The sun was setting and I was in my usual frantic scramble, bouncing around the rocks trying to find creative compositions and frames to maximize the glorious light. As I adjusted my focus for one shot, I heard the bone-chilling sound of a rattle nearby.
Fortunately, I currently found myself on high ground and the rattlesnake was nowhere to be found. Clearly I had upset it somewhere in my wake while bounding amongst the rocks. For the rest of the shoot, I could not stop seeing twigs, rocks, and sticks that I swore to be diamondbacks in the moment. Then, as it got dark, another rattle… this time, it was not a stick, and it really wasn’t happy.
I was able to retreat easily enough and even snap a quick picture of the Western Diamondback that had politely informed me of his location and unwillingness to be stepped on. The ambient light was fading quickly and my energy and enthusiasm were fading with it. After two long days of hiking in the desert heat and nowhere near enough sleep, coupled with a new fear of being bitten by a rattler, I realized I just did not have it in me to wait around 3 hours for the Milky Way to line up with my foreground and then hike the 3.5 miles back.
In an uncharacteristic move, I took a photo of the scene I had scouted and a screenshot of exactly where the Milky Way was set to align at 11:30pm. I decided I would shoot the sky from up at the top at that exact moment instead and composite it exactly where it was going to be. I always prefer to capture a moment than to create it, but on this occasion, I was willing to accept it as the best option.
I will never know if this decision would prove to be the best, or worst decision I ever made, but I know for certain it was a memorable one.
With my headlight fixed but still not on, I began walking hastily back to the van, hoping to get as far as I could in the light of twilight while I could move briskly. About half a mile later, I found myself stumbling a bit and decided to switch on the headlight. I also figured I would record a voice journal as I have been doing throughout the trip to take my mind off the long haul ahead and record some thoughts.
Click to hear (part of) the recording…
The cougar’s eyes glowed in the light of my headlight momentarily, then it sleeked off into the bush. But I know better. Cougars do not like direct confrontation, they like to stalk. They want to see the back of the neck.
I know enough about mountain lions to know that it was not just going to disappear. Cats are curious. Best case scenario, it watches from afar until its curiosity is satisfied. Worse case scenario, it has cubs nearby (it is spring time after all) and sees me as a threat and/or a meal.
I cautiously continued along the trail, spinning around like a lighthouse constantly. I hoped not to see it, but was always expecting to.
After a few minutes of this, I realized I could never get all the way back to the van spinning in circles the whole time. My plan was to pull out my secondary flashlight to hold behind my head. As mentioned, cougars like to stalk, so I needed to appear as though I had eyes in the back of my head at all times.
While fumbling around in the backpack, I glanced behind me and saw two golden-yellow eyes approaching no more than 10 yards away. The puma paused mid-step when my light hit its eyes.
I immediately stood up tall, raised my tripod, and began to growl. If I was lucky, it would reach the conclusion that I was not a prey animal and saunter back into the bush.
I was not that lucky.
We remained gripped in our stand-off for what felt like a full minute or more. At this point, I knew I would need to establish that I was not defenseless, but also did not want to provoke the animal. I took two very slow steps back, breaking the freeze. That was all it took. The moment I stepped back was the moment it began its aggressive approach.
At this point, I knew what to do and had to just pray that it worked. In one motion, I scooped up a large rock and launched it hard at the lion. The rock thudded into the dirt inches from the cougar’s face, startling it and causing it to quickly dart away.
I blindly threw another one in the direction of its retreat, hearing a thud followed by a bit of a commotion in the darkness as it ran away.
As quickly as I could, I got that second flashlight out and continued up the trail, spinning in circles throughout to check the high ground and my rear at all times.
An hour later, the adrenaline was flushed by dopamine as I set eyes on the van and knew it was over.
I slumped into the backseat, inexplicably locking the doors quickly behind me as if the mountain lion were going to break in and finish things.
For the rest of my time in Chiricahua, I forced myself to continue hiking and even shooting some Milky Way. I did not want to let one close encounter scare me away from doing something I love, but I must admit that the peace that comes with shooting the stars has been stolen for the time being, and has proven challenging to regain.
The fear of what lurks in the shadow continues to creep into every shoot, but I am slowly and consciously regaining control over it.
A couple of things that are worth noting and that I’ve learned:
- If you encounter a cougar, DO NOT RETREAT. Also, DO NOT show the back of your neck for any reason. If it does not relent, throw things at it to show you are not defenseless prey. Don’t have a rock? Throw your shoe, for real. Last resort, throw that cell phone, you can always retrieve it later.
- As terrifying as this encounter was, it is important to know that in the last 100 years, there have only been a TOTAL of 125 cougar attacks in North America. Of those, only 27 were fatal. In other words, be armed with knowledge of what to do, as I was, but by all means keep hiking! Your odds of ever seeing one are rare, being attacked rarer still, and even then you have an 80% chance of survival. Ships are safe in the harbour, but that is not what they’re built for.