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January 5, 2010

CSI: Carmel Valley

(Admin note: a few weeks ago I showed a picture of animal bones on this page, and some folks commented that it made them squeamish. If you’re one of those, you might want to mark this one as read and check back next time. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)


“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
- From Chinatown (1974)

One of my favorite things to do during the holiday season is take a midweek day off work, allowing me a rare opportunity to enjoy a winter’s run without needing a headlamp to light my path. So on the morning of New Year’s Eve, a few of us headed towards my favorite hills in Carmel Valley, looking for a memorable way to conclude another year.

Unfortunately, the benefit of sunlight never seems to make the day’s first climb any easier, as it gains close to 2000 feet of elevation over about 3 miles. However, instead of the usual darkness and fog on the horizon, there are clouds and hillside vistas and, off in the distance, the outline of the Monterey Bay curving around towards Santa Cruz.

Near the top of the hill sits this junction with the aptly-named Cougar Ridge, a long connecting trail that traverses the back country of Carmel Valley into the most remote regions of Garland Park. And why is it aptly-named, you ask?

These tracks were less than 10 feet from the signpost above. One week prior, on the morning after a heavy rain, two friends and I followed these tracks for a good two miles in the midst of a long run. Actually, I should clarify that to say that my friends were following the tracks, with me following a few steps behind them. I mean … if you can’t use your training partners to run interference on deadly predators, what good are they?

Eventually the climb crests into a hilltop mesa that’s relatively indistinguishable from countless others in Carmel Valley. It was kind of hard to completely savor the view, however …

… given that we had passed a recent kill zone on the way up. Luckily for us, this had the looks of an older crime scene, as opposed to one that happened closer to our arrival. There’s really no way to know for sure …

… since the only witnesses were the trees. And they weren’t talking.

One thing that seemed obvious, however, was the identity of the guilty party …

… who left evidence all over the place. Mountain lions aren’t exactly the type to worry about covering up their work.

More difficult to confirm was the identity of the deceased. At first glance, the body looks to be the size and shape of a coyote, but that’s primarily because the remains are fairly spread out over a wide distribution. And with closer inspection of the bones …

Those look more like Bambi hooves than Wile E. paws, don’t they? I think we’ve got our Jane Doe. (Or Deer Doe? That’s kind of redundant, isn’t it? How about just Doe? Unless it’s a buck. This is getting complicated.)

Since there was no clear and present danger at the scene, and since I had not one ounce of interest to track down this specific perpetrator, there wasn’t much further work required to close the book on this particular case. The only thing left to do was head back down the hill, look out over the peaceful village below, and finish the remaining miles of the run.

You don’t want to dwell on death scenes like that for too long, so it’s best to just forget them. It’s Carmel Valley.


Rasmus 1/7/10, 2:46 AM  


The animal track you show a picture of is not a Mountain Lion (Puma) but from a canid. Most likely a dog or maybe a Cayote. I am not familiar enough with cayotes to tell the difference. A cat would have a much broarder foot print.

Rasmus 1/7/10, 2:54 AM  

Hi again,

Sorry I overlooked the tracks by the sign-post, these are from a Mountain Lion.

Anne 1/7/10, 5:20 AM  

And you guys didn't even need Grissom or Willows to help crack the case. Beautiful vistas, by the way.

jen 1/7/10, 6:09 AM  

Great post! Amazing how wild the hills near your house are. Beautiful photos.

Ray 1/7/10, 6:26 AM  

It's amazing whata treat running in the sunlight is after weeks of using a headlamp!

I did the same thing - twice actually - over the past two weeks and it was incredible.

Great post!

Donald 1/7/10, 7:12 AM  

Rasmus - thanks for the comments. It could be a coyote, huh? I think I need to re-open the investigation! This is turning into a nice mystery.

Dave 1/7/10, 8:13 AM  

I love finding stuff like this on the trail...it's just how I roll....

Dave 1/7/10, 8:13 AM  

I love finding stuff like this on the trail...it's just how I roll....

21stCenturyMom 1/7/10, 9:03 AM  

The only thing that would have kept me from peeing myself from fear had I been out there and seen what you saw would be knowing that whatever was out there had eaten so much it left remains and was probably satiated.

Mama don't like the thought of encountering a mountain lion. They kill people.

21stCenturyMom 1/7/10, 9:04 AM  

BTW - your blog has a thing at the top that seems to remember something I searched on and is offering me links to more of the same. It's kind of creepy. I know it's just some google plug in but ew! Feels like being assimilated. If you makes money let me know - I'm not above profiting from assimilation.

Gretchen 1/7/10, 12:17 PM  

That's so weird, I was just this minute working on writing a piece that also discusses sharing trails with mountain lions. Are you scraping my brain for blog content?
I have to say though, in spite of the grisly remains of Babmi, there's something pleasntly wild about knowing there's something out there faster, deadlier (and therefore, somehow, more alive) than me. Being out there on the same trails, I feel just a bit more connected to the lion, and maybe just a bit faster because of it. (And please, no smart-ass comments about me being a cougar, okay? Not cool.)

Anonymous,  1/7/10, 2:59 PM  

Methinks I see a novel coming down the tracks (no pun . . . oh well, I'll fess up).
Remember when you're writing the novel that our unwitting protagonist is unaware that mountain lions seem to like surprise attacks from the rear. Maybe you should keep one of your running buddies as a back-up protagonist, just in case our hero learns a hard wildlife lesson.
CV Scatologist

Darrell 1/7/10, 3:50 PM  

Good to remember we are on their land when we venture onto the trail in places like that. Kinda cool and scary at the same time.

wirehairedrunner 1/7/10, 8:08 PM  

Hi Donald:
Although there cougars in Carmel Valley and at GP, the tracks are definitely not a mountain lion, but a canine of some sort-whether that's a coyote or domestic dog, who knows? The mountain lion has a broad, huge foot with an extra pad at the bottom. I have seen cougar tracks a bit over the years here in Idaho. The dead animal is a bit perplexing since it definitely has Bambi hooves but strange looking fur and body. Great CSI blog, and one of my favorite runs in GP. Thanks for sharing.

Jason Mitchell 1/7/10, 8:58 PM  

So funny... the chances of getting attacked by a cougar are super-slim, but it's funny how we all get on edge in their territory. I spook myself all the time alone deep on a backcountry trail run only to find a harmless bird or squirrel to blame for the rustling in the bushes.

Thanks for the great story, Donald!

momo 1/8/10, 2:24 PM  

donald! happy happy 2010! :) we see remains and bones up in the trails we run in the mountains here too, and i don't get too worried if they're all dried out. something fresh might get me thinking though... thanks for sharing your pictures - what an incredibly spectactular place to be able to run!

Backofpack 1/8/10, 6:35 PM  

Makes for a cool adventure! At least in the dark you can't see the evidence that's been left behind. Kind of like hiding your head in the sand: if I can't see it, it's not there!

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