A Mountain Lion Prowls the Neighborhood

There’s a place along the Skagit River where I like to wander. Upstream and downstream, the river is lined with rural home sites, but in between there’s a small pocket of undeveloped land where relatively few people go. Compared to the wild lands surrounding nearby Mount Baker and the North Cascades, it’s a small area and nothing close to what most people would consider wilderness. A regenerating clear cut sits on a terrace above the water. Below it, the river flows through a shallow S-curve and a swampy area occupies the annual floodplain. Filled with a willow thicket, it’s a good place to hide, for me as well as many other animals.

I’ve made it a habit to explore the animal trails leading in, out, and through the floodplain. In the spring, when the water table is higher, Pacific tree frogs spawn in ephemeral pools. In fall, a black bear visits the riverbank to scavenge spawned-out salmon. All year, elk use it to move between pasture. I frequently see sign left by coyotes, and if I look hard enough I might be able to find the tracks and scat of bobcats. While I rarely see the live animals, exploring their haunts helps keep me connected to the other creatures that I share this place with. I have a spot within this area where I like to sit and listen, but sometimes the most interesting observations happen upon my approach and exit into this little pocket of wilder land.

Following an elk-maintained path down to the riverbank, I exited the forest onto a muddy side-channel, now mostly dry after a long, arid summer. The exposed mud and sand of late summer offer some of the best tracking opportunities of the year. I slowed my pace, eager to see which animals had moved through the area recently. In the semi-firm mud, I stumbled upon a set of feline tracks. The tracks were large, as wide as the palm of my hand with four clear toe prints. There were no claw marks and the sizable metacarpal pads were distinctively three-lobed at the base. These belonged to a mountain lion.mountain lion tracks in mud. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion track in mud. track point towards right. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion tracks in sand. tracks point towards notebook at bottom of photo. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.Curious to know more about its travels here, I followed the tracks along the edge of the river. The cougar followed the same general path I would have to move upstream; it stuck to the mud and driftwood on the edge of the willows. From the additional tracks I was able to find, the cougar continued along the riverbank for another hundred yards before I lost the trail in the adjacent thicket.

Based on my completely unscientific survey of mammal sign in the surrounding few acres, elk seemed to be the most abundant large animal here. They left many sets of tracks that moved perpendicularly from the river and into the deep cover provided by the willows. Was the lion stalking potential prey, or was it simply wandering through? Could a kill site be nearby? My imagination ran with the possibilities, but the dense vegetation would effectively hide any further evidence of the lion’s travels—unless I was lucky enough to stumble upon more sign.

Discounting that possibility as too unlikely, I left the river by following a narrow elk trail lined with salmonberry. The trail led, in a convoluted manner, to my sit spot where I sat for while to jot a few written notes and listen to the forest.

forest scene with taller trees in background and many small shrubs in foreground

To head home, I took a different yet familiar route along more elk trails. By this time, I wasn’t expecting to find any more sign of cougars (the duff was too well compacted and dry to hold their paw prints), but when I reached a fork in the trail I found evidence that at least one cougar had visited the area several times. Under low hanging branches of western red-cedar were four large scrapes. Each scrape was oblong and about a foot in length. Each had a small pile of debris at the base and three were accompanied by scat.

photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.

Mountain lions are reported to urinate when they make scrapes, but I couldn’t detect any strong urine odor despite kneeling down for a better waft. Evidently, the cougar had been here several times, but not that day and perhaps not even the past week. It looked to be eating well when it was here though. One pile of scat was sizable and reflective of a diet heavy with meat.

I found no other mountain lion sign that day, but the scrapes and tracks caused my mind to again race with the possibilities of its life here. Did it make a kill nearby? Or, was it merely using the heavy cover as a secure place to rest between meals? I left with more questions than answers. This mountain lion’s story might be missing some pages, but sometimes the finer details of a good tale are best left to the imagination.

The Other Wanderer

Most mammals aren’t keen to reveal themselves to people, which I understand. I don’t want to be around people much of the time either. Unless I’m very lucky or very observant (sometimes it’s both), I typically don’t see the more elusive animals that inhabit the North Cascades ecosystem. Winter, however, provides an opportunity to see the animals without actually seeing them.

In winter, animal tracks in snow reveal stories I could never read otherwise. Without tracks, I would be oblivious to the presence of most animals, so on every trip outside I look for them. On a recent ski journey, I found some tracks I did not expect to see.

The day was comfortable (35˚F/2˚C) and sunny. The snow was reasonable firm. I parked Large Marge at the end of plowed section of road and skied up valley. Skiing wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t a slog either. With long sleeves, I felt overdressed in bright sun, so I paused frequently to cool down and enjoy the view.

River running through snowy forest.

Pillows of snow sat on rocks in Stehekin River downstream of High Bridge in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.

I found High Bridge, which is the boundary between the national recreation area and the national park, buried under several feet of snow.

cabin in deep snow

The NPS cabin at High Bridge was mostly buried by snow.

outhouse buried in snow

Good thing I didn’t have to use a toilet, because this outhouse at High Bridge wasn’t accessible.

Up to this point, I had seen or heard little evidence of animals. Douglas squirrels were active because I found bracts from Douglas-fir cones scattered under a couple of trees. Red-breasted nuthatches occasionally called from the tree tops (this species is one of the most common in the Stehekin Valley in the winter; at least one of the most vocal.) There was no sign of large or even medium sized mammals.

The snowy road offered a convenient path so I followed it up valley, especially since the avalanche forecast was high and I didn’t want to risk getting caught in any slide. About a mile from High Bridge, I noticed a set of faint, but fairly large tracks in the snow.

wolverine tracks in snow next to ski pole

The set of tracks I found. What animal made them?

The tracks were fairly large, although I lacked measuring tape to get accurate measurements. My first thought was “mountain lion,” but then logic started to creep in (thanks Spock). Mountain lions eat many animals, but prey probably isn’t abundant enough in the mid to upper Stehekin River valley at this time of the year to sustain a mountain lion. I saw no deer tracks, even though deer are common in the lower valley now. Other characteristics of the tracks eliminated mountain lion as the source.

  • The tracks weren’t the right size or shape.
  • Their pattern, or gait, was a 3 x 4 lope.
  • Claws marks registered with almost every track.
  • The tracks rarely broke through the snow’s surface crust. This animal, despite its size, could float on the snow.
  • Fur marks often registered around the toes.
  • Most importantly, this animal had five toes.

This was a wolverine.

wolverine track in snow next to basket on bottom of ski pole.

This fairly distinct wolverine track clearly shows the animal’s five toes. The basket on the ski pole is 7.5 x 7 cm.

The track pattern indicated it was walking in some places, but loping most of the time.

Wolverine tracks in snow.

Wolverine tracks in snow. Each set of three, starting from the bottom, represents a one lope made by the animal.

Wolverines are the largest members of the weasel family and occupy huge home ranges. The tracks were fresh, their crispness suggested they were made early in the morning or overnight. If they had been made the day before, the warm sun would’ve obscured some of their finer details.

What might it eat in this habitat? Perhaps one of the squirrels or hares out and about.

scales from Douglas-fir cone scattered on snow

A Douglas squirrel had recently torn apart a Douglas-fir cone on this pile of snow.

Snowshoe hare tracks in snow next to ski

Snowshoe hares were also moving about the forest.

At Tumwater Bridge, the wolverine continued across right next to tracks of a marten, a smaller more arboreal member of the weasel family.

wolverine tracks (bottom) next to smaller marten tracks. Tip of ski at bottom center.

Wolverine tracks (bottom) run parallel to marten tracks.

The day was waning at this point, so I turned around and left the wolverine and its tracks behind.

Last year, a large male was trapped and radio collared at Easy Pass by the U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. This is almost 20 kilometers due north of the tracks I found. Could it have been the same one?

Maybe, maybe not. Wolverines occupy huge territories and are rare in this area. I was lucky to stumble upon this set of tracks before they disappeared in overnight rain. That day, I was probably the only human in the south unit of North Cascades National Park, but I certainly wasn’t the only mammal prone to wander.

Read more about on the wolverine’s status in Washington.