It was about 8 am on a chilly March morning, and I had already been hiking for hours. A light snow started falling on the south rim of the Grand Canyon while I was driving to the next trailhead. I had already checked about a dozen foothold snares and had a handful to go. Driving east on Highway 64, a windy road that runs parallel to the rim, I pulled off on the right side of the road and parked. I was at the unmarked trail.
Following a ravine south, away from the canyon rim, would take me to Rocky Tank- but that's not its real name. I didn't change the names to protect anything, its just that my partner Eric and I had our own names for everything. It was just the two of us that ran the traplines, and we gave each trapsite a unique name based on prominent features nearby, or for anything that would make sense to us, like the name of a character in a movie we'd just watched. We watched the movie Kill Bill the night before Eric stumbled across an elk kill. We set a trap there and called the trapsite "Kill Bill." For lack of imagination, the next kill we discovered was named Kill Bob, and a nearby cave was dubbed Bob Cave. You get the picture.
I hiked to the muddy tank, then around it to the top of a small plateau. I followed the eastern edge of the plateau south as a little canyon on my left steadily grew deeper. I was headed to a place where the canyon curved sharply to the west. At the point where the canyon veers, there's a rocky outcrop creating a shallow cave-like area, we called Rock Cave. Lions and other carnivores like to check out these caves when they roam their territories. I had taken at least a dozen photos of lions scratching and sniffing around these "caves," using remotely-triggered cameras. Interestingly enough, they are often archeological sites as well. I suppose we take what shelter we can get.
The latest photos were taken a few months earlier in a cave less than 2 miles away, as the crow flies. It was a series of photos depicting a female mountain lion with cubs. I knew that she had at least three cubs with her, because in one photo you see the first cub right up on the camera lens, while two others are wrestling in the background, rolling on the dirt floor with their arms locked around eachothers furry little bodies. grrrr....
The snow was squishy and that coming at me sideways as I made my way to check the trap at Rock Cave. I had on my camo rain pants that made a lot of noise while I walked. Swish. Swish. Swish. I think that's why it took a little while for the sound to register. I was less than 50 yards from the sharp curve in the canyon, where normally I would pop down below the rim and enter Rock Cave. Normally I would walk right up to the trap to make sure that everything was still intact, that it hadn't been sprung, and check the cave floor for tracks or any signs of activity, like I did every morning.
But there was a loud noise that stopped me. Something calling repeatedly. I knew that I was hearing something, but I couldn't quite tell what. I stopped and scanned the forest while my mind scrambled to make sense of what I was hearing. It was loud. And echoey. And...And all at once I realized that I was hearing mountain lions. Plural. Communicating.
Immediately I thought of the mother and 3 cubs, who had been in the area a few months back. The cubs would be bigger now. Would they big enough to get caught in the snare? We always fastened a "stop" on the cable so that it would close only to a certain circumference. A foot, hoof, or paw had to meet a minimum size requirement for the snare to hold. A smaller animal could step right out. But a larger animal's foot would remain in the snare until we released it. A larger animal like a mother lion. What if one of the cubs was snared, and the other 3 lions were hanging around, including Mom? I didn't want to tangle with a mother lion. Time to call for back up.
I knelt down, slipped out of my backpack, and pulled out my handheld radio. I mumbled Eric's assigned call number in the radio. The lions' calling stopped abruptly. They knew I was there. "Go ahead." Replied Eric.
"I'm gonna need your assistance at Rock Cave."
"Big or little?" He was asking about the lion. A trapped lion could range in size from a juvenile to an adult male, or in those parts, somewhere between 25 and 60 kilos. He was already thinking about preparing the capture equipment while he was at the car, then bringing the bare minimum with him out to the capture site. The size of the cat would determine how many vials of drugs he would need to bring. Now I had to admit to him that I hadn't even seen the lion yet.
"Just bring the whole capture kit," I advised. I could hear the chuckle under his breath when he agreed.
I decided that I'd better get a visual on Rock Cave before long, but I didn't want to take my usual pop-right-into-the-cave approach. I started hiking cautiously down into the canyon (See part 2 for more lion tales)