Incredible Canada Lynx Encounter
Somebody pinch me. Did this really happen? I just returned from visiting Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and photographing not one, but two, Canada lynx in the wild.
The Canada lynx is a Colorado state endangered species. For the protection of these animals, details regarding whereabouts have been omitted.
You may wonder, how does one go about photographing a Canada lynx in the wild? When I set out on this project three years ago, I had no clue. “It’s nearly impossible”, people insisted. Even researchers dedicated to studying lynx rarely, if ever, encountered one outside of a trap.
Search the web and you can count the number of wild lynx photos from Colorado on one hand. One of the most recent photos, taken in 2013 by retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife employee Steve Chaney, went viral and was picked up by the Huffington Post.
The Canada lynx was reintroduced to Colorado beginning in 1999 after being wiped out by predator poisoning, over hunting, and loss of habitat. Prior to the reintroduction, the last verified sighting of a lynx was in 1973 near Vail. Between 1999 and 2006, just over 200 lynx were released into the Colorado high country. Since then, the reintroduction has been declared a success and researchers are working to monitor the size and potential expansion of the lynx population in Colorado.
“Oh, I saw a lynx once”, people often tell me. “Lynx, or bobcat?” I reply. Nine times out of ten, after paging through fuzzy iPhone photos, we will determine that their lynx was, in fact, a bobcat. Bobcats are constantly misidentified as lynx. Although secretive, bobcats are common on the Front Range, and if you spend enough time here, you have decent odds of seeing one. Lynx are rare, elusive, and typically live in remote stands of high altitude forest.
Lynx and bobcat can be difficult to tell apart because they are closely related. Last year, a photo of a bobcat made the rounds in the media under the headline “Rare Mountain Lynx Spotted, Photographed near Wild Basin Lodge in Estes Park Area.” Everything about a lynx is larger than a bobcat, but especially its massive feet. If you are unsure, a foolproof way to tell a lynx from a bobcat is to get a good look at its tail. The black tip on a bobcat’s tail only goes halfway around; the underside is white. A lynx’s tail is black all around, like it’s been dipped in paint.
But back to the question at hand – how does one go about photographing a Canada lynx in the wild? I’m still not sure I can answer, but my story begins on a wintry morning in the San Juan Mountains.
We woke up to heavy snowfall and the kind of avalanche danger that sends normal people fleeing to the patrolled boundaries of the ski resorts. I was glad to be with experienced friends who know the local terrain. On our way to the trailhead, we decided to make a detour to check a nearby site for lynx activity. “Nearby” in the San Juans is a relative term. As the crow flies, it was just a few miles, but it would mean an extra hour and a half in the car. As the snow continued to fall, the risk of an avalanche burying the road and leaving us stuck loomed in our minds.
It’s funny how the subconscious works. During the drive, my friends told me about their encounter with a pine marten last summer. In the predawn twilight, their brains had picked up on the shape of the marten as it clung motionless to the trunk of a tree, even before they knew exactly what they were looking at. Buried deep inside, we still possess those abilities that meant the difference between a meal and starvation to our ancestors ages ago.
“Stop!” I called out as a set of tracks whizzed by the passenger window. A buzzer was going off in my subconscious cave man brain. We had seen hundreds of tracks crisscrossing the fresh snow all morning, but there was something subtly different about these. Jumping out to investigate without bothering to lace up my boots, I struggled to identify the tracks as they filled in with snow beneath my nose. I knew they were something I had never seen before – a short list of possibilities.
I couldn’t follow the tracks. The hillside was too steep, the snow too deep, and the brush too thick. My feet were getting soaked and my friends were ready to move on before the roads worsened. I crawled back into the truck and we drove off, exhilarated and a more than a little befuddled.
The story just as easily could have ended here. But it didn’t. Just up the road was a trail heading into the woods, and with some luck, the trail might intersect the tracks. Perhaps, sheltered beneath a canopy of pine boughs, I might be able make out more details in the tracks.
We put on our skis and started up the trail. About a hundred yards in, a snowshoe hare played hide and seek with us in the undergrowth. As we stopped to watch it, I saw the mysterious tracks crossing the path just ahead. This time, I was able to follow them, and under a spruce tree, I could see the prints clearly in the snow. Cat tracks.
My friends remained to watch the snowshoe hare as I followed the tracks down the hillside. They were fresh and looping right back towards our truck. The animal must have been sneaking down as we were headed up. We had missed it by a matter of minutes.
This could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Today was a lucky day.
As I lingered, trying to piece together what had happened, not one, but two Canada lynx appeared out of the forest and casually traversed the road. With my camera handy, I snapped off a few dozen shots before they disappeared into cover again. I had just had my first look at a Canada lynx in the wild!
I felt a little guilt. My friends were still up the trail. When they caught up, they were trying to tell me something about the snowshoe hare. “C’mon!” I prompted and we huffed and puffed in the thin air back to the location where the tracks disappeared into the woods. I told them about the lynx and showed them the photos on the back of my camera.
Once again, the story could have ended here. But once again, it did not. Today was a very lucky day.
We decided to stick around a bit longer. We knew what direction the lynx were headed, and there were some nice clearings that might offer another chance to see them. As it often does, the persistence paid off. After perhaps fifteen minutes, my friends got their first glimpses of the lynx between the trees. We could hear them calling to each other in short growls. It was something I had only heard in zoos until now.
Then, the grand finale. The first lynx emerged from the woods halfway between me and my friends. We stood dead still and held our breaths as it crept to the shoulder of the road. It cautiously looked both ways and stepped out. The second lynx followed behind and together they crossed before disappearing once again. Two ghosts of the boreal forest had just granted us a front row seat.
Honestly, this is never how I thought the story would go. In my mind’s eye, I pictured cold, lonesome days in a blind. Winters of couch surfing in the San Juans, missing my wife and questioning my sanity. Just waiting for a chance at a grainy, distant photo of a lynx through the pine trunks.
Maybe it was a very lucky day. Maybe it was providence. Or maybe I’m still dreaming.