Facing a deadly animal alone, at night, in the backcountry
By Brent Rose
The two animal encounters I’ve always been the most afraid of are bears and sharks, though not necessarily in that order.
Statistically speaking, I should be more afraid of deer, as they’re prone to jumping in front of cars, causing around 200 human deaths a year in the U.S.—the most of any animal. But deer aren’t as toothy. As someone who spends a lot of time camping and surfing, bears and sharks are just the most likely to keep me looking over my shoulder or under my feet.
Nature likes to surprise you, though.
It was late-summer 2016, and I had just celebrated the first anniversary of moving into my van, Ashley the Beast. I’d initially set out on what was supposed to be a yearlong road-trip, so I was surprised to find myself still on the road once a year had come and gone. I’d have been even more surprised if you had told me that I’d be on the road for another four-plus years, but that’s a story for another time. I’d just finished driving up the East Coast, from Miami to Maine, and was now heading back West. It was August, and, eager to avoid the heat, I made my way along the northern U.S. border.
On my previous loop, I’d made a coin-toss decision to explore Badlands National Park in South Dakota, which I found spellbinding, and I’d managed to score the best Milky Way long-exposure photos of my life. This left me hungry to see what North Dakota had to offer, so this time around I headed to Roosevelt National Park, and I was not disappointed. The majestic, rough landscape was covered in scars like the badlands I’d found in South Dakota, but these were different. While South Dakota’s badlands are mostly arid and rocky, North Dakota’s are green on top, with abundant plant and animal life. It’s like grasslands meets badlands. I photographed massive herds of bison and filmed wild horses giving themselves a dirt bath. It was breathtaking.
On my second day in the park, I saw that the skies were supposed to be fairly clear that night, so I thought I would try to find a hike where I could shoot the Milky Way behind some cool rock features. There was just one problem: The near-full moon was going to be rising early, not too long after sunset. Long-exposure night photography requires as little light as possible, and a bright moon washes out the stars. If I could find a canyon that I could hike down into, I thought I could buy myself an extra hour or two while the high walls blocked the moon. It was worth a shot.
I found a hike that looked promising in the North Station of Roosevelt National Park. I parked by the trailhead at sunset, took a few photos, scarfed down a quick dinner, and got my gear together as the sky darkened. I had selected the North Achenbach trail, starting from the west side. The hike begins with a steep, two-mile descent into a canyon, then continues along a flat for another mile or so until arriving at the Little Missouri River. It was going to be a late excursion, so I threw some food, my sleeping bag, and an inflatable pad into my camera bag, planning to hike down to the river and sleep under the stars. It sounded like a perfect night.
The North Achenbach has a sign at the trailhead warning that it’s the most difficult hike in the park. And while it is certainly steep and strenuous, it is by no means death defying. At no point did I find myself wishing I had mountaineering gear. It is, however, not at all well marked or defined. I’d been warned that it’s easy to get lost on this trail at noon, and here I was trying to find my way down by headlamp. But I felt prepared—even if I did get lost, I could always find my way out the next morning. What mattered most was getting to the good view of the stars.
Perhaps I was overconfident.
Despite paying very close attention, I kept losing the trail, over and over again. It seemed to just up and vanish. It was also extremely rough terrain—steep and rocky, with potential ankle-twisters everywhere. I kept following false trails and then having to double-back to try and find a turn I’d missed. I must have lost the trail at least two dozen times on that initial descent and I found myself extremely grateful that I wasn’t going to have to try and hike back out that night.
Despite the setbacks, I was having a blast. While there was a bit more haze than I’d have liked, I was getting nice photos on my way down. The trail became more defined once I got to the flats, which made the journey easier. The moon was now starting to peek up over the canyon ridge, so I stopped shooting and decided to enjoy the rest of my stroll to the river. It was a beautiful, warm night and I was in heaven.
By this point, there were actual trail markers every hundred yards or so. They were little posts with a reflective hiker emblem on top. When the trail disappeared (which was still frequently) I could shine my light around, look for the reflective dot in the distance, and head toward it. Then repeat. I was merrily making my way like this, and I must have been within a quarter-mile of the river because I could hear it very clearly.
I passed a marker and looked up to see that the next one was closer than expected, maybe only 50 yards away. And there were actually two shining markers, right next to each other. That was odd.
And then it turned its head away, and the markers disappeared.
I froze. I hardly had time to wonder if I’d imagined it before two glowing eyes reappeared on the trail. I suddenly understood that there was a very big cat out there, and it was watching me.
My body surged with adrenaline, every hair stood on end, and I felt my heart-rate spike as I tried to remember what to do for mountain lion encounters.
All of my animal instincts were screaming for me to turn and sprint away, but I couldn’t run. As a lifelong cat person, I know they like chasing things. Instead, I tried to make myself big and intimidating-looking. I extended the legs of my tripod all the way so I could try to fend it off if I had to.
Any thought of spending the night under the stars had vanished. I was going to have to hike all the way back up and out of this relentless and inscrutable canyon right now, by headlamp.
But first I had to take a photo.
I realize how stupid this was. Even stupider, I had my wide-angle lens on my camera because I’d been shooting the sky. Switching to my zoom lens meant taking off my backpack and swapping lenses with shaking hands while trying to keep an eye on the glowing eyes in front of me that kept disappearing and reappearing in a slightly different location.
I shouldn’t have done it, but I did. In the end, I didn’t have the wherewithal to properly adjust my camera settings and only got a couple of blurry photos. I did, however, get a bit of video. All you can see are the glowing eyes, and you can hear my voice, quavering and two octaves higher than normal.
After that, I started slowly backing away. My heart was racing, but outwardly I tried my best to project “I am big and strong and dangerous” vibes. Its eyes vanished again before I was fully out of sight, and this time they didn’t reappear.
Was it stalking me? I didn’t know. I understood then that it’s rare for mountain lions to attack humans. That being said, it does happen, and the situation I was in checked a lot of the wrong boxes. Alone? Check. At night? Check. In the absolute middle of nowhere? Check. I made my way through the flats and started the steep climb back up, hiking with my fully extended tripod and looking back over my shoulder every 10 seconds.
I had been dreading the ascent, yet I flew up the side of the canyon. My thighs were burning but the thought of a sharp-toothed beast lurking behind me provided incredible motivation. I only lost the trail three or four times on the way back up, and I didn’t stop to rest once—not until I made it all the way back to my van in the trailhead parking lot.
I locked the doors, made myself a very strong Manhattan, and fell immediately into a deep sleep.
I was awoken the next morning by a ranger pounding on the side of my van. I threw on a shirt and opened the door. He told me that I wasn’t allowed to camp in this parking lot. I explained to him that I hadn’t intended to, but that I’d had a mountain lion encounter that had screwed up my backcountry camping plans. I told him the whole story.
“You sure it was a lion?” he asked. “A lot of animals have reflective eyes. It could have been a deer.”
I told him there was no way it was a deer. Its head was much lower to the ground than a deer’s. He shrugged and said there are mountain lions out there, but it’s rare to see one. I said I was sure.
But four years later, now that the visceral fear has dissipated from my system, am I still so sure? I’ve gone back and looked at my blurry photos and re-watched that grainy video a hundred times. I’ve seen deer at night before, and this thing was definitely closer to the ground … wasn’t it?
My certainty has eroded somewhat, like the badlands themselves.
In my heart, I still believe I was running from a lion, but, realistically, I have to admit it’s possible that I finally got my scary animal list in proper order and fled from the country’s real deadliest animal: Bambi.