Monthly Archives: January 2011

Wasatch Tigers

True story about a true story.

wasatch cat sightings

Was that something moving in the trees??

I’m reading a nonfiction book called The Tiger. It’s about a siberian tiger and a couple of unfortunate people who suddenly discovered themselves being eaten and digested by this aforementioned tiger. The story eloquently lays out the gory details in a way that is always enlightening. For example; a primordial roar that shakes the earth and freezes the soul, claws that latch on to running reindeer like grappling hooks and enough massive ferociousness to pick a man up and shake him till his legs break. And as I’ve been a traveler of Grizzly bear country, it was also humbling to read about tigers attacking, dispatching, and obsessively scattering the remains of Russian grizzly bears solely for the sake of maintaining their unwritten “feline principles”.

Needless to say the story is fascinating to backcountry skiers as the events unfold in the snow shrouded wilderness of an land far away. As the story progresses, the author describes one of my new favorite pastimes; reading animal tracks in the snow. This passion started last year in the La Sals. I had no real interest in tracking animals until that day when I realized that I had been tracked myself…

Our first day in the La Sals, we broke a fresh trail on firm snow. We completed a traverse of the range, never backtracking, always moving forward. On the second day, we returned to use our ascent trail again.  It was impossible not notice the large cougar tracks pressed into the snow that followed our path. How closely had she followed us? I couldn’t say for certain, but the tracks appeared as old as our skin track did.

cougar print in the la Sals

The cougar’s tracks that followed ours in the La Sals.

This winter, one of my first tours followed the tracks of a bobcat for over two and a half miles. The longer we followed the tracks, the more a story developed. At one point it was clear that the cat had hidden in a small tree well until a ferret came by. The ferret tracks came to a sudden end where the bobcat had pounced, then leisurely continued on. After reading the bobcat’s story written in snow it was easy to agree with the author of The Tiger when he surmised that animal tracks were the first marks that man learned to read and even inspired the designs of our original scripts.

On my latest tours in the Wasatch, the book has me wondering what it would be like to ski in an area with such deadly preadators on the prowl. Would I run through the trees to get above treeline? Would I carry an elephant gun? Would I give up skiing entirely to take up knitting or snow globe collecting? Best of all, would the most seasoned backcountry skiers be identifiable by their missing appendages?

Last weekend on a ski outing I was pondering this and my relationship with nature. Noting the absence of Man eating Tigers in the Wasatch, I began to feel rather high up on the food chain. I began walking tall, looking at the pine trees and the mountains a with a new confidence. I remarked to a friend, “We’re lucky. Without tigers to worry about, we’re pretty much kings of the wilderness here.”

Just then we both noticed a dark, massive form jump to life ahead of us on the trail. With a focused curiosity that’s been evolutionally refined to promote our own survival, we watched as a huge tree branch cracked off an old growth pine and crashed down. It landed dead center on our fresh new skin track, pressing deep into the snow in between the members of our group. We were all unscathed.

The irony of this moment landed as hard as the thick, 15 foot long branch itself; Be it puncture wounds from the fangs of a cat or caved in skulls from timbers that fall from the sky when you least expect it, nature itself always has been, and always will be king.

wind scalloped cougar tracks in snow?

Wind scoured animal tracks. A good example of direct registration (rear paw lands directly on top of the front paws track), this track suggests a feline origin. Photo by Jimmy S.