By Kevin Devaney Explore Big Sky Contributor
I smiled as I drove past the Rock Creek Lodge, knowing I was retreating further from Missoula, paying rent and writing history papers. I was headed along Rock Creek, upstream from the confluence of the Clark Fork River and Highway 90, on a small road with pavement like fishnet stockings surrounding suspension-eating bomb holes.
I parked my rusted Toyota 4Runner just before the pavement ended, not a half-mile from the lodge – the same spot I’d fished the day before.
The sun was high when I stepped out of the car, but I could still see my breath, especially after a sip of coffee. My hands struggled to maneuver the frosty clips of my waders, and drops of water fell from the cottonwoods above me.
The mist gave way to the weak October sun, showing the foliage of mountain maples, aspens and cottonwoods, most of it wet and underfoot by that time of year. The squirrels made a racket as they gathered food for the coming winter, but the innumerable deer I saw yesterday were gone. Perhaps the rut was coming to an end, I thought. Perhaps they got spooked.
The path was soft and wet with the blanket of fallen leaves. My feet fell silently. The river sounded the same, like a light treetop breeze. I headed straight for my break spot, a fallen spruce perched atop a dried up knoll looking over a slow, quiet stretch of water.
I sat waiting, smoking, watching. Things hadn’t changed from the day before. An October caddis, orange as the aspen leaves, fluttered about the water as if saying, “hello.” I tied my favorite imitation on and before long was hooking browns, cutthroats and rainbows. Around me, dew glistened off the roof of the shady, dark undergrowth. I never had to change flies.
After a few fish out of two holes – that’s how fishermen track time: fish and holes – I hooked my fly to my rod and crossed the creek to try my favorite spot, where the main channel meets a small slough. The water there is deep, slow and shaded by alder. After crossing the river, I followed a path to my honey hole, my footsteps silent in the grass.
Whether it was a noise or a feeling that made me turn, I’m not sure. The grass was tall, brown and shaded, slumped slightly from the dampness. I didn’t see him at first, because he blended in with the shades of tan.
I almost turned to cast again, but then realized I was staring into a set of black eyes. I froze.
Our misty exhales were simultaneous. Mountain lion.
Not 75 feet away, he crouched low to the ground, tail flat, eyes locked, ready to pounce. The black eyes glimmered like a faded coin in a fountain. Only his long whiskers moved, twitching with each breath, like an old man at a chess table smoothing his mustache, contemplating the next move.
I’d been instructed by friends and teachers to be aggressive during cougar encounters – cats don’t like to fight. Like a sniper, they want you dead before you hear the gunshot. I caught my breath and began stomping on the ground, barking, snarling like a dog, and yelling in my lowest, manliest voice. The terror and despair faded.
The cat, in his own way, surrendered by standing. Then he turned broadside finally revealing his long, muscular body – perhaps 170 pounds.
As he walked away with his tail high, the end bobbing, mocking me with each step, I could think only of my parents’ cat, elegant and snobby. Suddenly, I wanted to get started on that history paper. I walked backwards halfway to the 4Runner.
That was the loneliest moment of my life. Years later, I still dwell on several indelible details: Those twitching whiskers; my feeling of helplessness, an emotion worse than fear; and the fact that the cat may have watched me for perhaps an hour-and-a-half that morning. Watched and waited, waited, waited… and finally, I shudder thinking how I nearly turned back around and began casting again.