Locked And Loaded. Photograph By Michael Patrick McCarty
Very few sounds heard in the wildlands of North America can completely capture your full and unmitigated attention like that unmistakable vibration of a rattlesnake in waiting. I located that sound recently while on a scouting trip for Pronghorn in Northwestern Colorado, emanating steadily from a clump of low hanging sage not very far from my feet. And to be honest, I can still hear it today, bouncing between my ears among the technicolor memories of my mind.
In this case the source of that infamous buzz was about two feet of Crotalus viridis, commonly known as the Prairie Rattlesnake. Yet no matter the name, or the size, of one thing there was no doubt. This snake meant business from the business end, and I wanted no part of that transaction. My guess is that it would have really preferred to skip the encounter too, though perfectly willing to do as it must. He is but a snake, after all.
Prairie Rattlesnakes are the most common Rattlesnake in Colorado, and they seem to be particularly prevalent in the areas that I frequent. This was the second live close encounter (others being found dead in the road) that I have had in as many years; the first I would have surely stepped on had it not been good enough to slither off of the trail when it sensed me coming. Before these interactions you could say that I had never worried too much about snakebite.
I do now!
The available literature seems to indicate that maximum length for a Prairie Rattlesnake in Colorado is about 3 1/2 feet, although there are mentions of much bigger snakes in the historical record. I did listen to a first hand account of a five foot or better snake killed in my hunting area just this summer, and I have no reason to doubt the source. Nobody really knows their population parameters and distributions. Fact is, there are a lot of rattlesnakes about the land, and apparently they can be…big.
Antelope hunters, and bowhunters in particular, should be well enough aware of that stark reality. Blinds on waterholes are often the preferred method of hunting with short range weapons. These locations are also preferred by the wildlife of the area, both large, and small. And snakes…
Temperatures, particularly at night, are warm; the little creatures, and the rattlesnakes that prey upon them, are active. Put it all together and it can easily spell some trouble of the bad kind for the bowhunter hurrying to the ambush point in the low light of early morning.
So, in summary, a quick tap of fangs may not kill you and dry bites are possible, but you can be fairly certain of one thing. It will be a more than unpleasant experience, and most likely a medically significant and tissue altering event. Antivenom and emergency treatment can be very expensive, resulting in what may be a financially devastating hospital bill at the end of the day, or week.
Best to avoid that possibility as much as you can. Be aware, snake aware, and ready.
You might also want to invest in a good pair of snake boots, or snake chaps, and a much brighter headlamp. Or perhaps even better, always let someone else go first, like your long time hunting partner.
Thirsting For Water At the End Of The Trail. Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
You can feel them waiting, the elk…patiently, longingly, for the rapidly approaching darkness that signals an end to an impossibly hot, late summer day in the drylands of the west.
For there are eyes, and life, on the trail, which just minutes before offered nothing up but sun baked sand and rocks that might permanently sear the touch of a human hand.
They do not wait for the hunter to return to the comfort of camp, or home. In the deserts of everywhere the hunter of game may be the least of their worries, and the herd is driven by much more basic needs. Extreme heat has a way of focusing the body and being and the inner workings of every last cell down to one vital and all encompassing purpose.
For one more second…and one more day. One more sunrise, and moonrise, and another life sustaining gulp of water. This too, this murderous furnace, shall pass.
In the mean time, just what can a bowhunter do when the air that slams your lungs hovers near 100 degrees? The answer is simple, though not always obvious. Things will change, as surely as the earth continues it’s orbit away from the sun. Until then, one can only do what a bowhunter does best.
Wait… Listen… Learn…Plan…
Slink to the shade, like all wild things must. Hunt when you can. Head for water, when it’s time.
Darkness Visible. Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
“And the fox said to the little prince: Men have forgotten this truth. But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery, From The Little Prince
A young elk tests out a hummingbird feeder in a backyard garden, somewhere near Carbondale, Colorado.
Not to be undone, a mule deer buck gets his licks in too!
‘Tis the season when big Mule Deer bucks began to pour from muted landscapes in search of females, where just days before there were no deer.
‘Tis the time of frost and biting wind, then snow. The moment is filled with purpose and perpetual motion, and the promise of primordial ritual. It is the time of gathering, of courtship, and the battle for the right to breed. It is the annual Mule Deer rut, and it is happening now, all around us.
At no other time of the year are the bucks so visible, so distracted, proud, but yet so vulnerable. You cannot witness the spectacle without being drawn to the precipice, suspended there on the periphery of their stirrings.
I am lucky to live in an area of the West that has more than it’s share of mature and trophy animals. To watch them is to know them, at least as much as a human can.
To be there, in and around them, reaches towards the place in the soul where the wild things are. The scene reminds us that there are bigger things going on in the world just outside the limited vision of our everyday lives. It’s raw and it’s real, and it simply must happen. The survival of the species, of their’s, and perhaps of ours, is at stake.
To this I say, thank the heavens for the mule deer. May you rule the Rockies forever!
When a really big buck lopes along through the forest, sagebrush, or whatever, he is a sight to behold. The big body seems to churn along smoothly and fluidly. Powerful muscles carry him across rocky hillsides, through heavy brush, and thick forests. As he runs, he carries his head forward and slightly lowered, swaying his glistening rack back and forth to avoid obstructions in his path…A trophy buck sails along like a racehorse, especially if he wants to put some space between himself and something he doesn’t like…It’s interesting that many hunters, perhaps the majority, come completely unglued when they’re treated to the sight of a grand buck… – Jim Zumbo
Hunting America’s Mule Deer by Jim Zumbo. Winchester Press, 1981. Hardcover, in Very Good+ condition, with a short tear to dustjacket. With gift inscription by and signed by Jim Zumbo.
“Adoration is as alien to wild nature as blasphemy. Nature transcends love, goodness, malevolence or evil. It is simply a primordial force – shining, aloof and brooding, a vast sweep of power too awful to be imbued with human emotions, virtues or mischiefs. It is presumptuous to adore nature as it is to kick a redwood”.
Many of our followers are aware that I have done a lot of security work over the years, and I still do. I’ve spent many sleepless nights on one type of patrol or another, and I’ve learned to notice many things that most people miss in the world all around them.
Last night I missed a chance to see a big mountain lion moving just a short distance from my solitary post. It was reported to me by an excited and breathless observer, who apparently had some trouble believing his own eyes. He just had to tell somebody, and I’m glad it was me.
The sighting took place on the black top and concrete of a two-track bridge over a cold, clear river in western Colorado, not far from the unfenced yards of several exclusive homes and the manicured grounds of a large country club and golf course. It seemed an unlikely spot to find such a magnificent predator, or so he thought. For his part, the tawny beast was no doubt chagrined to find himself caught in such an exposed and vulnerable position.
The lion enjoys good company as he hunts. Coyote, the all-seeing trickster grows more bold and opportunistic with each passing year, having learned long ago to take advantage of the nonchalance of the family pet. He may have learned it from the big cat. Likewise, encounters with black bears are increasing, as are people and bear conflicts. As a result we receive many complaints about coyotes and bears on the property that I roam, and it looks like it may become particularly bad in this time of terrible drought.
After all, we are surrounded by the rocky mountain west, with national forest and other undeveloped lands close at hand. Still, a mountain lion report is big and electrifying news which will surely surge throughout the small community by morning. This creature rules by stealth, and it is no surprise that most people have never seen one outside of a zoo or animal park.
I have been quite fortunate to study them several times in my adventures and wilderness travels. I’ve spied them without them seeing me, and I’ve noted their reaction when they realize they haven’t seen me first. I’ve hunted them several times, and have found myself standing with the bawling hounds under the killing tree, with an angry and snarling cougar above. I’ve followed their distinctive paw prints over hill and dale, and on more than one occasion found their tracks following me. I love to watch them under any circumstance, and to see them do their thing for any amount of time is an awe-inspiring experience that marks an indelible impression. I can see a stalking cat right now, in my mind.
What I don’t like is this long-tailed ghost watching me, particularly when Idon’t know it. I have absolutely no doubt that it’s happened, countless times, at close range and but a primordial fang away. I’d take a bet that it’s happened to you too, if you have spent any significant amount of time in puma country. Fates can change quickly, as the tip of a cat’s tail twitches, measuring what to do. But of course, we will never really know, and it only adds to the mystery and magic of it all.
I would have explained this to my wide-eyed mountain lion man, if I could have gotten a word in edgewise. There are some noteworthy visitors out there in the black night, just out of reach of headlight beams or human consciousness.
Think about that the next time you enjoy a hike on a shadowy mountain trail in a quaking aspen grove, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up for some unknown reason. You may wish to honor that sense. It’s there for a purpose.
Keep it in the back of your mind the next time you go out at night to check on your chickens or other animals in your backyard or back forty. Catch a breath, and take a second to wonder about what just made a nearly silent footfall, behind or above.
The possibility of a lion nearby reminds us of the wilds at the edges, and grounds us in the realities of the natural world. It’s an unsettling thought for some, and one that many of us have to live with when we spend time in the places that we love. Still, I would rather live where I live knowing that a mountain lion lives here too, rather than in a place known to have no mountain lions, and wishing that it did.
It’s a reality I am happy to accept, in the hope of but a quick glimpse, in the corner of an eye.
There is not a week goes by that someone does not ask if we have had any puma reports, and I must say, I’m a bit anxious myself. The leaves in the high county are beginning to turn color already, far too early it would seem, and it won’t be long before the early snows are as high as an elk’s belly and the mule deer are headed for the lower valleys along the river. The big cats are sure to follow, and it is then that there is a fair chance to record them on a well placed trail camera. We hope that the hunting is good this season, for us, and for mountain lions everywhere.
You can see a short video of our night-time visitor here.
Game trail cameras are an invaluable tool for those wishing to document the comings and goings of our wild neighbors, particularly in those magic hours between dusk and dawn. Strategically placed, they can capture a delightful display of animal movements not otherwise observed. It’s great entertainment, with the promise of true surprise within easy reach. My anticipation of the next photo or the next video can barely be contained. You never really know what you’re gonna get…
We use several cameras scattered about the property, which we move on a regular basis. Our main interest lies in the activities of the creatures with two legs. We watch for trespass, intrusion, and foul play. That, of course, is a story for another time. Animal sightings are the bonus feature to the main event.
Today’s review of the image collection was no exception. They held the usual cast of characters. Marmots, foxes, and inquisitive raccoons. Wandering pets, and the occasional biker. One frame held the faint outline of a bear in the shadows, and another the up close face of a young mule deer.
And as you may have guessed by now, one camera captured a video segment of a mature lion on the prowl. At first there was nothing but the wide emptiness of the night, then the world lit up as the beams of infrared caught the ghostly figure like the flashes from an electronic campfire.
He was big and long and solidly built, with well-defined muscles that rippled on his bones as he padded easily back to who knows where. No doubt he had used this route before.
A house loomed large here too, just out of camera range. I know, because I set the camera there myself.
My reaction was sharp, and visceral. It’s one thing to hear someone else talk excitedly about their sighting and personal experience. You want to believe, yet, there’s always a little room for doubt in undocumented reports. It’s quite another matter when you actually see a lion for yourself, or have indisputable evidence in hand.
Real is real, and but a moment away from memory. It is undefinable proof of the untamed mystery of our realm, accessible to all just inches from the comforts of our daily routines.
I shall do my best to stay out of the big cat’s path and unseen wanderings, yearning, for his eventual return.
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech”. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
There are many great books about improving your property or backyard for nature and wildlife, and you might wish to pick up a copy of:
A Journal of Wild Game, Fighting Fish, and Grand Pursuit