It all started last summer as we sat in Old Grey at a secluded campsite in the central Oregon forest. As sometimes happens, we were about to experience a moment that would still have an impact an entire year later though neither of us knew it at the time.
As we were preparing dinner one evening, just as the light was fading and darkness was closing in around us, I looked over Debra's shoulder and saw something moving. I immediately recognized the shape and movements of the animal from my time living in the Montana mountains, but was simultaneously telling myself that I must be mistaken.
I let out an exclamation, Debra turned around to see what I saw, and we both sat there in some mix of excitement, intrigue, and awe as we watched a mountain lion saunter past our forest camp without a care that we were there.
The point of that anecdote? It happened just about one mile from where I have been camped in Oregon this past week. And one mile is a short stroll for a big cat. And it has been in the back of my mind that I should keep an eye out while strolling around the forest. Just in case.
The other night we had what appeared to be a full moon rising above the forest so I decided to try a moon photo. The moon is rising late here right now and it is around 11 pm before it makes it over the tall trees. I set up the camera and tripod, configured all of my camera settings, and started making a few test photos while I waited for the moon to rise just a bit higher.
And then I heard a short, sharp, weird noise somewhere behind me in the forest. Those of you who know me or have been following me online for any length of time know that I am always ready for a good adventure and am not a "scaredy cat" - except perhaps when I am sharing an inky-black forest with a big cat. I still don't know what it was that I heard, but it reminded me that I was not alone in the forest.
I was now looking around 360 degrees with a bright headlamp in between test photos. As I turned back to the camera my brain finally processed what my eyes had seen about a second before. There were two eyeballs reflected in the light behind a tree about 20 yards to my right! My head snapped back to the right as my heart beat faster. Sure enough, there were eyes, but the body of the critter was concealed by the branch of a small fir tree.
What type of animal was looking at me late at night in the forest? Was it the same animal that made that unidentifiable sound a few minutes ago? I could see a bit of brown behind the eyes. Not much help. The eyes were low enough to the ground that it would be the right height for a large coyote, a wolf, or a mountain lion.
The eyes moved a bit closer to me. I started to shout at the eyes hoping to scare the animal enough to dissuade it from approaching further. I've actually had good success with this strategy in the past, but not this night and not with this critter. Instead of retreating it took another step toward me.
I was now making rapid calculations as to how far I was from the safety of the van - and it wasn't looking promising. I was in the middle between the eyes and the van - so about 20 yards from the van or the floating eyes. The odds of me making it to the van if the critter decided to give chase were poor at best. It was also about this time that I realized I was armed only with a pocket knife - and perhaps an aluminum tripod. Nothing like being prepared...
Finally the doe stepped around the branch enough for me to realize that she was not a coyote, or a wolf, or a mountain lion. I had been reduced to near-panic by a deer. A deer that alternately stood at normal height and crouched for a better view of the strange guy with a headlamp and camera in the middle of a dark forest.
Crisis averted, but my nerves were jangled. Every shadow now made me jump. Forget the moon photo, it was time to lock myself inside my steel tent until daylight.
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