Apex predators fascinate people all around the world. In the United States, we have three: grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions. After being face bumped by a mountain lion 15 years ago, I chose to learn everything I could about this magnificent animal. Since then, I’ve spent time where mountain lions are active three times a week, 52 weeks a year. Now I have an opportunity to share what I’ve learned and to engage more of the public in wildlife conservation efforts. We invest in what we care about, and we care about what we have knowledge of. And the best knowledge comes from firsthand, roll-up-your-sleeves experience.
In leading wildlife hikes, I begin the day asking my clients, “What do you hope to learn and experience today?” Most respond that they want to be more aware and have a richer experience in nature. For me, that’s thrilling. It reaffirms my belief that, deep down, we all crave time in nature.
Where do we start? I’ll share what I’ve learned from wildlife experts and my adventures in wild places. These suggestions are uncommon but full of common sense:
- Set Intentions
- Slow Down
- Be Curious
Intention is a powerful force and adds enormous fuel to your adventure. Before leaving home, set one or more intentions for the day. For me, it can be as simple as aiming to find a fresh mountain lion track. This intention gives me focus, and with focus, I end up seeing a lot more than if I was simply plodding down the trail toward some destination. Open your mind along the journey, allowing it and its surprises to gobsmack you throughout the day.
An intention can come in the form of a question. For example, I wondered once what the best, simple, inexpensive, healthy fuel would be for me for a moderate or difficult hike. In trying many foods at home and on the trail, I discovered that the best source of fuel was simply two ripe avocados eaten an hour or two before hiking. I was amazed that something so simple provided an abundance of energy for my outdoor adventures.
Another time, I read a book by G. Fred Asbell about moving slowly and deliberately while bowhunting, resulting in my seeing so much more. It seemed crazy to move through the woods at a pace of 100 yards every ten minutes, but I couldn’t wait to try it. I knew I had better do it solo so as not to frustrate anyone else with my snail’s pace. With the cold air in my face, I moved up a ridge that smelled like an elk barnyard. I’d take one step and stop, looking to the right and then left, slowly turning my head. After 20 minutes of moving in this new way, something caught my eye 150 yards down the slope. I recognized the ear of a cow elk flicking a fly off. That was all–just the ear, and I noticed it! The rest of the elk was hidden by timber. I was ecstatic; it was the highlight of my day.
Slowing down may be the greatest challenge for many of us. Nature offers a perfect solution. The reasons are many, from nature’s healing and restorative gifts to the astonishing imagery of wildlife, plants, watersheds, or the dance of light across the landscape. Nature’s rhythm is most often much slower than our hurried, frantic pace living in cityscapes. Millions flock to our national parks each year. What are they searching for?
It takes me a while to adjust my mental pace to the pace of nature. I’m aware of the gap when I step out of my vehicle. There are many wonderful opportunities to develop the ability to slow down. Macro photography is a great way to start, even with a cell phone. Just notice all the cool stuff you used to just walk right by and begin to enjoy capturing it with different lighting and angles, noticing textures, moods, and colors, as well as the interplay with what’s around your subject. Practice photography yoga. Witness nature’s endless poses.
Hike with a five-year-old and observe the child’s sense of wonder. Adopt a similar position when you’re out and about in nature. When they squat down to examine the forest floor, you squat down. When they climb onto deadfall, you do the same. Nature, when we are immersed in it, prompts new questions that may take a lifetime to answer. With 15 years of research under my belt, I still have a lot to learn about mountain lions. And, during my studies, I’m asking questions about other wildlife species. For example, I’m completely baffled by bobcats. They are the only animals I’ve observed that will walk through a valley without pause to urinate or defecate, hunt, or take a break. And they’ll keep up that pace for hours. Mountain lions, on the other hand, seem to rarely walk a wildlife trail for more than 200 yards before doing something different. These two wild felines are radically different in how they navigate. I think about this every time I see a bobcat track.
Winning the Childhood Lottery
My first trip to Granite Lake in Montana’s Cabinet Wilderness Area as an eight year old changed my life forever. After hiking for six miles, including four tricky stream crossings, we arrived. While my family was getting the campsite ready, the shore of the lake beckoned to my soul, soaking up the view of A Peak. It was the most beautiful view I had ever seen, and it washed over and through me. It would become one of the most powerful moments in nature for me, igniting a wild strand of my DNA. I knew, at that instant, that my experience was vastly different from that of the rest of my family. It was uniquely mine. My dad saw me standing on the logs that lined the outlet of the lake and came down to join me. He stood next to me, reverent in silence, enjoying the same view. After a few minutes, he said, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I responded, “Dad, I’m going to be doing a lot of this.” He replied, “I know,” and left me standing there, respecting my life-changing moment. It has become one of the sweetest memories of being with my father outdoors.
The greatest gift my parents gave me was unstructured time in nature, unsupervised by an adult. I was a curious boy. Long before there were cameras you could leave in the woods to capture wildlife, I would tie dental floss across wildlife trails. I couldn’t wait to check these spots. When the floss was on the ground, or completely gone, I always imagined it was a grizzly that walked through. My fascination with apex predators started at a young age.
Fifty years later, I’m spending time in mountain lion country every week. Some things never change. As a child, I winter camped in 55-below temperatures, forded chest-deep icy streams, and resurrected log crossings by felling trees over a hundred feet tall with a two-man bow saw and an ax. I even saw grizzlies stand up in the moonlight right in front of me. For a child that loved the outdoors, I won the childhood lottery. I share this not to boast about my abilities but to express the deep appreciation and gratitude I have for my parents. Most children today can’t access these experiences in their dreams, let alone in a real way. This is one of the reasons I’m so motivated to pay it forward and help others connect to nature in a powerful, personal way, moving from being exposed to nature to being engaged with nature.
Make Your Own Tracks
Nature’s invitation is always open. The depth of our experience, the color, the texture–it’s all tied to our intentions, pace, and curiosity, simple concepts that just take practice. Lean in and fall in love. Nature is enough.