I’m awoken in the middle of the night by a high-pitched cry.
“Did you hear that?” I ask my husband.
We’re camping in our secret spot in the high Uinta mountains. There is no campsite, no toilet, no picnic table, just a clearing by a small lake covered in lily pads.
It’s a place to go and be alone, far beyond the limits of other campers. It’s where our time with nature will not interrupted by drunken campers, by loud music at midnight, or by the sounds of generators firing up to power televisions in motorhomes purchased to “get away from it all.”
Our dogs, including a 12-week-old puppy, are sound asleep next to me. We had led them on a ten-mile hike earlier in the day and for every foot we covered, they covered two and exemplify dog tired.
In our sleeping bags, we lie stick still, ears trained to the sounds of the night. Another wail cuts through the silence, closer than before.
“It sounds like a baby crying.”
Neither of us feel the need to state the obvious…that there are no babies up here. The sound is that of a cougar. Over the ridge from our campsite is a rocky outcrop that dens this lion of the mountain.
Cougars are solitary animals, powerful ambush predators that hunt under the cover of night. We have no reason to be concerned, however. While cougars occasionally attack humans, their main prey is deer of which these mountains have in abundance.
A wail rings out again, this time followed by several smaller cries. The cougar is accompanied by two young. This mother is teaching her kittens the lessons they need to survive, to hunt their own food when it is time to part from her side. We listen to them cry out, their sounds echoing off the granite hills.
Just as we’re falling back asleep, everything changes. The cries are now on our side of the mountain. While it takes us about an hour to hike to the top of the ridge, we know that the cougars can clear it in minutes.
“The puppy makes an easy target” my husband points out.
The cries continue to cut through the night, closer than ever before. Our dogs wake up with a jolt and let out low growls, their hackles rising from the tips of their tails to the tops of their heads. They are nervous, sensing that a predator is close by.
We debate not our own safety, but the safety of the puppy. Nothing but a thin nylon wall separates him from a predator looking to feed her young. Another cry rings out, this time sounding from near the base of the mountain, almost in the small valley where our tent stands.
David decides not to risk it. He grabs the car keys and the flashlight and darts out of the tent to our SUV parked 25 yards away. He comes and goes several times, working quickly to get sleeping bags and pillows, water and dog bowls, and everything else needed to make us somewhat comfortable spending the night in the car.
As soon as the seats are down and the beds are set up, he comes back for the dogs. The older two don’t need prompting, darting from the tent and leaping into the back of the car. Closing them in, he returns for me and the puppy. Once inside the car, we shut the tailgate behind us and put our nerves to ease.
Thirty minutes later, a bell rings out in the night.
*Ding ding ding ding*
Then another. *Ding ding ding ding ding*
We shine our flashlights out of the car window but can’t see the tent through the trees. We don’t need the light to know what is making the noise. Lined up along the inside edge of the tent are three bear bells. We had taken them off of our dog’s collars just before bed, not wanting our sleep disrupted by ringing every time one of the dogs readjusts themselves.
The ringing of the bells let us know that the cougars are at our tent. They’re poking and prodding the tent walls, causing the bells to roll and ring out. I think of a house cat batting around a ball. Amused, we listen to this noise until our tired bodies lure us to sleep.
The sun rises and the car heats up. We are anxious to get out and stretch our cramped legs.
David is the first one out. “Oh wow,” he says. “Come check this out.”
Three sets of cougar tracks circle the car. We follow the tracks back to the tent. In our rush to get to safety, we had left the outer screen of our two room tent open. The tracks not only go around the tent but into that second room. Sleeping in the car was a wise decision.
Feeling secure in the morning light, I start a campfire and brew coffee. Breakfast is consumed while sitting on rocks at the water’s edge and discussing the events of last night. Our trip is just getting started and we had planned to stay for several more nights. As the sun rises high above the ridge separating us from the cougar den, I make a decision.
“Let’s go home.”