That Was No Raccoon

Posted on 20th July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Alexandra Oliva grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Her debut novel The Last One is a taut, high-concept, dystopian thriller that tests a resourceful female protagonist to her limits. Karen Joy Fowler, The Man Booker-shortlisted author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, described it simply as, ‘haunting, moving, and remarkable’. Here, Oliva tells the true story of a mysterious sighting while on a fourteen-day wilderness survival course in the wilds of Utah

I was sitting by a creek’s Y bend, waiting to be shown to my solo campsite, when I heard a rustling in the woods. Catching a glance of tawny fur, my first thought was: Mountain lion. My nerves prickled. It couldn’t be. When we’d set out on this fourteen-day-long wilderness survival course in southern Utah, our instructors had told us there was no chance of our seeing a mountain lion. Zero. Zilch. Mountain lions were everywhere, they said, and the animals would certainly see us—but we wouldn’t see them. Out here, the elusive great cats were unconcerned with humans. If we were lucky, maybe we’d see a bighorn sheep.

"Trying and failing to smile toward the end of the course"

My instructors were experts; they knew this land and the creatures inhabiting it far better than I ever would. Whatever I’d just seen, I knew it couldn’t have been a mountain lion. But I knew it wasn’t a bighorn sheep either.

“I think that was a mountain lion,” said another student.

“Really?” said the apprentice instructor sitting with us; the movement had occurred behind her so she hadn’t seen. Our other two instructors were off showing the rest of the class to their solo camps; we awaited their return. “Maybe it was a raccoon.”

I’d never seen a tawny-colored raccoon, but it seemed more likely than a sheep and I wanted to be talked out of my sighting. I tried to convince myself… yeah, a raccoon. I was on edge, anxious about how I was about to be left alone in the middle of nowhere for forty-eight hours. I would much prefer to have just seen a raccoon than a predator that could snap my spinal cord with one bite. Although, if I’m honest, there was also a part of me that was excited, that wanted it to be a mountain lion—I’d heard about a woman on a previous trip who’d been dragged out of her group’s shelter by a bear in the middle of the night; her instructors and classmates helped her fight it off and she finished the course. I didn’t want anything like that to happen to me, but a sighting? I could get behind a sighting.

"No backpacks allowed. Instead: blanket-packs."

The rustling came again, and this time I saw a long, distinctly feline tail disappear behind a tree trunk. The other student and I exchanged a look: That was no raccoon.

“I saw the head,” he declared. “That was a cat’s head.”

When our other instructors returned, we told them what we’d seen.

“It could have been a bobcat,” said one. “Did you see its tail?”

“It was long,” I told him, ruling out the stub-tailed bobcat.

The other student added, “It had a cat’s face.”

Our instructor asked us where we’d seen the animal; we pointed, and he went to investigate.

Why was I there, deep in the wilds of Utah, maybe being stalked by a mountain lion? I was thirty and almost a decade-deep into a writing career in which I’d yet to find any tangible success. As I struggled with the question of how to know when it was time to give up on my dream, the answer I clung to then—the answer I had already been clinging to for years and would continue to cling to for years more—was “not yet.” Not when I was getting better, getting closer. Not when I’d fallen in love with an idea for a new book: A woman is on a wilderness survival reality TV show when disaster strikes, and she thinks it’s all just part of the show. In order to fully explore this premise, I’d felt I needed hands-on survival experience.

"That brown splotch? A cow that visited shortly after the mountain lion."

Additionally, the description of the course had fascinated and terrified me on a personal level—walking for days eating only the food you find! Large game processing! Camping totally solo to test your skills!—I would have wanted to do it even if I wasn’t writing the book, though I doubt I would have had the courage to. Knowing the experience would be a boon to my writing gave me the push I needed to sign up.

But I wasn’t planning on writing about mountain lions. This part wasn’t helpful for the book. My mind spun unlikely narratives about what the next forty-eight hours might entail. Most ended in my horrible demise. I thought of one friend’s parting words to me as I’d left for the trip: Try not to die.

Our instructor returned. “It was definitely a mountain lion,” he said. He explained that, judging from the size of the print he’d found, the cat was likely a juvenile, right in the age range where he’s on his own but still retains some of the curiosity of a young cat.

And then it was time to go to my solo camp.


"Enough to keep the mountain lions away?"

As I followed my instructors through a marsh, I imagined the eyes of the mountain lion tracing my every step. My camp was at the end of the line. Left there, alone, I thought of the mountain lion. I thought of the setting sun. Then I dropped my pack, unfurled my poncho, and began to build my shelter. All through that night I heard footsteps, rustling—sounds that existed but probably weren’t what I thought they were. I imagined a mountain lion leaping to snap my food bag from the tree above my shelter—why hadn’t I hung it further away?

But in the morning my food bag was still there, and so was I: unharmed.

That wasn’t the most difficult night of the course, but it was the most unnerving. I’d come to Utah for hands-on experience building shelters and using bow-drill kits, and while I did gain that, this unnerving night also became an unexpected tool for my writing. There might not be any mountain lions in my debut novel, The Last One, but there is fear. There is being alone in the night. And now I had first-hand experience with that too.

"One of the course's greener days."

Images and captions: Alexandra Oliva


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