It was a pleasant morning, as winter mornings go in this part of Oregon. A good day for a solo trek. The air was cool, damp, and fresh and there was only the slightest breeze. Given it was mid-week I expected to see few other people, and though I’m usually an afternoon hiker, rain was forecast for later in the day.
Forest Peak was a new destination for me and the southeast side seemed like a decent route. The round trip should be doable in about two hours or so. The path up would be mostly single track and the return would be on forest service roads. Nearly the entire distance would be through typical northwest evergreen forest, with moss clinging to and lichen dripping from nearly every tree.
The first acquaintance I made, barely a quarter mile in, was a very sluggish rough-skinned newt who refused to budge, even with the nudge of my boot. Too chilly, I guessed. Still pondering the newt, I nearly stepped on a five-inch-long banana slug, lengthening my stride just in time to miss it. Gotta keep my eyes open, I mused.
I love hiking single-track. Even when it’s drizzling there’s so much to take in as the path curves, dips, and climbs through the underbrush and across creeks. It doesn’t even feel like exercise. Only another rare hiker or the occasional mountain biker might break the solitude. I passed under a large tree that had fallen against its neighbors, picking up my pace just a little. It was still propped up at a 45 degree angle and I wondered how long it had been like that, or how long it would stay.
The path got just a bit steeper and muddier and I put more attention to where my feet were going. Glancing a couple yards ahead my eyes caught something that caused an immediate chill to run up my spine. It’s funny, I’ve heard about that happening but can’t ever recall it happening to me before. Until that moment, when my eyes scanned a very large, very distinct, and very fresh set of tracks that had passed in the opposite direction, most likely earlier that morning.
I know they live in this part of Oregon and I’ve probably even been watched by one a time or two, but seeing those tracks and realizing I had shared the trail that morning with a Cougar took that awareness to the next level of ‘Yikes!’, if you know what I mean. Picture a 150-200 pound house cat with an attitude. I took some photos for confirmation, including the one above, using the toe of my boot as reference. The prints were about 3.5 to 4 inches across.
Mustering the remainder of my manhood I did manage to finish the hike, but I admit it was not the relaxed trip intended. Way more time than usual was spent scanning the forest in all directions – and making scary noises. Yeah, that would help.
Later in the afternoon I confirmed my suspicions with a savvy local resident regarding the maker of the tracks. I also did some online research. There was no doubt. It was not a very large dog, which would have been the only reasonable second guess. So there it was, my first sighting of cougar tracks in the wild. It was certainly exciting, but it gave me a bit more perspective on how brave I actually am. Yup.