After two brutal days of driving through torrential downpour, heavy winds, and even a white out blizzard crossing the Sierra Nevada range, we finally made it to the Great Basin Desert in Northeast California.

We went to bed in the sagebrush and juniper, familiar smells that greet us like family, surrounded by snowcapped peaks in the distance and clear skies above. The wind was howling and cold, as the desert can be this time of year, but 15 degrees and clear was infinitely warmer than 40 degrees and drizzling.

The next morning we woke, laced up, and set out into the rocks and sand. Not too far from camp, we scared up a flock of chukar, a game bird similar to quail. Finn, with slingshot in hand, lead the charge to try to cut them off at the pass and bring home dinner for the family.

Unfruitful though this hunt was, we soon came across an even more exciting quarry. Fairly fresh cougar tracks through loose sand gave us an incredible opportunity to trail this desert landscape’s greatest predator (with apologies to the northern jaguar and Mexican wolf, and their unfortunate “retreats” from these lands.) More on that in stories to come.

The cougar trail was an amazing learning opportunity, leading us to a latrine with fresh scat, and a wandering trail that lead back-and-forth from what was probably a kill site (though we never found it.) Through the trail we were afforded the opportunity to enter the mind of the cougar, to see what he saw, sense what he sensed, and speculate about his motivations. Finn honed his search image and was calling out the faintest of tracks, often before us. A prouder father there never was.

It’s always wonderful to be in the presence of an animal that can eat you. There’s nothing like the slight twinge of fear to heighten your senses and bring you to full awareness of your surroundings. Even though the chance of a cougar attack is infinitesimally small (and I implore you not to fear them), you can’t deny a certain wondrous feeling when on one’s trail.