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Late last April, in preparation for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in June, I began going on long, slow, weekly training runs through the southern Oregon mountains—sessions of from seven to 12 hours that covered as many as 60 miles. I'd fully expected that such extended periods of time alone in remote and rugged country would bring on extremes of emotion: waves of exaltation, bouts with self-pity and, most predictable of all, great stretches of excruciating boredom.
But it turned out that the training runs were far more eventful and exciting than I'd imagined they would be. I have no idea what caused it—heavier than usual snowpack at higher elevations, the glorious weather that came unexpectedly in early spring, a sharp upturn in wildlife populations or, most likely, mere coincidence—but I had more close encounters with animals than I'd experienced during the previous 15 years of hunting, hiking and running through the same mountains.
The first encounter occurred on a cool, sunny morning in early May, when I heard a cougar scream. I was just below the snow line in the Siskiyou Mountains, more than halfway along on an eight-hour 50-miler. About 60 yards ahead of me the trail curved sharply around some huge gray boulders that were piled at least 40 feet high. A large, nervous-looking doe came out from behind the boulders, looked back, hesitated for a second, and then, crossing the trail, bounded down a steep slope through a thick stand of Douglas fir. I could hear the hooves, like muffled drumbeats, on the forest floor. When I reached the spot where the doe's tracks crossed the trail, I stopped to look, but she was already out of sight in the shade of the trees below me. It was then, when I stopped and turned my back to the boulders, that I must have come between the cougar and its meal.
When the cat screamed, I jumped at least a foot off the ground. I glanced down at my forearm—I don't really know why except that I felt a tingling sensation there—and saw large goose bumps under a film of sweat and the hairs standing on end. Though I'd been running effortlessly over fairly level terrain for at least an hour, my heart was suddenly pounding loudly in my ears.
The scream lasted four or five seconds, and it sounded something like a hysterically shrieking woman. But even louder than that. It was primitive, a shrill, high-pitched screech that became higher in pitch as it increased in volume. Soon my ears were ringing, as if I'd been standing too close to an explosion, and just as I turned in the direction from which it was coming, the scream, at its highest pitch, stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
I never saw the animal. I think I saw where it had been, in a narrow, shaded crevice in the boulders about 20 feet above me.
For a few seconds after the shrieking ceased, I was aware of my vulnerability in ways that I'd never thought of before. Unprovoked cougar attacks on men are rare—though there have been a number of recorded incidents involving children—but I wasn't sure if coming between a cougar and his dinner was provocation or not. I was acutely conscious of my quick, shallow breathing, of the throbbing in my veins, of tired, insubstantial muscle over bone and of damp, fragile skin. I turned and ran on.
But my instinctive, momentary fear was quickly transformed into elation. By the time I got home—and the running seemed easy the whole way—I realized that from now on I wouldn't regard the lonely countryside as quite so lonely any more.
A week later I took another trail and began my run at 6 a.m. By eight I was near the end of a gradual 10-mile climb in the Cascade Range that would level off at an elevation of 5,000 feet. Already during the long climb I had seen a pileated woodpecker, several deer, some blue grouse and a family of mountain quail—two adults and at least eight half-grown chicks.
It was ideal running weather, cool and clear and with a slight breeze blowing out of the west, and the trail was due west, so the bright morning sun was directly behind me. I was daydreaming when I ran into the mother bear and her two cubs, and it was the direction of the wind and bright sun—combined with bears' poor vision—that allowed me to get as close as I did without them picking up my scent. When I spotted the first cub, it was standing sideways to me, in the shade at the edge of the trail only 20 yards ahead looking down over the edge into the forest. I stopped in my tracks, and then I saw the second cub, just behind the first, facing me, staring straight in my direction, apparently blinded by the sun.