Help me cope with mountain lion stress
December 21, 2016 12:25 PM   Subscribe

I love hiking. It is great cardio and I enjoy it, unlike running which is a boring slog for me. The closest hiking area too me is wonderful, but there has been a lot mountain lion activity there in the past year it is starting to creep me out. Am I just being paranoid?

Hiking is super healthy for me, and my brain tells me that mountain lion attacks are extremely rare and not something I should be worried about. But recently my gut is rebelling and telling me to stay away.

Recent cat activity in my preferred hiking area:
- About a year ago someone took a video of a mountain lion eating a deer in the preserve in the middle of the day.
- In January of this year this info was posted: "On Tuesday, January 12, there was an early morning encounter (a lion approached two runners in the dark) on the Upper Wildcat Canyon Trail, and that trail has been closed. Although the lion was non-threatening, it was the third instance in which it did not immediately flee, and the first in which it approached visitors."
- While I was hiking at the end of January someone spotted a mountain lion a ahead of me on the trail and warned me to turn back. This was not on the trail that had been closed.
- I have seen mountain lion tracks twice in the last month. I am sure they were mountain lion tracks because in one case I could see all four feet and they front feet were about 4' from the hind feet. The individual prints were about 3" across, and they were feline prints not canine prints. These were not deep in the preserve--they were only about a half a mile from the entrance and in relatively open area!
- Yesterday while I was hiking I suddenly realized that the forest had gone completely silent. I can't remember this ever happening before. Usually there is a lot of noise from birds, squirrels, etc. It creeped me out and I turned back to a more heavily trafficked trail instead of going the longer route as I had planned.
- I searched for info on local attacks thinking I would find nothing, but instead I found these two stories about neighboring preserves:

More info:
- The main piece of advice is to not hike alone, but unfortunately I haven't been able to find any hiking groups that meet when I have childcare, so it's either hike alone or don't hike.
- I am 5'10" so at least I am not a small person.
- I do not wear headphones and try to remain alert.
- I only hike in the middle of the day, not near dawn or dusk.
- I am aware of the recommendations for how to behave in the event of an attack.
- The preserve is loaded with deer, so I assume the mountain lions are well fed.

- I am considering carrying a hiking stick so I would have something in my hand to hit the cat with. Is this worthwhile?
- What about pepper spray?
- Is there any difference in risk for hiking in heavily forested vs. open areas? I always feel more comfortable in open areas because of the improved visibility, but both of my track sightings were in an open area, so maybe it doesn't matter.
- Is the whole "forest going silent when a predator is near" a real thing? Was I right to turn back when that happened?
posted by insoluble uncertainty to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Many animals e.g. squirrels and birds sound warnings when they see a predator, so the silent thing is not always true.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:37 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I hike in this same park, often alone. I don't have a lot of answers for you but I think the idea to carry the hiking poles and maybe a couple rocks if you are hiking there during quieter times is a good idea. Just know that it is unlikely that something is going to happen to you, if you see a Mountain Lion it is much more likely to run away than attack and choose to take the risk. Read what to do if you encounter a Mountain Lion. Knowing what to do can give you some security.

I *can* tell you that the first article you posted didn't entirely happen the way it had to be reported. Other people that were there that day reported that the parents were taking pictures of the kid with the mountain lion. The ML didn't "attack" the child. At most it defended itself or simply took advantage of a situation that was presented to it. The Mountain Lion let the kid go and ran off as soon as the adults yelled and chased it. Rule number 1 when hiking with kids in ML territory is to never let them be further away than arm's length. I hike there *all* the time and I am constantly seeing kids running down the trail that are not even in sight of their parents.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 12:40 PM on December 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Another suggestion.... Join the Sierra club or look for hiking meetups. If you don't find any scheduled hikes when you can go.... create your own outing and ask others to join you!
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 12:43 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

You are certainly in more danger on your drive/commute to the park than while hiking in it.
posted by French Fry at 12:47 PM on December 21, 2016 [17 favorites]

I read this book not all that long ago. It was informative and sobering. (I would also listen to your gut. This book is worth a read too.) Frankly, you are no match for a mountain lion, and there is enough overlap between mountain lion territory and your hiking trail at this point that I for one would go elsewhere to hike. Or maybe take up vigorous walking in a nice park for awhile. Or switch to running in safer locations. At a minimum, make sure you hike with others, never alone, if you keep to your current trails.

It is true that driving is more likely to kill you than hiking where mountain lions are. This will be little consolation if you are attacked. Where you are hiking sounds sufficiently risky to me right now to make alternate fitness plans.
posted by bearwife at 1:00 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have heard that fighting back will most likely drive away a cougar, so the stick is probably a good idea.

if you wanted to try creating a hiking group to go up there together I'd be pretty interested (because I WANT to see a mountain lion, I know this is dumb) but a group is much safer and I'd love to get out more and hike in the East Bay.
posted by supermedusa at 1:01 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Carry an air horn.
posted by rhizome at 1:02 PM on December 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Attacks are incredibly rare. If you go by California State Park visitations ONLY, just state parks, that's around 80 million visits a year. With 1 fatal attack in the last 2 years. You are more likely to die from an accident in a commercial Gym.
posted by French Fry at 1:04 PM on December 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think your gut is telling you that something is bothering you, but you are probably wrong about that something being the threat of mountain lions. Of course, it's possible, but as others have noticed it's really, really unlikely, and you are already on the safer side of wilderness adventures. Hiking is better than running (less likely to surprise) and being aware of your surroundings is important. I think if you get a hiking pole and double check your sensible-precautions-list (food sealed and away, phone charged and accessible), you'll be even more unlikely to have a run-in.
But that won't necessarily make you feel less anxious. Maybe use the next outing to have a running conversation with yourself about other scary things in the universe? I'm not trivializing this -- it's what I do, and somehow saying things out loud just makes them more manageable. I'm also told it keeps the bears away, so bonus!
Happy hiking!
posted by dness2 at 1:08 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I grew up in ML territory and lived around where you do now in college. I like the idea of a walking stick and/spray and/or an emergency alarm on a key chain thing. I have also heard several reports from friends of family living in such areas that large dogs are a good deterrent - I used to hike (I think the same?) trail and see a man jogging with his two Irish Wolfhounds! I used to take my roommates's cattle dog with me.

I'd hike slow and steady (not jog/run or ride a bike), continue to not wear headphones, and stick to the middle of the day.

You may be statistically more likely to die any number of other ways but personally ML completely creep me out and being hunted and eaten by a large predator sounds like a particularly awful way to go. No thanks.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:11 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bonus is that many of these tactics discourage creepy men as well, which was my other concern...
posted by jrobin276 at 1:11 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Carry an air horn" strikes me as a reasonable tactic as well... there's no need to aim or be composed or wait until the mountain lion is close enough to make it count, just wave your arms around and make crazy noise.
posted by mr. digits at 1:19 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Echoing French Fry, and acknowledging it can be difficult, but try and adjust your perception of the danger. While we have to consider that most people don't wander around mountain lion territory on a regular basis, overall we are much, much more likely to be killed by a dog than by a mountain lion.

I'm all about trusting one's gut, but instinct works best when well-informed.
posted by buxtonbluecat at 1:33 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in Mountain Lion country a lot and I totally share your concern. Carry a stick and an air horn. Enjoy the outdoors.
posted by jbenben at 1:37 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

just reading around on this, it seems like the best deterrent by far (as you note) is to be with someone else, so i'd put more effort into finding a walking companion. i don't know how these things work where you are, but i would try, finding a group on facebook, or putting up a card on a noticeboard in the park office. you mention not having found a hiking group, but you only really need one other person - there could be someone in a similar position to you who'd jump at the opportunity.

also, try reading up on previous attacks. most seem to have special reasons, like someone crouching down to fix a bike, which looks like a smaller / weaker animal. you could learn from those.

on pepper sprays: apparently they work, but the cat is a stealth hunter, and fast, so it's unlikely you'd get to use it effectively. on open v forested areas: open is better because there's less cover; they like to be hard to see when hunting. on the silent forest: i have no idea, but in general i would trust your instincts - that's likely evolution talking to you.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:44 PM on December 21, 2016

Although you don't have folks that can hike with you, could you offer to take a friend's dog with you?

Mountain lions are not scared of dogs, unlike some people say, but it's definitely nice to have an extra set of eyes and ears, and it would make you more of a hassle to eat! And in my experience, having a companion offers a lot of peace of mind.
posted by Grandysaur at 1:45 PM on December 21, 2016

FYI, dogs are not allowed at this specific park and may of the ones in this area.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 1:51 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nevermind, ignore me then!
posted by Grandysaur at 2:03 PM on December 21, 2016

I've run into mountain lions quite a few times in CA, for many years awe had a local one and people specifically went hiking early am to see her. It's incredibly unlikely one will interact with you, they typically freeze, state at you a bit and then disappear. They are not like bears that will attack when startled. Predatory attacks are not impossible but there are mtn lions everywhere in CA even in the cities so they are incredibly unlikely. Basically, I have no fear at all of mountain lions. I do have a healthy fear of and respect for bears , elk, moose and other big animals but mtn lions are particularly run-awayish for a large wild animal. It's a good idea to carry some kind of weapon or deterrent in general but as a common rule, not as a response to this rash of sightings which are most likely of a juvenile lion, a lot of whom die anyway.

As far as dogs. Dogs are more likely to get you into a fight with a lion by chasing it into the brush than to make an encounter go better.
posted by fshgrl at 2:07 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

As you indicate, the safest advice seems to be to never hike in cougar country alone. But even by yourself, make lots of noise; talk, sing.

Cats seem to be opportunity hunters: they tend to go after solo hikers/trail runners/individuals and they attack from behind. In the few attacks I'm aware of, the victims weren't paying close attention to their environment: kids playing or trail runners with earphones in. The cats seem to be able to pick up on this.

If you see evidence of the animals, scat or old prey, leave the area immediately.

For their own safety, as well as yours, any dogs in lion or bear country need to be on leash. Dogs tend to disturb the animals, then run back to you for safety. They can lead an attack back to you.
posted by bonehead at 2:16 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that humans' desire not to be around mountain lions is exceeded only by mountain lions' desire not to be around humans.
posted by rhizome at 2:27 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all the responses everyone. I realize that this is basically 99.999% anxiety management and 0.001% risk management, but the risk management has a funny way of helping with the anxiety management too.

This was not the original purpose of this post, but I just wanted to invite anyone who wants to check out this preserve (or one of the many neighboring ones) to MeMail me, even if you just want to go once and aren't looking for a long term hiking partner. It's called Rancho San Antonio and it's near Los Altos, CA.
posted by insoluble uncertainty at 3:36 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Cats seem to be opportunity hunters: they tend to go after solo hikers/trail runners/individuals and they attack from behind.

silly suggestion but I actually know someone who did this because they have a big fear of cougars - get a designated hiking hat and glue/sew big googly eyes onto the back of it
posted by mannequito at 5:04 PM on December 21, 2016 [10 favorites]

I think what your gut might be telling you is you are not so good with hiking alone, as that was the detail that stuck out to me.

So I say your gut is worth listening to as a hiking buddy is a safe and fun idea you may want to try. Maybe you just want the companionship, maybe you read one too many mountain lion stories, maybe you passed a guy who gave you the creeps on some level, maybe you've briefly wondered what would happen if you were hurt and alone, and that all added up and the anxiety took the form of the beast.
posted by kapers at 6:50 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

As you've noted the risk of attack let alone death is from a cougar/mountian lion attack is so vanishingly small as to be meaningless. (Something like 5 attacks and less than a death a year for the US and Canada combined). And if you peruse the list of deaths compiled on Wikipedia (itself an indicator of the freakishness of death by mountain lion) you'll see that most victims are children; adult humans just aren't seen seen as prey.

So any action you take will be effective; pepper spray and a heavy stick are good defences against many creatures you may encounter hiking including dogs who are way more likely to attack. You should buy at least two pepper spray containers and use one in a practice scenario just to see how it works. The stick should be tough enough to hit a solid object with some force without breaking.

Grandysaur: "Mountain lions are not scared of dogs, unlike some people say, but it's definitely nice to have an extra set of eyes and ears, and it would make you more of a hassle to eat! "

The big advantage to hiking with a dog in cougar country (realizing this isn't an option for the OP at their specific site) is the cougar is going to attack a dog rather than adult human letting the human run away.
posted by Mitheral at 7:11 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

BC recommends hiking in groups, making noise, making yourself big and not running if you encounter a cougar and carrying a sturdy stick to fight back with if attacked (and do fight back, most attacks not leading to death have the victum fighting back even if just with fists).
posted by Mitheral at 7:17 PM on December 21, 2016

I do a lot of field work in areas with mountain lions, but the attacks are so rare that it honestly isn't part of our safety planning and protocols. Traffic accidents, hunters, and falling off of cliffs are real risks; mountain lion attacks just don't happen often enough to worry about. That may change if the populations keep growing and people keep moving into transitional habitats, but right now it isn't something to lose sleep over.

That said, I am in favor of carrying something that would work as a weapon, and it is always safer to have a companion.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:30 PM on December 21, 2016

I think hiking in the canyons in general can be creepy as hell. You drop over a ridge and the outside world noise just disappears and the temperature and vegetation change and you lose your cell signal and it's like you went through a portal sometimes. The first time I saw a ringtail I seriously thought I'd fallen into an alternate reality. Then a mountain biker or a turkey bursts out of the underbrush and scares the life out of you but at least it's back to reality.

I think it's hard for people who aren't from there to understand how people just wander off and get lost in CA canyons. They're not that big! But they're disorienting.
posted by fshgrl at 8:22 PM on December 21, 2016

Always make sure you leave your hiking plans with someone or in your car. This is risk management so that if something were to happen, people will realize you're missing sooner and know where to look and your chance of successful rescue goes up. I have a similar issue with bear anxiety and knowing what to do for prevention and in case of engagement has really helped. Good luck!
posted by HMSSM at 10:23 PM on December 21, 2016

I am also in your general area - a few miles north of you well south of SF. Our town has some nice open space and greenbelt areas and also sits next to protected SF watershed land. Consequently, there are ML in and out of our area throughout the year. Most go completely unnoticed, but not all. There was a ML sighting in our neighborhood last weekend, in fact, about 1 mile from our house in the bottom of the canyon. Nothing came of it except an post on Nextdoor telling folks where the ML was sighted and to look after their house pets. However, a few of years ago, a mountain lion killed a deer on the local middle school sports field overnight and left behind a very, very bloody scene. I have a lot of respect for MLs - they are apex predators and incredibly stealthy hunters. They can hunt from above, they can hunt from the side, and they can hunt from behind. They are in my area (and/or I am in their area). They're real and as their habitat gets further impinged they are venturing more often into populated areas.

So with all of that as preface, I don't think being concerned about an ML attack is out of line or even paranoia, I think it is just common sense to be concerned about a potential threat that could kill or maim you, even if the statistical likelihood of an attack is low. I'm an Eagle Scout and an experienced backpacker, hiker, and mountain biker, and even though the threat of actual harm is low, I take the possibility seriously and avoid hiking at dusk or hiking solo when possible.

The thing to remember is that if a ML were to attack there would likely be very little warning - they are quick and strong, they will attack from your blind side; this is how they feed themselves so they are very good at it. Sure, humans are waaaaaaay down on their menu, but we're still on the menu.

Trust your senses when you are in ML country - if the woods goes silent, or you feel the hair on the back of your neck standup or like you are being watched, you probably are being watched. Make noise. Make yourself look as big as possible. Leave (but don't run).

Bring an airhorn, bring a walking stick, bring bear repellant - whatever it takes for you to gain some peace of mind. The best safeguard is to hike with others, and if I couldn't find friends to hike with me I'd join a hikers' group. Pretty much all of CA is ML territory these days, especially since ML can no longer be hunted as game animals. Their population continues to grow and their habitat continues to shrink. This will lead to more and more encounters, and each encounter is potentially dangerous. Be safe.
posted by mosk at 10:47 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

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