Survival Tip: Lost in the Wilderness
Contrary to a popularly held belief, streams don't always lead to civilization. They often become waterfalls, are choked with vegetation, or present the risk of falling through ice. As a general rule, if you have shelter and will be reported missing, stay put. Clear off your car or wear your brightest gear for high visibility. To be extra safe, buy a 406 MHz emergency distress beacon like ACR's ResQFix (acrelectronics.com).
As Told to Joe Spring
I HAD NEVER SEEN a mountain lion before, but I had always wanted to. I'd been told that if you saw one, you could just make noise and they would run; they don't want anything to do with you. But every now and then, you meet one that does.
I was walking ten feet ahead of my 71-year-old husband, Jim, taking in the beauty of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, on the Northern California coast, when I heard this horrible, horrible scream. Men don't scream like girls do. This was a call of terror. By the time I turned around, Jim was already on the ground, and the lion was on his back with his head in her mouth. The next thing I remember, I was holding a heavy, eight-foot-long redwood branch. I was afraid of hitting Jim in the head, so I swung at the cat's body. I'm 66, but I swim a mile three times a week, play tennis, and hike. I'm strong for an old lady. But I hit her with all I had and she didn't flinch. So I screamed and kept hitting her while yelling at Jim to fight. He reached up to poke the lion in the eye and twisted her nose. She didn't let go until he grabbed her tongue. Then she locked her jaw on his face and shook. Each time he fought, she fought back harder.
"There's a pen in my pocket," he said. "Get it and stick her in the eye." We were both so hopped up on adrenaline, I wasn't surprised that he could manage to speak. I just knelt down and pulled the plastic ballpoint out of his pocket. I thought it would go right into the soft part of the lion's eye and that would do it. But when I tried, the pen just buckled. She held on. My shoulders ached, but I picked up the log again and jammed the jagged point straight into the lion's snout. She let go and turned on me. She crouched down, ready to attack, snarling. Jim's blood was all over her face and chest. I waved the branch above my head and screamed, and she turned and walked off the trail, disappearing into the ferns.
Jim's arms and face were torn, his scalp was down to the bone, and he was bleeding profusely. I needed to get him out. I helped him to his feet and started yelling at him to walk, tears running down my face. He was weak but did a good job of moving. In a third of a mile, we reached the parkway. I lay Jim down on the road, with his head on a T-shirt. The cell phone didn't work. I grabbed two logs and waited by his side, in case the lion returned. A car came and I ran into the road and pointed at Jim, screaming. They swerved around and passed. Five minutes later another one came, and I jumped out in front of it. They went for help.
Jim spent three weeks in the hospital, enduring four surgeries and a life-threatening infection. He still has stiffness and pain in his right hand, but it hasn't stopped us from hitting the trails. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary a month after the attack. Still together, telling people never to hike alone.
Expert Analysis: I probably wouldn't hike in lion country without pepper spray or a knife. But the best thing they did was hike together. That fact saved the husband's life. And she did the right thing by yelling and making herself look larger. When you do that, mountain lions tend to want to get away. But they were also lucky. I helped with the necropsy on that lion, after she was captured. She was a juvenile, just 68 pounds. Females can reach 100 pounds. And they didn't know this, but there was a male lion in the area, too. If he had also attacked, it would've been different. —Jim Banks, wildlife pathologist with the California Department of Fish and Game