I kept waffling on whether to go on a camping trip to western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park this year.
My husband, Nick, and I were practically regulars there in 2011 when we lived in Bismarck, only a couple hours away. Hiking into different parts of the Badlands backcountry to pitch our little tent for overnights in the shadow of the buttes was among our favorite things to do.
Though he has been back multiple times since we moved to the Twin Cities in 2012, I haven’t camped in the park’s backcountry in nearly five years. I have good reason — or so I’ve been telling myself.
Last time I did, a mountain lion wandered into our camp at dusk. I was traumatized by it, and even five years later, I still fear spending a night outside the relative safety of the campground.
That July evening in 2011, I’d been crouched in our mesh-top tent when I saw out of the corner of my eye some critter jump down the grassy embankment to the spot we’d chosen. The sun was setting, and there wasn’t enough light for me to tell exactly what it was.
Figuring it to be a curious coyote and knowing they’re skittish, I implored Nick — who’d just left to go hang our food in a tree — to scare it off.
He noted ears silhouetted against the sunset and walked a little closer to yell at it. It didn’t move, so he hollered again.
Then it stood up — and he recognized the outline of a different animal. One bigger than a coyote and with a longer tail.
I will never forget the fear in his voice when he shouted back at me, “That is not a coyote. That is a mountain lion.”
I still get chills thinking about it. We both thought, in that moment, that we were doomed.
The cat was 25 feet away and walking cautiously around the edge of our camp.
In the throes of panic, and rather hilariously in hindsight, Nick first threw a hatchet (missed!) and then tried bear mace. But a strong North Dakota breeze blew the mist back in our own faces, leaving the cougar unaffected. (I spent much of this time having my own panic attack inside the tent, utterly paralyzed by fear, and with a coughing spell brought on by the mace coming through the mesh tent wall.)
Out of ideas and reeling from the effects of the mace, Nick called 911. The park has surprisingly reliable cellphone service, for which we were grateful, but the Bismarck-based dispatcher didn’t understand why we couldn’t just get in our car — 2.5 miles away at the trailhead. However, she alerted the park ranger, who said he would hike out to meet us.
I’m sure the transcript of that call is amusing — and full of obscenities that we were simultaneously yelling at the cat.
Eventually — I have no idea how long this took; everything felt as if it lasted hours — the mountain lion skulked off into the darkness, entirely bored by our antics. It had even yawned.
Realizing the big cat could return, the ranger conveyed through the dispatcher that we also should leave. We did in a hurry — I forgot to even put on shoes — and took only the essentials with us: a knife, headlamps, car keys, wallet. We walked back-to-back for a mile before meeting the park ranger.
When we’d described the cat’s behavior to the ranger, he said it sounded like a young male who had been recently pushed out of his home range and was hunting — we’d seen deer minutes beforehand — when it accidentally stumbled on us.
Park staff members said while they know mountain lions are in the park, encounters with them are extremely rare. Wildlife biologist Blake McCann said they’re so rare that they can’t even say with certainty how many there are — but most confirmed sightings are in the park’s north unit, 68 miles away from the south unit where we had our encounter.
“The park is not actually big enough to serve as a refuge for any one lion,” McCann said, referring to the large territories mountain lions occupy. “They’re in low numbers and pretty cryptic.”
Facing my fear
This all makes for a great yarn, but heading back out there has always made me uneasy.
Sticking to Minnesota camping has felt safer somehow, despite the possibility of black bears and wolves. The most we’ve dealt with here is a hungry mouse in the trail mix.
This isn’t to say we haven’t had some positive experiences with the wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We’ve seen vast herds of bison, bands of wild horses, sometimes with foals, the cutest big-eared mule deer, a scrappy coyote — which sat on the edge of a prairie dog town, patiently waiting for dinner.
There also was the grunting porcupine who got a little too close for comfort, and the rattlesnake that gave me a stern warning when I accidentally stepped on its rock.
This year, I felt ready to head back out to face my fear. We brought my mother-in-law on this particular trip, planning just one night in the backcountry, bookended by two nights in the campground.
The first evening there, Nick said it was a shame his mom would only see the part of the park where we decided to camp.
This was my opening. “You know, we wouldn’t have to camp in the backcountry,” I heard myself say. “That way, we could do two dayhikes in different parts of the park so your mom can see more.”
Which is exactly what we ended up doing.
On our last night, I confessed that my real reason for that suggestion was that I was still scared of the backcountry.
Recalling that night in 2011, Nick reminded me that the cat did not display any malicious behavior toward us and seemed merely curious and that we did everything right by jumping, yelling and calling the ranger.
And he’s right — over these past five years the memory of that trip always felt like we were on the precipice of death. But we weren’t. Time and an active imagination do funny things. I remember how that terror felt in the moment, even though the facts don’t really support it. (Nick now also feels a bit of guilt knowing that if his aim with the hatchet had been better, he could have hurt an animal that in all likelihood meant us no harm.)
Knowing this fear is irrational doesn’t always make it easier to face it. I wasn’t planning on sabotaging our plans this time around. My mouth moved before I had time to think about it.
I still want to go back. This place is, after all, also the setting of many wonderful memories that shouldn’t be ruined by one bad experience.
I’ll try again next year.
CJ Sinner is a digital producer for the Star Tribune.