized what he was, dropping the F-bomb frequently to punctuate my commands. “What the f*** are you doing? Can I f***ing help you?! Get the f*** outta here!” He wasn’t indecisive or jumpy; he was calm and deliberate. But somehow I didn’t feel threatened. His posture – in my mind – was clearly defensive. It was just a cool experience. There, I thought. I’ve seen a cougar. Check.

Despite not feeling overly threatened, I still carried a few rocks with me and kept my head on a swivel for the next few hours. It’s incredible how clearly you can see their eyes at night, how they reflect the light of a headlamp. It seems I’d be able to easily see them from dozens of yards away, maybe even a hundred. Still, take nothing for granted. They’re smart little sh*ts. I was cautious but not overly paranoid. It’s extremely unlikely to see one, and even more unlikely that one would attack a standing full grown person. At this point, I counted myself lucky – not to have survived but to have seen one at all.

Then around 1a, I saw those eyes again from across a small clearing. I was sure it was a cougar. Then it started toward me. He was so low to the ground that for a brief moment I thought it might be a critter, like maybe a raccoon. He covered about a third of the ground between us before I could see his shape. F***, a COUGAR! By this time, I had triaged most of the rocks I’d been carrying, but I had one left. He froze for a moment, seemingly unsure of what to do as he gained ground. Maybe he was surprised because I didn’t retreat?

I took the opportunity to throw my only rock, my only shot, my only pre-emptive defense. I missed again, but he retreated to the tree line where he watched me from behind a tree no more than 18″ thick. I could see those eyes as if they were headlights. Again, they looked green to me. To be fair, I was less concerned with the color of his eyes than I was with finding another rock. There were none. I’d already started with the obscenities again. “F*** this! What the f***ing f***…un-f***ing-believable! Get the f***ing f*** outta HERE!” And on like this as I stepped toward him. I was scared. But I knew the rock I’d thrown was somewhere between the two of us, hopefully closer to me than him, and it was the only rock I knew was out there.

It was something about being able to see him – or at least his eyes. I was scared, damn scared, but I wasn’t paralyzed like I had been in my tent that night out of Belden. The fear of the unknown had very nearly crippled me that night. I had to will myself to act, to speak even. At least tonight I knew what I was up against. I’d be able to see him coming toward me; I could brace myself and maybe even put up a decent fight. I wasn’t cornered. But I wasn’t likely to win either.

I got to within 30 feet, scout’s honor, and he just stood there still as a statue. I honestly believe he thought I couldn’t see him. You had to be there to understand. There I was. I could see his blonde coat, the dark tip of his long tail, the way it curled up at the bottom, his light underbelly. Hell, I could nearly reach out and touch him from where I stood. And he just watched.

Eureka! I reached down to pick up what was probably the only other rock in the whole clearing. It was almost the size of a baseball. Close enough, I thought. I was still yelling, commanding, willing him to leave. He watched. I clapped my trekking poles at him. He watched. I briefly thought of taking a photo. (Yes, I know how unbelievably stupid that sounds, but I thought about it.) I figured the flash would blind him. But almost as quickly as the thought came to me, I dismissed it. I knew that I needed him to hurt. I needed him to know that I could see him. I needed him to associate being this close to me with physical pain. And I couldn’t miss, not at that range. I might not get another opportunity to hit him. I threw that stone as hard as I could. And I hit him square in the side. He bolted through the brush and trees, crashing this way and that, making more noise than you’d ever believe that such an animal is capable of making. He was gone so fast I didn’t even see him go. He was there, then he wasn’t.

I continued to yell, though the content changed dramatically, even if the F-bomb remained ever-present. “Who’s the f***ing man, now?! C’mon! Let’s f***ing DANCE!” I was later told by another hiker whose tent I passed last night that she thought she heard me say “He shoots; he scores!” She’s probably right. Word vomit. You can imagine how silly it felt to act that way toward a predator who was obviously a few notches above me on the food chain, but I couldn’t help myself. I’d tagged him. I still wasn’t actually feeling that confident at this point, but I was happy to have effectively communicated my willingness to put up a fight should it come to that. And besides, I was tired of saying “I don’t f***ing believe this sh*t! What the f*** are you waiting for?? Get the f*** outta here – GO!” It was unreal, the way he stood there.

I felt awkward and even ashamed to be swearing like that. It’s so unusual for me, but I just didn’t know what else to say. It was exactly what swear words are: filler. I felt like I needed to be constantly saying something, and I wanted the tone to be harsh but not desperate. I’m not proud, but I can’t imagine I’d do it any other way if it happened again.

I was terrified, but what do ya do? I kept moving forward. At this point, I wasn’t going to get anywhere safe before the sun came up, regardless of which direction I went, so I went forward. Always forward.

Within 100 yards, I had acquired four more rocks and would carry at least that many for the next four hours. I didn’t see him for a little while and thought maybe I was in the clear. I mean, how could he possibly keep coming after I’d pegged him like that? There’s no way. Then I saw those eyes again. The trail had taken me into the woods. There wasn’t very much cover, so he was crouched behind a downed tree a ways away on the downhill side. I’d been scanning all around me since our first encounter. When I saw him, I focused my headlamp on him. He was beyond my range, but that didn’t matter. He realized I was focused on him, that I could see him, and he bolted again, crashing through the woods with no attempt at being quiet. It sounded like a tree falling and then rolling down a steep slope. SNAP-BOOM-BOOM-CRASH-BANG-SMACK!

You can imagine my surprise when I saw him again, this time close enough to see his shape. Couldn’t have been more than 60 feet away. The cover was thicker, which I think explained his emboldened position. I caught his eyes as I was scanning the woods behind me. He was walking with me. I stopped and faced him, my headlamp focused directly on him. He froze, turned to leave, then turned back and watched. I could see his silhouette – his demeanor – clear as day. It was like “Oh crap, he sees me…Wait, no he doesn’t…Maybe if I just stay still…?” I waited for him to settle, then I threw another rock. I’m certain I hit him. He took off fast and loud for a third time, crashing through the woods as he went, no regard for stealth. I can only imagine how shocked he must’ve been.

He continued to stalk me for the next few hours. Every so often, I caught a glimpse of his eyes or heard a twig snap way below me. He was giving me a much wider berth, but he hadn’t abandoned the idea of keeping an eye on me. Looking back, his posture was never actually offensive. I felt far more threatened simply because he wouldn’t leave me alone. The fact is that he always tracked me from the downhill side, indicating that he was more curious than belligerent. But as the encounter persisted, there was no way of knowing when (or if) he would circle around behind me and take the higher ground. It was a constant stress. Shortly before dawn, I ran into another hiker. I never saw or heard my friend again.

Fairly early on in my initial encounter, I’d taken to calling my friend “Garfield.” I carried this tradition through to the end. Somehow reducing a born-killer to an animated house cat was comforting, silly as that sounds. Coping mechanism, I guess. Every time I heard myself say the word, I felt a little more calm, a little more in control. It was an illusion, of course. I was most certainly not in control. But it was probably a healthy illusion in terms of allowing me to manage the situation over the long haul. Craziest night of my life, bar none.

People have asked whether I’m sure it was two different cougars. They’ve pointed out how unlikely it is. I agree, it’s extremely unlikely. But you have to agree that it’s possible. I’m absolutely certain it was two different cougars. Consider the way it played out. The first cougar was deliberate; the second was clearly indecisive. If it was just one cougar, why did he let me surprise him again? The first seemed to understand that I could see him, or at least that I would if he didn’t find cover. The second seemed almost sure that I couldn’t see him at all. He just stood there, almost completely exposed, despite the plentiful cover. The first watched me pass but didn’t show any signs of being overly interested. The second was obviously curious and reluctant to let me be, despite being tagged with a rock twice. They were both big, likely fully grown. But the demeanor of the second implied he was young and inexperienced. His indecision alone stood out to me as odd. And why stalk from the low ground?

I learned later that older, more experienced cougars have an established territory that can be as big as 100 square miles. And younger cougars have to resort to poaching off established territories trying to avoid being killed by the older cougars who administer those territories. Knowing that, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that the first cougar was the older, more experienced, established cougar. And the second was the youngster trying to find his own place. The youngster would have to resort to more desperate measures to survive without the security of his own territory. And he wouldn’t necessarily understand the power of the almighty headlamp, though I think we can assume he’s a bit wiser tonight than he was last night.

Believe it or don’t. Pics or it didn’t happen? Haha, ok. I’d rather have you call me a liar than find my half-eaten corpse with a blurry photo of something that might be a cougar. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I’d choose the rock every time. Anything else would be nuts. Again, craziest night of my life; even better than the grizzly I surprised in Glacier NP a few years ago.