A mountain lion that briefly chased a couple of Skyline Wilderness Park hikers has officials telling outdoor enthusiasts to exercise caution in the wild.
“Sightings up there are fairly rare, especially when you consider the hundreds of people who hike that area every day,” said Sgt. Mike Bartlett of Napa County Animal Control. “But there are definitely mountain lions up there. It’s the wilderness.”
Napa residents Liz Alessio and Steve Husong were reminded of this fact Sunday afternoon as they approached the crest of the Skyline trail near Lake Marie. As the couple hiked up the path toward the southern end of the park, Husong said he spotted a mountain lion about 40 feet ahead of them.
“It crouched down on the trail before continuing out of sight,” Husong said Monday afternoon. “I’ve been hiking in the woods all my life and I’ve only seen one other mountain lion. So I thought it was cool at first. But I’ve never seen anything like what happened next.”
Husong said he pointed the animal out to Alessio, who instantly became afraid. But because the cat had disappeared from sight, the pair pressed on up the path.
As Alessio’s fear got the best of her, she said she began walking faster and managed to get out about 15 feet in front of Husong. When she glanced back moments later, she was shocked to see the large mountain lion about 60 yards behind Husong.
“I shouted out ‘It’s behind you, we have to run!’ and I took off,” she said Monday, still shaken from the encounter. “When I looked back, the mountain lion was chasing Steve (Husong) up the trail and quickly gaining on him. It’s one thing to see an animal off in the distance, but it’s entirely different to have it chase you up a path.”
Husong, a war veteran who was injured in Afghanistan, said that he knew he couldn’t run fast enough to escape the approximately 150-pound cat.
“So I stopped, turned around, and stared it straight in the eyes,” he said.
Husong’s actions possibly saved his life. The animal stopped about 20 feet shy of him and crouched down on the trail, Husong said.
“It was huge, it made no noise at all and it stared at me,” he said. “And just like that, it went away.”
According to Husong, the animal slunk out of sight after several moments. As soon as it disappeared, Alessio and Husong ran back to their car — which was parked about nearly an hour’s walk away, back at the beginning of the trail.
Bartlett said he was surprised at the incident and added that California Fish and Wildlife are investigating. Requests for comment from Fish and Wildlife were not returned Monday.
“Typically, these animals don’t stalk people,” he said. “It’s rare that they’re even seen. And if they are, they’re usually trying to get away from people.”
A Skyline park ranger who refused to give his name said that the animal most likely chased the couple because they had continued up the path toward its location, rather than turning back and retreating down the trail.
“We are a wilderness park,” he said Monday morning. “This is the animal’s area. People are the guests.”
The ranger said that if people spot a mountain lion, they should stand their ground, try to look as large as they possibly can and make a lot of noise. Then, they should turn around and walk in the opposite direction, he said.
The ranger added that because he felt the incident was caused by the couple’s reaction to the mountain lion, he did not believe Fish and Wildlife would be killing the cat — standard protocol when a mountain lion attacks a human.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has verified 13 mountain lion attacks since 1986 in California, three of which were fatal. Aside from Sunday’s encounter, there have been two reported mountain lion sightings at Skyline Wilderness Park in the past three years, including one in November. Other sightings have occurred throughout Napa County, though no local attacks have ever been recorded.
Park rangers will be posting signs this week to remind the public on ways to handle a mountain lion sighting. They are also requesting that anyone who sees a mountain lion alert park rangers immediately.