To see the wild, stay open to surprises

It's been a glorious summer morning on the Tomales Point Trail. An early start has helped Dan Connell and me beat the northern California heat; and with the sun still low in the sky, the land- and seascape of Point Reyes National Seashore glows softly golden around us.

I normally resist leaving Alaska, especially in summer when the landscape is green, daylight hours are long, and bears again roam about after a long winter's sleep. But this trip, and this morning hike in particular, have been a special treat. It seems a lifetime ago that I lived in California, and I'm still amazed I survived six years in the Los Angeles megalopolis. But California has its share of natural wonders, along with its cultural curiosities and freeways - and the wildness of Point Reyes is a continual delight.

This diverse national seashore encompasses tidal pools, old-growth forest, spiny ridgetops, a wealth of trails, and an abundance of wildlife. In my brief time here I've identified nearly 50 species of birds and all sorts of mammals: skunks, raccoons, black-tailed deer, elks, elephant seals, bats. Who knows what else might be discovered in this grand place?

Being a wildlife lover, and living where wild animals are common, I've learned to notice shapes and colors that seem out of place. What at first appears to be a bush or branch or rock may be the body of a bear or moose or lynx. So I've been keeping my eyes and other senses open to the unusual or unexpected.

A couple of miles before the end of the trail, I notice something odd about a hundred feet away. Scrunched behind a tall clump of grass are two brownish, fuzzy lumps. My first thought: Maybe they're young birds. I'd like a closer look. But Dan isn't especially interested in birds, and he'd like to reach Tomales Trail before we turn back, so I tell him, "There's something I want to check out. Go on ahead; I'll catch up."

I approach slowly and as quietly as possible. I'm helped by the whipping, rustling wind, which mutes my steps. To my surprise, the chicks - if that's what they are - remain still, though I've caught the attention of two red-winged blackbirds who begin to raise a ruckus. At 30 feet, I stop for a closer look. To my amazement, I discover the fuzzy mounds are not chicks at all, but the back haunches of a small wildcat. I step even closer - and still the cat remains hunched behind the clump of grass, face and body turned away from me.

I'm astounded I can get so close without it noticing me. The size is about right for a bobcat, and that's my initial guess. But the longer I watch, the more I wonder. I've never seen a bobcat, but I have seen lynxes in Alaska, and the coloration seems wrong. Though the cat's coat is mostly tawny, it is speckled with large, chocolate-brown spots. The ears don't appear tufted. It also seems peculiar that the cat is so oblivious, especially with the blackbirds making such a racket, unless - unless this is a mountain lion cub.

That possibility changes everything.

My pulse quickens as I complete a 360-degree turn. Seeing no adult lion, I breathe easier again. And still the cat lies motionless. It's as if the young animal has been ordered to stay put no matter what, and is obeying parental orders to a T. I know lots about bears and wolves but little about mountain lions, and all sorts of questions rush through my head. A female grizzly bear or wolf would never leave its young unprotected. If indeed this is a lion cub, where is its mother? Would she attack if she found me so close to her offspring?

I'm torn. I want to stay, but feel I must leave. Another step or two and I could touch the cat. Or I could speak, so it would at least turn my way. Instead, I remain silent. Why frighten the animal unnecessarily? I watch a few more moments, then decide to go tell Dan about this amazing discovery. Maybe he'd like to see the cat. Still moving cautiously, I retreat to the trail and look back. The cat remains in its original position. How long has it been since my initial sighting: five minutes? Ten? Longer?

I catch up to Dan and share the story. We agree that I'll return to the place I saw the cat and stay there, if the animal is still around. He'll join up with me later. On my way back I meet a party of four hikers having fun and talking loudly. I'm not surprised to see that the cat is gone.

Back in Point Reyes Station, I page through a couple of wildlife guidebooks. Illustrations confirm my suspicions: It was a mountain-lion cub. According to one guide, cubs keep their spots until they're six to nine months old. And when their cubs reach a certain age, mountain lion females do indeed leave them, sometimes for many hours, to go hunting.

Like my stories of several other animal encounters, this one will hold its power, maybe gain power, with time. To be so close, in the wild, to a lion cub - close enough, almost, to touch - and yet remain undetected. At the very least, it is the best gift I can imagine, to bring home from California. The gift includes not only the experience and the memory, but also the reminder that mysteries exist everywhere, in an infinity of forms. Sometimes we humans are touched by wonders we never would or could have imagined. But it always helps to leave open the possibility of surprise in order to embrace the unexpected.

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