By Macy Budesilich, Redwoods Rising apprentice
We were almost done with the day surveying for rare plants a few weeks ago along an old logging road near the top of a hill on Greater Prairie Creek, which is part of Redwood National Park. It was just Caitlyn Allchin, another rare plant apprentice, and me. The woods we survey are fairly open because there aren’t any plants in the understory. Just lots of cut down logs and branches and needles on the ground.
We were about 20 meters apart and I was following an animal trail passed through two logs that were laying end to end, each more than six feet in diameter. Most logs have gaps under them where you can see dirt, where animals probably rest at night. As I was heading toward the gap in the logs, I noticed that the one to my right had a large dark area under it. I didn’t think it was anything because most of the time it’s either charred or shaded making it look darker than it really is.
Well, as I got closer to it I looked in just to check like I always do and I noticed what I thought were eyes. I’ve seen stuff like that before, so I got closer thinking it was just fungus or something in there fooling me. As I got closer, the eyes moved and the facial features of a cougar started to show. I saw her eyes and nasal features clearly. I was less than 10 feet away from her face.
I got a really bad gut feeling and called for my partner while slowly backing away. The lion never came out, but it scared me to death to think that I would have walked right by her den if I hadn’t looked. She stayed quiet the whole time, probably because she had cubs and didn’t want to attack me unless I was a threat and provoked her. It was terrifying, and I’ve never felt so scared and shocked. We know there are bears and cougars where we survey, but I never thought I’d come so close to one in her den. I know it wasn’t just my eyes playing tricks because there was a lot of evidence of the log being dug out and a social trail leading to the entrance.
This encounter was terrifying, but it was also exciting. To think I’m out in the forest looking for plants and find a cougar in her natural state. I’m thankful she didn’t see me as a threat, but I’m also thankful to have seen her. This program has given me so many opportunities not only to further my knowledge of plants, but also see the effects the logging industry has had on the ecosystem. Had this mother been in her den before logging had happened, I may never have seen her. She and her cubs would never struggle to find suitable habitat.
This job has meant so much more to me than just learning more about plants.