Edison Trail

square815Death showed me one of its faces here, where the dust holds a track until the next strong wind. The sun did not warm me on that day. The cold chewed on my hands and dusk shoved the light aside to make way for the darkness. A clump of toyon bushes stood at the high point of the hike. I stopped at the sound of their branches cracking as a mountain lion hefted itself out of the shrubs and landed on the dirt road in front of me. We two stared at each other for an endless second before the cougar bounded away, his paws pounding the ground as he fled. I did not follow. Now when I go there, I look to the source of every rustle of the leaves, every shake of the branches, every whisper of the grass. This is uncertain country.

Note: Two months later, this same cougar slew one biker and mauled another. The incident made the national news.

Mountain Lions in Whiting Again

square788Rangers blocked the gates at Whiting Ranch Wilderness. I knew something was up. When I passed Concourse Park in my truck, I saw three trucks and a small crowd of rangers at the entrance gate. So I stopped. “Please tell me that there hasn’t been another mountain lion attack.

No, this time it was only “an incident”. And when I pieced together the details, a most amusing incident it proved to be though the bikers involved probably did not find it so. A mountain lion had spooked some park-users along the short but tenuous Serrano Cow Trail, not once, but twice.

According to a local news site:

A video of a mountain lion in the park was posted online over the weekend prompted state Department of Fish and Game officials to search for the big cat1, which did not leave the area even after it was fired upon with beanbag-type rounds in an attempt to scare it off, O’Neil told the Orange County Register.

“During the investigation, they spotted the mountain lion very close to the trail and unwilling to move,” said O’Neil. “Park rangers closed the park as a precaution while DFG officers continued the investigation.”

Fish and Game managed to capture the beast using a massive “Have-A-Heart” trap baited with a piece of beef. Though I told my Facebook users that I feared the worst for the lion, Fish and Game seems to be following a So-you-wanna-be-around-humans-we’ll-let-you-live-around-humans” policy and sending it to a zoo.

For my own experiences with mountain lions, check here.

Here’s the video that precipitated the Fish and Game search of the wilderness. Most people around here would rather that they removed the coyote — those eat our cats and dogs:

  1. Isn’t the Internet powerful? []

Lions on the Line Shack

square148.gifMy first day back in Whiting Ranch Wilderness did not disappoint me. Though I saw no wildlife and plenty of trail bikers, my eyes scanning the ground and everything around me turned up deer tracks and the pawprints of two lions.

Copyright 2004 by Joel SaxA mother and her cub have been spotted in these parts. She’s been taking her scion down to feast in the fields of Saddleback Church on the rabbits who breed joyfully there. The congregation will not touch the lions, but the rabbits have been declared the object of an eradication program. The meek shall be turned into lucky charms or rototilled into the earth.

The pair may have been coming back from those environs when they left their mark on the Line Shack Trail. I spotted the larger track of the mother first. It measured nearly four inches across. Then I noted the smaller tracks: too small to be from the same beast but too large to be either a bobcat or a domestic shorthair.

I followed the track for about two hundred feet. The latticed wheels of trail bikes erased the sign in a few places. The double-almonds of deer track bored deep into the earth offered the motive for the pair’s prowl. I stopped to photograph and circle the tracks for the rangers. Trail bikers hurried by, too intent on the wind running up their noses, the bumps and grooves of the trail shaking up their behinds into their spinal columns. They had no time for lions or anything else of nature. I shook my head and climbed back to the top of Portola Hills where I wrote a rant about those who do not take the time to know the ground on which they ride.

Lion in Wait?

square254.gifI took my usual walk through Whiting today, climbing the back side of Dreaded Hill to Four Corners and then across the badlands to the east via the Upper Pond Trail to Vulture View. From there, I descended via the Cactus Trail and crossed back to Whiting Road via Sleepy Hollow. It was about ten to twenty yards south of the Sleepy Hollow entrance that I saw faint tracks in the dust on the left side of the road.

They weren’t very distinct. All I could tell for certain is that they belonged to one of the larger carnivores — maybe a coyote, maybe a large bobcat, or a young lion. They turned off onto an unofficial path that trail bikers sometimes use as a shortcut. I went my way, deeming the sighting too unimportant and too inconclusive to call the rangers about.

As I veered off Whiting Road to begin my ascent to Concourse Park, something crashed in the thicket of mulefat and live oaks at the north point of the intersection. I called “Hello” but no one answered. I picked up my pace, looking back at the copse until I passed the place where the Concourse Park Road meets the Sage Scrub. I called the office and reported the two events.

It may or may not have been one of our resident pumas. Ranger Bobbie told me that someone had seen a mother with cubs a few weeks back. If the noise belonged to the tracks — if it wasn’t a skittish mule deer — the lion must have been a youngster blundering along in the hope of getting the jump on me. It wasn’t very discreet and its prey got away.

This isn’t going to prevent me from hiking there. I avoid making myself an opportunity for lions by always remaining standing, watching my surroundings when I do stop, and carrying a heavy walking stick just in case everything else fails. Many hikers do Whiting alone. My main surprise was that this incident occured at one of the most heavily trafficked intersections. Of course, the tracks I saw were smallish. Young and stupid, just like an adolescent driving alone for the first time.

Felis Concolor at Whiting Wilderness 4

square177.gif My friend George joked that if we went ahead with a plan to hold a poetry reading at Whiting Ranch Wilderness, he’d bring along a copy of Blake and read The Tyger, ending with the cry “Please don’t eat us!”

Most people, including myself, expected that it would be some time before a new cat moved into our area.


My friend Donna, for example, comforted herself by saying that mountains lions are territorial, so it would take a couple of years before a new one moves into the region. I was inclined to agree.

On Tuesday, I went for a walk along the Sage Scrub Trail. There, preserved in the hardened mud along that mountain biker-eroded canyon, I saw a series of about ten tracks. A big cat had come up that steep path, using the trail as a sure route through the cactus, perhaps heading to the Upper Pond.

The bikers who joy-rided down the precipitous slope, following the rut laid out by too many predecessors, did not notice the sign peppering the left side of the trail. I called the rangers, raised a cairn, warned those I could. I continued my walk through Sleepy Hollow, stopping to take photos but only when I stood in a clearing and looked around first. I saw manroot blossoms; cardoon priming their artichoke grenades; the pink blossoms of lemonade sumac; scrub oak with galls that looked like late autumn’s apples; and a belligerant yellow escapee from the housing tract overlooking the Sage Scrub Trail that sent its rocket blooms flying from scatterings of olive-leaf-green foilage. And ten yards below the point where the Sleepy Hollow Trail rejoins Whiting Road, I saw another series of tracks on the left side, belonging to a smaller cat.

Population pressure must be such that the lions have wasted no time moving into good deer hunting grounds. They have filled the niche.

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Winter Closure Continues at Whiting Ranch

square022.gifThe winds pouring off Dreaded Hill have stripped the sycamores nearly bare. At the forks of the trees, clumps of green mistletoe contrast with the curled brown leaves which still hang from the lower branches. The way is clearing for the leaf riots of spring.

Yellow police tape and red signs remain looped around the area following this month’s earlier mountain lion attack. I suspect that bikers are ignoring the signs. The lot at Concourse Park is unusually full. It is not difficult to circumvent the blockade.

Rumors about my local wilderness abound. A commentator asked: “Is it true they have developers looking at the park for future housing since it’s now “too dangerous” for bikers and hikers?”

The latest reports from the Harbors and Parks people of Orange County say that the tissue found in the belly of the lion was that of human beings:

“A presumptive test indicates that the unknown material found in the animal’s stomach is that of a human,” said DFG Wildlife Forensics Specialist Jim Banks….A necropsy of the mountain lion reveals that it was a 122-pound male in good nutritional condition. A rabies test was negative. The mountain lion’s age is estimated to be three to four years, based on an examination of its teeth in comparison to its body weight. Adult male mountain lions in California typically weigh between 120 and 150 pounds and are about seven to eight feet long, from nose to end of tail. Adult females are smaller-about six to seven feet long and weighing between 65 and 90 pounds.

Evidence retrieved from the mountain lion for forensic analysis includes stomach contents as well as material collected from the paws, face, and mouth. “Tests of the blood taken from the mouth and paws so far have shown only lion blood. However, when it comes to testing on humans, the Orange County Crime Lab is better equipped to process the samples.” said Banks. “Samples collected from the clothing of both victims are being sent here to Wildlife DNA experts Levine and Rodzen at DFG Wildlife Forensics Lab, where our specialty is wildlife DNA extraction and analysis. We will compare both sets of samples to the control samples we obtained from the lion.”

So the story at Whiting Ranch is “hurry up and wait”. Officials have taped off the area until they can be certain that they have the lion responsible for both attacks. Whiting Ranch will reopen soon.

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My Mountain Lion

I keep thinking back to October and then to the events of last Thursday. I remember that moment when the lion stood for half a second, two legs on the road, surprised in his charge; then the sight of his backside and from around the corner for several seconds, the dwindling pound of his flight.

The lion that killed the cyclist should have been shot. Perhaps this youngster who was shot by a Tribal Officer of the Pomo Indians deserved the same fate.

Part of me dreads, however. Was this my lion, the lion that I frightened off last October? The Orange County writers who have spoken up on the subject, so far, all agree that the lions should be left alone until they pose a menace to life. I agree. Even if it was my lion, I tearfully support the action that the California Department of Fish and Game took. I just ask like a disappointed father “How could he have been so stupid?”

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Felis concolor at Whiting Ranch Wilderness 3

Rangers and wardens were posted at the entrances to Whiting Ranch Wilderness, keeping hikers and bikers out of the zig-zag ridge country while trackers scoured the area to be sure that they’d killed the perpetrator of yesterdays attacks. I stopped to talk to Rangers Cathy and Laurie who were posted at the gate next to Concourse Park. Cathy told me that flowers have been left at the Borrego Creek entrance to the wilderness area. From our conversation, I was able to reconstruct what probably happened.

The biker had stopped along side the Cactus Trail which runs through the northeast corner of the park. I’ve often seen lion tracks while hiking along this and the North Pond Trail which parallels it: they come for the water. Another biker reported that he’d seen the fellow trying to fix his bike along a woody section. He offered to help, but the guy said he had the situation under control. The other biker went on.

One thing that we know from past experience is that you should never crouch in the presence of a mountain lion:

In Nepal, a researcher studying tigers and leopards watched the big cats kill cattle and domestic water buffalo while ignoring humans standing nearby. He surmised that a human standing up is just not the right shape for a cat’s prey. On the other hand, a person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal. If you’re in mountain lion country, avoid squatting, crouching or bending over, even when picking up children.

(See Living with California Mountain Lions by the California Division of Fish and Game)

What trackers found at the scene of the first kill was the body and the bike. The bike was standing on its kick stand with a broken chain. The vegetation around the kill was relatively undisturbed. What seems to have happened was that the lion sneaked up on the fellow while he was trying to fix his bike.

The other victim bumbled into the area following the attack while in the company of another biker. In this second case, the lion appears to have been defending its kill. I asked the ranger about her status: she sustained injuries to her scalp, her neck, and her face. She will require plastic surgery. The friend who beat off the attack was not physically injured. More than a few people have said that the friend is the kind of person that they would like to have hiking or biking with them.

The second disastrous encounter seems unavoidable. The first, on the other hand, stresses a rule that trail bikers riding through lion country should heed: if your bike breaks down, walk it out to a safe place before attempting repairs. If you meet someone stranded along a trail like this, either stay with them while they finish or, better, help them get their equipment out of the danger zone.

I do not mean to disparage either the victim or the fellow who failed to stop. Though my conjectures are based on information we already knew, I have not seen this advice specifically mentioned in trail guides for bikers. Those who are involved in trail biking groups should undertake to educate their fellows and consider the ways in which bikers might be in danger from lions and how they should act in the presence of lions.

We can and will learn from this. My sincere condolences to the family of the victim, to the woman who was mauled, and the two survivors of the incidents.

Results of the necropsy are still pending. The lion was a big boy, weighing about 110 pounds.

Whiting Ranch is closed for the weekend. It will reopen on Monday. I will go down there to see what I can see.

In an unrelated development, a female mountain lion was killed about six miles away from the Whiting Ranch attack near the entrance to Black Star Canyon. She was hit by a motor vehicle. The two incidents are not related.

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Felis Concolor at Whiting Ranch Wilderness 2

A reader put me on to this:

A mountain lion was shot and killed by authorities late Thursday after it attacked two bicyclists, injuring one woman in an Orange County wilderness park. The body of a man who may have been mauled by the same animal also was found nearby, authorities said.

The 2-year-old male cat, which weighed about 110 pounds, was shot shortly after 8 p.m. by an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the California Fish and Game Department. The lion had returned to the body of the dead man when it was spotted and shot, Martarano said.

The animal will be taken to a laboratory where a necropsy will be performed.

The attack occurred shortly after 4:30 p.m. in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park when a mountain lion pounced on a woman who was riding a bicycle with her friend, said Capt. Stephen Miller of the Orange County Fire Authority.

Could it be the same lion that I saw in October? I don’t know. I almost went for a walk in Whiting Ranch this afternoon but became entangled in writing and debating on IRC.

Many bikers zip through the park. I’ve often wondered if they presented a temptation to lions. Think of it: a biker never stops to look. He is always on the move, always — in the eyes of the lion — fleeing. It’s like dragging a piece of red yarn in front of your cat. It’s going to induce it to pounce.

I suspect that I know where in Whiting this happened: there’s a popular route that bikers like to roll through, thick with vegetation, large old oaks that present overhangs, and plenty of deer. All the cougar needed was to see red movement and jump.

For the record, I still feel that lions are welcome as long as they do not attack humans.

Deer, Puma Tracks, and Dead Rabbits

Though many of them have small children, my neighbors have been philosophical about the mountain lion. As long as it sticks to chasing the deer, they say, they have no problem with it living right under our noses.

On the long walk that I took through Whiting Ranch Wilderness today, I saw only five puma tracks. Many more were the tracks of deer, bobcats, hikers, and mountain bikers.

My one wildlife encounter was with a mule deer who stood about seventy feet up a hill from me just as I came out of a grove of weighty oaks. I stood there, leaning my chin on the head of my staff, returning the deer’s stare for several minutes. Then I tipped my hat and moved on. (I do not know if it was a doe or a buck. Both sexes have antlers in different seasons and in the autumn, neither of them do.)

Enroute to this sighting, I came upon a park ranger who was deciding what to do with a dead rabbit. It had clearly been killed and chewed. Most of its right haunch and the cheek had been eaten away. She decided to move it into the bushes so that whoever we had disturbed in the devouring of this Western Cottontail could come back and finish the feast.

The ranger told me that she liked people up here. They picked up their trash and the trash of other people. They obeyed the park rules and did not fret about the proximity of mountain lions and other wild beasts. Previous to this she’d spent twelve years at Upper Newport Bay where the elite ran their dogs without stooping to pick up the shit or keep them out of nesting areas.

It’s not the poor who are costing us nature, but the wealthy.

Moody Mountain Lions and Coyotes

Last night we saw a low, shaggy canine cross the road just below Cook’s Corner. It was partly shadowed, so I am not sure if I saw a coyote or a fox.

I told my neighbors about seeing the mountain lion the other evening. Christina was out jogging about the same time. She saw five or six big tracks down in the wash. It was just before dusk: she was out running too late. An uneasy feeling came over her. “I could hear the kids playing in the backyards up on the hill,” she told me. “I got nervous. I don’t know what it was.”

When she reported her nervousness to a neighbor who hates anything that smacks of preservation or conservation, he laughed. “There was nothing to be afraid of!

Now she knows better than to believe in a blind follower of Fox News. There’s no harm in caution.

A few weeks ago, a mountain lion was shot near San Juan Capistrano, about ten miles from here. According to KABC:

The animal sighting was reported by a man who was with his [six year old] son at the Ortega Equestrian Center.

Wilson said wardens threw rocks at the animal at first, but it was unfazed.

“It just sat and looked at them,” Wilson said. “It actually allowed them to get pretty close. They’re pretty sure they hit it because they were fairly close to it.”

The animal was wounded later by a state warden. It has not been seen since.

I do not believe that I saw the puma in question. This animal was healthy and afraid of me.

It strikes me as odd, however, that the lions are down here so early. We usually do not hear these reports until January.

What is driving the deer down from the mountain?

Not the wildfires. They are too far away.