Elk NetworkBecoming the Hunted

General | June 8, 2021

Below is an article that appears in the July-August 2021 issue of Bugle magazine. If not a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and you would like to receive more Bugle content like this, go here to join.

By Mackenzie Lappin

In an instant the tables spin and I go from intensely focused hunter to vulnerable prey.

I walk quietly in the patchy snow, rounding a few pines and approaching a stack of fallen trees in a small opening. When I glance up, I’m met with a pair of misty green eyes. My boots freeze to the ground. A slice of golden light illuminates a mountain lion, motionless, 16 yards ahead with only the blowdowns between us. Its eyes stare into mine with a cool expression that seems to say, I’ve been expecting you.

The early November air is silent and crisp. It’s thin too, at 10,240 feet. The temperature hovers in the 20s, plenty cold for a South Carolina girl. My fingers and toes ache a little with the chill. The sky is clear, but hardly any sunlight glints through the thick timber on this shaded slope.

I choose my steps carefully, avoiding crunchy snow. I’m a mile back in the woods from the truck with no other boot tracks in sight. The solitude is refreshing since I’m hunting public land and this season has been more crowded than past ones. People come from all over the country to hunt western Colorado and I’m glad to have found this quiet, untouched sanctuary. I feel like I should be seeing deer and elk, but the only company is the occasional chatter of a squirrel.

I’m 23 and female, and don’t often hunt without my dad, Dave, by my side, or at least close by. But this morning he’s tending to other important matters.

HUNTING BUDDIES—Mackenzie and her dad glass the country together. They shared their first hunt when she was three and he taught her to shoot when she was 10.

I smile, recalling our hunt the day before. We split up a to cover more ground for the evening hunt. As the sky started to dim, two shots split the silence, but they echoed off the mountains and I couldn’t tell exactly which direction they came from. When we met back up, my dad’s demeanor led me to believe he’d been unsuccessful. He spun a tale about how the elk were hiding in the dark timber and wouldn’t come out.

Right when I thought he’d reached the end of the story, he said, “So I went in after them, and I shot one.” He pulled off his glove to reveal a hand covered in dried elk blood. He finally got his bull on day eight of the nine-day season. This was the second bull he has shot in the spot we’ve come to call “Dave’s Rock.”

Now it’s the last day of the season, and I still have a mule deer buck tag to fill. I’m hunting this morning while my dad butchers his elk about three-quarters of a mile to the south. Our plan is to meet back at the truck around 1:00 pm. It’s the first year I’m hunting deer instead of elk out here, and I’m determined to kill a trophy.

It feels strange to be doing this alone, but I have an onX map downloaded on my phone and my .270 Winchester Short Mag over my shoulder. I’m actually enjoying the tranquility of solitude as I stalk through the timber.

I first hunted this rugged country seven years ago, when I was 16. That year was a dream come true. Dad and I killed nice bulls on a do-it-yourself, public land hunt. His was a 5×5 and mine a 6×6 with chocolate beams and ivory tips. We showed off our trophies to everyone we passed, from other hunters on the trail to random people in town, including a small crowd at the Gunnisack restaurant where we ate that night. They ran outside to see the elk racks tied to the roof of our truck, high fiving and patting me on the back for outdoing my dad.

I hope my efforts will pay off again with another dose of that luck. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our trip this year, and we’ve pushed ourselves through some tough conditions. But I would feel a twinge of disappointment to go home without a nice buck and a story to tell.

Ahead I spot a beam of sunlight breaking through the trees, warming a dry patch of grass sprinkled with crinkly aspen leaves. Perfect. I face the sun and sit on the ground, resting my gun against a log. Eyes closed, the warm glow washes over me. I’m tempted to lie back and drift off, but I have a buck to find.

A few minutes later, I’m picking my steps through the patches of snow and leaves, weaving between trees. I find myself looking down frequently to study elk and deer tracks, hoping to spot a fresh set. I glance up and find myself staring straight into the eyes of a mountain lion.

My breath catches in my throat. I’m paralyzed—not by fear, but disbelief. I just gaze wide-eyed and slack-jawed for a moment, almost hypnotized, trying to take in every detail of the wild beauty standing nearly face to face with me. Is this real? I’m humbled to be sharing this small, intimate space with such an elusive and majestic creature. I’m also keenly aware of my vulnerability.

The cat opens its jaws and releases a slow, soft hiss that seems more like a whisper, fangs flashing. It will surely run away in an instant. I want to capture this moment before it disappears and leaves me wondering if this was just in my imagination. Keeping my eyes fixed on the cat, I pull my phone from my pocket and get a picture, then start a video. I also breathe a hurried prayer for protection, just in case.

Still, I’m certain this is the part where I make some noise and it runs away. That’s how most of the stories and videos about mountain lion encounters end. It’s still surreal that I’m standing here with a lion.

Phone recording in one hand, I swing my other arm in the air and shout a few times, “Get out of here!” The cat doesn’t move. I make my shouting louder, my gestures faster, more threatening. That finally startles it, which stokes my bravery. I continue yelling threats and then charge toward it, crashing against the downfall trees. The cat turns and takes off to the right, into the shadows. I figure this is my last glimpse. Then my stomach drops.

The lion’s face suddenly reappears out of the shadows, then its whole body. In fractions of a second, I realize it’s running toward me. For the first time in my life, I wonder if I’m about to die. No, no, no!

I gasp as I throw my phone down in the snow—still recording.

I whip the rifle off my shoulder and shuffle back a few steps, then lock in place. Survival mode kicks in. Flight isn’t an option. I can’t trigger a chase response. I fling my scope cover down and look the cat dead in the eye. It has stopped on the last downfall log, claws on its front feet curling over the rough bark. The only thing separating us now is eight yards of clear, thin air.

I don’t want to shoot if there’s still a chance of scaring it away. Heart pounding, legs shaking, lungs heaving, I try to shout and wave my arms and rifle again. The lion responds with growls and moans deep in its throat. Can’t I convince it that it’s not worth the fight? I try to get bigger, louder, meaner. The cat only hisses again, then tips its head downward, lays its ears back and flicks its tail. Those front paws creep a fraction forward on the log. If I wait a moment longer, it may be too late.

I pull my gun up. All I see is blurry snow and branches in the scope. Not seeing the mountain lion for even an instant makes me panic. I pull my eye back just far enough to see right beside the scope. The lion is quartering toward me, still growling, its muscles tensing. I line up through the scope again. This time the sight is filled with tawny hair. It’s in the middle of the chest. I try to squeeze the trigger slowly and let the shot surprise me. A boom suddenly explodes through the silence.

The mountain lion springs straight up off the log, paws splayed. It crashes back down and darts away into the trees. I’m suddenly alone in the small opening, trembling and panting. Relief washes over me like a wave. But I don’t feel safe yet. I can’t stop watching in the direction where the mountain lion disappeared, fearing its return.

I want to get away from this place and find my dad, but first I have to pick up the stuff I threw down. My phone! I take a few steps forward and stoop to grab it. My legs shake so uncontrollably as I bend down that it almost makes me laugh.

As I check the screen, the video is still rolling. I turn the camera toward myself and explain what just happened. Even as I do, I keep my eyes on the trees. After saying a few lines, I can’t think of anything else to add. What do you say after a mountain lion tries to attack you? I end with, “That was the craziest moment of my life,” then stop the video. I’m about to leave when I realize I should drop a waypoint here on my onX map. Conveniently, there is a mountain lion icon available. Funny how technology works out sometimes.

I step over the downed tree where the mountain lion stood when I shot, then take off in the opposite direction of the way it fled. Adrenaline still flowing,

I find myself running almost as if the cat is chasing me. Before long, the thin air has me out of breath, but I keep pushing until the lack of oxygen forces me to a walk.

The hike feels endless, but I finally come to a slope and spot hunter’s orange below me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see it. Dad is still laboring away on his elk, his back to me. I begin my descent, choosing my steps carefully down the steep, gravelly slope. He finally moves around to the other side of his elk and looks up to see me coming.

“Hey! How are you?”

“I’m all right,” I say. It’s all I can come up with.

“What are you doing here? I thought we were supposed to meet back at the truck?” he says, smiling. He probably thinks I shot something. Well, I did, but not what he’s thinking. Suddenly the story wells up inside me and begins spilling over. I try to state it matter-of-factly, but emotion nearly chokes out my words.

“A mountain lion? What? Mackenzie! What? Are you serious?”

All I can do is nod as a few tears escape. His eyes search mine.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I answer weakly. Neither one of us is fully grasping what happened. For the next hour or so, we work on the elk together, going back over my whole encounter with the lion. Dad keeps thinking of more questions to ask in between handing me pieces of meat to slide into game bags. I try to explain everything, but I can’t adequately convey the experience.

Eventually, we get our packs loaded and start the climb out. After covering a short distance, my dad stops in front of me. I assume he’s just catching his breath, until I get close and realize his shoulders are shaking and tears are spilling from his eyes. My heart feels squeezed. We grasp each other’s arms and let the sobs come, even though we’re both a little embarrassed (my dad never cries in front of anyone).

It’s sinking in now. His firstborn daughter could have been torn apart by a mountain lion. The girl he’s been taking out hunting since she was 3 years old. The girl he taught to shoot when she was 10. The one who’s been making memories with him for the past 20 years. The one he taught to be strong and brave and tough. She’s just been put to the test like never before.

He questions if it was a mistake to let me hunt by myself. I grip his arms and assure him he didn’t do anything wrong. I’m an adult and it was my choice to go alone. Besides, this encounter could’ve happened to anyone. He blinks and sniffs a few times, then snaps back into focus.

“Okay, I’m sorry. I can’t think about it right now. Let’s get back to the truck.”

We head back to the cabin for the night, but plan to return in the morning to search for the mountain lion.

The next day, we head to the local Colorado Parks and Wildlife office to report the incident. They watch my video and assure me I did the right thing to defend myself. This makes me especially grateful for the video evidence showing exactly what happened. The people in the office wish us luck as we head out for our search.

Back in our hunting spot, we hike to the place where I dropped the waypoint the day before. My dad is stunned to see how small the space is. I point out which direction the mountain lion ran after the shot, and we begin to look for signs of the cat. Soon we find a small blood spot.

I’m glad to know I took a steady enough shot to hit the animal, but the blood trail is minimal. Some of the patchy snow has melted since yesterday. The sky begins to darken, and after making it only about 75 yards from the log where I shot, we fail to find any more sign. Determined, we continue to search until an hour after dark. Discouragement seeps into my bones with the cold, and I begin shivering. Perhaps I’ll never know what happened to that mountain lion.

As we start the long drive home to South Carolina the next morning, we leave a voicemail for the local Parks and Wildlife conservation officer telling him of our unsuccessful search. A while later, he calls back. He tells us he’s on his way up there with hounds to track down the mountain lion. The story isn’t quite over after all.

The officer determined it wasn’t safe to let the lion live. The video convinced him that it was clearly aggressive and a threat to the hunters and other people who enjoy that area. He asks me to send him the coordinates of the blood trail. Technology, again, really helps us out. When I text him the waypoint, I ask him to please keep us updated. As we continue driving toward home, all I can do is wonder what’s happening in the woods we left behind. I don’t know what to hope for.

Three hours down the road, my dad’s phone rings. It’s the officer. He tells us he found the mountain lion wounded but alive, 300 yards from where I’d shot. It was standing near our boot tracks from our search the night before. We were walking through the dark woods in the presence of a wounded mountain lion. When the hounds found it, they chased it down into the canyon where they treed it.

After his killing shot, the officer discovered that she was a healthy, 90-pound female. My bullet had entered through her left shoulder and didn’t hit any vitals. He found no sign of cubs or a food cache nearby, although a biologist later found tracks in the area of cubs that were probably 8 to 10 months old. These cubs were not fully independent yet but able to hunt small game and scavenge.

Soon a couple pictures of the dead lion appear in my messages. After witnessing the creature up close in all her glory, it’s difficult to see her lifeless body in the snow. I close out my messages and sit quiet, staring at the road and replaying the events in my mind as the last hints of light disappear from the sky.

As we continue our drive and make phone calls to friends and family, I begin to find peace again. I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I’ve read that meeting an aggressive mountain lion in the wild is a one in a million encounter. This time, I was that one. I’m humbled and strangely honored, but I wouldn’t want to repeat it.

This experience definitely won’t stop me from continuing to hunt the wild, rugged country of western Colorado that I deeply love, but I don’t plan to go on any solo hunts any time soon. I’ll make sure to carry a sidearm from now on, too. I’m just grateful that I’m still able to look forward to a “next time.”

Mackenzie Lappin lives in South Carolina where she works as an ICU nurse. On her days off, she roams the foothills and mountains of the Carolinas. She looks forward to many more hunting trips out West with her dad.