I had a backpacking trip into the Yosemite back country scheduled for early October. A wildfire helped cancel that plan. I had everything ready so I decided to do something closer to home. There’s a drop-in camp site at Castle Rock State Park. This would be a nice opportunity to experiment with some ideas. I wanted to write a brief travel blog about fun local backpacking, to demonstrate that you could do simple astro photography with a low end camera and a kit lens, and to play around with going light with camera gear for future trips. Things went perfectly to plan until they really didn’t.
Spoiler alert: it involves a mountain lion.
Before we go any further I want to clarify something. Do not panic about the mountain lions. Sharks live in the water, mountain lions live in the mountains. I’ve still never seen a shark near our surfers. Similarly just because I came across a mountain lion doesn’t mean that they’re getting more aggressive or numerous in general. I believe that the experience from this trip was very unusual and even then nobody got hurt. Now back to my story…
This is an easy hike even if you’re not in especially good shape, so getting to the camp was just good fun even with a full pack. I brought just about everything I was taking on the Yosemite trip mostly because I had it packed already anyway. Everything went without a single hiccup. OK there was a minor thing with the Peak Design Capture that I was using. I may have twiddled a knob and the camera jammed in there and I was unable to get it back out about 1/2 into the hike. This had happened once before and I was only a little annoyed. FYI the nice folks at Peak Design helped me understand what I probably did: there’s a nob off to the side that’s intended to keep a mount in place specifically for a front-facing GoPro. I had likely tightened that when I should have left it alone. But in the grand scheme of things, this really wasn’t a big problem.
I brought my Canon Rebel XT, the 18-55mm kit lens, and a 24-200 Tamron lens that my wife bought for me forever ago for my old Canon film SLR (note: that lens is pushing 20 years old. They’re way better now). I wanted to see if this old lens would be utilitarian and high enough quality such that it could still be useful. It wasn’t, but I enjoyed the experiment. The kit lens was for wide angles and for the night shots. And hell, it’s so lightweight that there’s no penalty for bringing it. The tripod was my Joby Gorillapod; again very lightweight and versatile. I even brought a simple tripod head, a Vanguard SBH-100 . Everything was basic and nothing special.
The hike was fun. I took snapshots of rock climbers and even helped a couple of lost hikers. I was feeling really good about this and having a great time.
There are a couple of tricky parts to the hike. My pack is the older external frame type so it’s a little wide. Getting across narrow passages meant getting creative.
Once I got close to camp I actually felt a little down since it almost over. I setup camp, laid everything out, and took a couple of “happy campsite” pictures.
You know, tent up, dinner cooking, camp chair, a good book; outdoorsy fun. I made a good dinner, enjoyed desert, then setup for a “glowing night time tent” picture.
Right about then a deer went running through my campsite. Not like it was just in a hurry to get somewhere — it was running from something in a panic. I noted this and even considered the possibility that maybe it had seen a puma. I discounted the idea that the puma could be especially close since hey, noisy, smelly, weird people. Hell I was fairly close to the Los Altos Rod & Gun Club and there was all kinds of noise coming from there. No reason to be concerned about a mountain lion. Now was an OK time to clean up from dinner.
The sun was setting soon and I wanted to go do my demo of low-end DLSR astrophotography. I knew an overlook nearby that would allow for a decent shot of the Milky Way setting behind the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I gathered my things and hustled up to the overlook before it got dark. The landscape photography and attempts at photographing the soaring buzzards didn’t go especially well with the old 24-200mm. The focus just wasn’t very sharp and autofocus was far too slow. It reminded me of way back when I thought this was the greatest lens ever though.
Before the sun set I made a short video to explain what I was doing, what I was using, and how anybody could do it. Once the sun set what I really discovered was that yeah, there’s a minimum requirement for shooting the Milky Way: live view. If you don’t have live view then you’re not going to get the stars in focus with this lens. You just can’t zoom in on a star with the eyepiece. Before you ask, sorry the Micro-SD card got corrupted and that video is lost to the digital dumpster. Let’s look at this from another point of view though: it can be done. Somebody might even be absolutely stoked that they took this photo himself and that would be perfect.
I walked back to camp about an hour after sunset. I’m no dummy so I’m making plenty of noise to let the potential animals know I’m coming and that I should be uninteresting or at least not worth the risk to them. Once I got to the campground I looked up and saw a pair of large glowing eyes up in a tree reflected in my headlamp. I wasn’t concerned because this was probably a possum or raccoon. I didn’t think much more about this. I got back to my tent, rummaged around to setup the lamp for the “glowing happy tent photo”, and looked up. There was a small pair of eyes in the bush about 10 feet away. I thought very little about this; raccoon or possum again. I went back to the table to setup for my picture, arranged things the way I liked them, and made a couple of exposures as the battery died. Right about then my phone beeped to let me know that it’s battery was going too. No problem, just great timing.
Then I looked up again. The little eyes were replaced with two big ones.
I was 20 meters away from that bush and the eyes were much larger. Whatever it was, it was low to the ground so potentially a raccoon, but I kept my light in that direction. I couldn’t see into the bush, just the eyes. Then those eyes got up. They rose a good 2 feet. That’s no raccoon. Then it got down low again. It knew I saw it and things had just changed from a simple wildlife moment to something else. Something potentially dangerous. I remembered that deer that ran through here earlier and it hits me; it was running from this. This is a puma. The other pair of eyes may have been a cub. I am in deep trouble. I’ve been a little too close to a mountain lion once before, but I never saw her. What you do is get large, stand up, make noise, and they lose interest: you’re big, weird, smell funny, and you’re not worth the risk. So I went with Plan A again. I got on top of the table, raised my arms and started talking to the eyes:
I see you.
I see you.
You should go now.
The eyes got low again. Then rose up again. Then something unexpected; it flanked to my left. I could still see the eyes bobbing a little over a foot above the ground (I think) but damn, I could NOT see the animal’s body at all. Then she came back to her original spot, got low, rose up, and got low again. Then an unmistakable “rrrrrrrrrr” from the bush. Shit. She knew I saw her and that I was looking right at her. She couldn’t back down because I was a challenge. I couldn’t back down because I needed to know where she was. I had a large metal water bottle and my knife so I started banging them together to make more noise. It was around 10:00 pm and this went on for another 30 minutes before I decided I needed help. I managed to get a phone call to 911.. a choppy miserable attempt but I did manage to get the key words out. A ranger was on his way but there was a real problem. He was coming from Twin Lakes Beach. He was simply the nearest armed ranger and he was about 45 minutes away if he was in a giant rush. The roads here didn’t fare well last winter and the 2 important ones he needed were closed so he had to take a much longer route. Typically a ranger would come from Big Basin Redwoods State Park or maybe even Portola Redwoods State Park (I think). But there wasn’t anybody available at either location. I was on my own for a while.
After another 20 minutes I got lucky and a campsite not far away woke up and yelled asking what was going on.
Me: Mountain Lion!
The two girls asked if there was anything they could do.
Me: OK, here’s the plan. I’m going to keep facing the puma and start slowly backing towards your site. As soon as I get over this little rise I’m going to lose sight of her. That’s a problem. She’ll probably leave, but we’re all better off together. Get on top of your picnic table, have lights, and get ready to make some noise with me. Do you understand?
Me: OK, here I come.
Now here’s where things get to be a real pain. We couldn’t see her. The eyes were just lost to me now. There was a pause for a minute, then noises in the bushes near the other campsite. She had potentially come closer, but we just couldn’t be sure. Then “rrrrrrrrrrr” from the bushes. There’s some confusion because I can’t be absolutely sure anymore if it’s her or a distant motorcycle. The differences should be pretty clear. I could hear the occasional Harley miles away: bwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr brrrr bwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr bwrrrrrrrrrrrr . But then softly I could still here much shorter “rrrrrrr” with no followup bwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I couldn’t be sure so we kept making noise. There were some intervening events that I’ll summarize as other campers coming by and asking what was going on. They were mostly annoyed that we were keeping them up. They went back to their camps the other direction. Maybe she really had gone? I had no real way to know.
The park ranger arrived about 11:45. The puma was definitely gone now, no question about it. He offered to evacuate out anybody who wanted to go — considering that he could only fit so many people in his truck. The young ladies decided to stay since they had travelled a bit and waited so long for their trip. I live reasonably nearby and can come back any time — so I took him up on it. I gathered up my stuff, packed up the tent, and we were out of there. It’s not like I was going to get any sleep that night.
Here’s what I want to be clear about. What happened was very unusual. Mountain lions don’t stick around like that. They usually bug out immediately. Occasionally they crouch and stalk when they’re showing some aggression. Usually it’s all over in 20 minutes or so. You hear about mountain lions popping up in odd places. It makes the news and people freak out for a while. Remember that when you see something in the news it’s there for a reason; it’s unusual. I joke that you never see “GRAVITY: STILL DOING ITS THING” in the news.
We had a community meeting recently in Boulder Creek on the topic of pumas. A rep from the Dept of Fish and Game was giving a great presentation and reassured everybody that there was nothing unusual to be worried about. Keep your pets indoors. Don’t give the animals a reason to visit your home. Keep pet food inside, etc. Pick up the acorns that the deer love to eat so they don’t attract pumas themselves, etc. Most of the meeting participants agreed. A few didn’t. I was there photographing the event and didn’t say anything until after.
I asked the rep what she thought about my particular situation. She honestly didn’t have a lot to say. She gets a lot of panic phone calls that turn out to be house cats. It’s OK, she wasn’t there and nobody got hurt. My point is don’t take my story to mean that there’s some unusual increase in mountain lion activity or aggression. I truly believe this was unusual. I wouldn’t even be insulted if the rep told me that it wasn’t a puma.
Move forward in time a month. I’ll be honest, this experience has brought on a change in me. I really noticed how people tend to steer clear of each other. Watch two people walking towards each other on a sidewalk. They swerve a little to make more space. They don’t look each other in the eye. This is even more noticeable in an elevator. Hell, most don’t look up from their shoes or they use their phones as an excuse to not engage in the people inches away. I tried an experiment. I walked around Santa Clara. I walked right towards people, looking right at them the whole time. Then I’d smile and say something friendly like “Hello” or “Hi, how are you today?” Almost always the response was one of pleasant surprise. People were glad to see that I wasn’t a threat but they weren’t too sure at first. I’ve started more casually talking with absolute strangers. I’m not remotely threatened by somebody in public or, and this seems utterly ridiculous now, on social media. That guy’s not going to hurt me. He probably couldn’t anyway. Hell, I look far more threatening in person anyway what in the world do I have to fear of this guy? Nothing.
If anything this has been empowering. But oh yeah, I still see those eyes. I still hear “rrrrrrr”.