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Hi Bob,

I really enjoy your website; thanks so much for all your great info and advice!

I live in the foothills of the Sierras in northern California. The trails that we ride on are very remote and forested with a lot of streams and small lakes. It's also bear/mountain lion country. We never ride in the evenings toward dusk, but because it's been so hot lately, we thought maybe we'd start our rides early in the morning.

What should we do if we encounter a large predator? I know bears and mountain lions generally run in the other direction, but there's been a few instances in this area where lions have chased people who were running or riding bicycles. My first instinct would be to get out of the area as fast as possible, but they say that people or animals running triggers the chase instinct in the big cats.

Have you, or do you know of anyone who has been in a situation like this?

-- P. M.

Mountain Lion ANSWER:

We have a few mountain lions in this neck of the woods, and one killed a cow a few miles east of town a few years back, but they generally fight shy of human contact. Myself, I've never had the pleasure of actually seeing one.

The only thing you can always predict about a mountain lion or bear is that it will be unpredictable. You almost never have the advantage of knowing what its current motivation is. Is it hungry? Protecting a food source? Sick? Injured? Concerned about its offspring? Feeling threatened or cornered? Simply in a bad mood? Some combination of these factors?

Because of this unpredictability, the best protection is to simply avoid a confrontation with the critter. As I mention elsewhere on my website, I've often ridden through bear territory, but I've never encountered one because ol' Willy had a hearty dislike of bears and could literally smell them a mile away. Therefore, your first line of defense is to pay attention to your horse. If it suddenly starts acting unexplainably nervous, sniffs the air anxiously, or twitches its ears all around, you can be sure there's something nearby that it considers a danger. At that point, you'll want to let the horse tell you where it wants to go -- preferably into open ground where you have a good field of vision -- but don't let it move faster than a walk. Predators have a strong instinct to attack anything they consider to be food that is moving. This is why joggers and bicyclists are especially prone to being attacked. Whatever you do, don't let your horse follow its natural prey-animal instinct and gallop away. A bear can hit 35 MPH and a mountain lion can run down an antelope. There's no way you're going to outrun them.

A second way to avoid an encounter is to give the cat or bear plenty of advance notice of your arrival in the territory. Something as simple as attaching a bell to your horse's harness could do the trick. There's also safety in numbers. In addition to giving you some extra backup, the more riders, the more noise and the more the wildlife will try to avoid you.

Stay away from the obvious danger areas. We all know that bears love blueberries, so steer away from the places they grow. If you see a fresh deer carcass, move away. And avoid riding under large trees or overhanging cliffs.

If you do encounter one of those critters, never turn your back to it. This is sometimes easier said than done, because your horse's natural instinct is to put the threat as far behind it as possible. If you and your horse both calmly face the lion or bear, it sends a strong message that the cat or bear is the one at risk -- rather than you. A half-ton of angry horseflesh is a threat most animals don't want to face. I've seen aggressive dogs stop barking and tuck their tails between their legs as soon as they saw Willy turn toward them. Don't, however, act aggressive unless you are actually threatened and give your adversary plenty of avenues of escape. Of course, never, ever, come between a mama and her youngun's.

There are a few less obvious precautions: Since bears are attracted to sweets like fruits and honey, don't wear sweet-smelling perfume, cologne, or deodorant. The scent of blood is also a strong attraction, so injured people or horses should stay clear of hazardous areas, as should women at a certain time of the month.

If worse comes to worse, you'll want some form of protection. A good hunting knife ready to hand is helpful in close combat. There are cans of pepper spray on the market that are specially made for warding off bears and other predators. The pepper spray, however, is fairly short-lived, so you'll want to move out while it is still having an effect. There have even been reports of bears licking the spray off their hair with apparent relish. Firearms work, of course, but there's always the risk of hitting something other than your intended target, and even if you succeed you may find yourself afoul of the local hunting or firearms laws. If you do shoot, don't stop shooting until your weapon is empty -- then quickly re-load. Many is the deer hunter who has been attacked or even killed by a "dead" deer.

Check with your local forestry or natural resources office for more tips, as well as specific information on where it's safer to ride.

By taking a few precautions, you'll probably be a whole lot safer in the wilds than you would be when riding on the shoulder of a road.

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