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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wildlife Sightings

   Seeing wildlife has always been a special treat for me. It doesn't have to be anything out of the ordinary, just seeing a deer in a field on the way to work or a hawk swooping over the road seems to brighten the day.

   One of the first wildlife sightings that I can remember happened when I was ten or eleven and we were camping at Coons Bluff on the Salt River out in Arizona. That used to be one of the family's favorite camping spots back then and I loved it. The river was on one side, running crystal clean and cold, just perfect to swim in during the hot summer days. On another side was the desert stretching away toward the Superstition Mountains with all the snakes, lizards and spiders needed to make a perfect camping spot for a ten year old boy. To the north in a half mile strip along the river was a thicket of willow and mesquite trees full of birds. I can remember waking up to the sounds of quail and doves and will forever associate those sounds with the desert. My favorite part of Coons Bluff was to the south and the huge sandstone cliff that bordered the edge of the campgrounds. The cliff was at least a hundred feet high which was huge to me and pretty well straight up. It was impossible to climb and believe me, I tried, but there was a gully that a nimble footed kid could climb all the way to the top and as soon as the camp was set up and I was able to sneak away from Mom it's the first place I'd head. I had to be careful because Mom didn't like the idea of me climbing there (for good reason) and would give me hell every time she caught me doing it, plus I had to worry about my tattletale sister who would snitch me off every time she saw me headed toward the gully. Even with all that, the cliff still drew me like a moth to flame and I would still manage to get to the top at least once a day.

   At the bottom of that gully was where I saw my first Gila monster which I immediately captured and took back to camp to show off. For some reason no one else seemed to think carrying one of only two poisonous lizards in the world back to camp was as cool as I thought it was. When Mom and Carolyn saw it they both started screaming and pointing and my step dad wanted to kill it! I ended up having to carry it back to the gully and turn it loose which was a real bummer because I thought it would make a really neat pet. About three quarters of the way up that gully is also where I saw my first rattlesnake. I wanted to catch him and show him off to everyone but he crawled under a big rock and I wasn't able to drag him back out even though I broke three sticks trying. I guess after the reception I got with the lizard taking him back to camp wouldn't have been a good idea anyway.  

   Beyond the top of that gully was where I had the wildlife sighting that will live in my memories the rest of my life. I had been sleepy the night before and went to bed long before anyone else did so I was the first one up the next morning. This was my chance to get some prowling in while there was no one around to tell me where I could or couldn't go and there was no question about where I was going. It was still the cool of the morning so I didn't see a single snake or lizard on the climb up that gully. I took my time and checked every nook and cranny but there just wasn't anything stirring around. I wasn't worried too much, I figured as soon as I got to the top into the sunshine and out of the shade I would be able to find some good stuff. The top of the cliff was pretty flat with just a few mesquite trees, cactus and clumps of grass growing from the cracks in the rock. One thing I loved doing up there, and got into trouble for it many times, was to sit on the edge of the cliff with my feet hanging over and just admire the view; the whole camp ground was spread out below me kind of like looking down at a model train set. I could see the Superstition Mountains off to the right and the river winding back into the hills to my left. There were a few good size ledges going down the cliff face that looked kind of like a giant staircase. I always wanted to be able to climb down those ledges but they were far enough apart that I figured if I tried it I'd end up stuck half way down and would really be in trouble then. This morning I settled down, my feet hanging over the edge, feeling the warmth of the morning sun and was enjoying the view when I decided to drop a few rocks down to the first ledge. There wasn't any reason to do that other than just being something to do and to listen to the sound of them bouncing off the ledge. I dropped the first one off and as it hit the ledge I saw something move from the corner of my eye. I thought it might be a snake and tried to spot where movement had been. I didn't see anything for a minute then a shape began to appear. It was kind of like those pictures where there's just a bunch of lines but the longer you stare at it the more you see the picture imbedded in the lines. Even after I realized what I was seeing I kept staring at it for a few more minutes having trouble believing what I was actually looking at.

   There, less than eight feet below me was a mountain lion!  I knew exactly what it was because I'd seen one in the zoo but there were no bars between this one and me. I was to scared to even move! It was just laying there on the ledge soaking up the sun and staring up at me. I felt like I should jump up and start running but the same time I was so excited I didn't think I'd be able to stand much less run. I will admit that he was just about the prettiest thing I had ever seen. His fur was just about the same color as the sandstone he was laying on and you had the feeling of power even though he was just laying still. I'm not sure how long we sat there starting at other before he stood up, but when he did it scared me even more. My heart did a couple of flips and I thought for sure I was going to wet my pants. He stood there for a minute then started walking down the ledge passing right below me. He never even looked at me after he started walking but I never took my eyes of him for a second. I wasn't sure how he was going to get to the top of the cliff but I was afraid I might be sitting in the spot he would need to climb up. He walked past me to my left and for the first time I noticed that the ledge angled up going that way which brought it closer to the top of the cliff. Once he was at that end he jumped to the top, but to me it didn't look like he had actually jumped, it was more like a flowing movement, one second he was on the ledge and the next he standing on the top about ten feet away from me. I hate to admit it but when he hit the top I'm pretty sure I did wet my pants just a little. I thought for sure that he was going to attack me now that he close and there wasn't a thing I could do about it. My brain was yelling to get up and run but my body just kind of melted down and refused to move. He just stood there on the top of that cliff and stared at me for a couple of seconds then turned and walked off into the desert.

   I watched him until he finally moved behind some rocks and disappeared into the desert. I still remember the relief and the disappointment I felt when he was gone. I just couldn't believe I had really seen a mountain lion. It surprised me at how hard it was to stand up when I finally decided to head back to the camp. It felt like my legs were made of rubber and I know it took me twice as long to climb back down through the gully than normal. I had to tell everyone at camp what I had seen but other than Mom I'm sure any of them really believed me. I'm pretty sure she did because later, when no one was looking she gave me a hug, told me she worried about me and ask me not to climb the cliff alone any more.