May 25, 2021 11 min read

It was Thursday, June 1, 2000.  It had been an eventful week, with parents down from Washington and two daughters, a son-in-law and a grandson from Texas. 

Our 20 year old, Heidi, decided it would be fun to go camping. Whitney, 15, Lindsey, 16 and Ashley, 12, wanted to go as well.  The girls debated as to the best place to go and it was determined that Wasatch State Park would be the place.  My wife requested that I go along for protection.  I would have to sleep outside the tent or in the back of the Expedition since the tent would only accommodate 3 - 4 people.  At the last minute Lindsey decided to stay home, which may have averted a tragedy.

We managed to get there a little before dark. The sky was blue, the trees green and the temperature cool. It was a perfect night for camping. After doing a little location scouting, we selected site #25 on the far west side of the tent portion of the campgrounds. The thought occurred to me that one of the inner sites might be less likely to be visited by raccoons and skunks, but I didn’t want to concern the girls by bringing up the possibility of night time scavenger hunts by the local four-legged residents.  

The fact that there were campers a couple sites to the North of us and more campers two sites to the south made me think that maybe the little critters would choose to visit the neighboring sites, get their fill and leave us alone.

After replacing the mantles in the propane lantern, we managed to shed some light on the camp site. The mantles had torn when the lantern tipped over in the car on the way to the campground. I carefully tied two new mantles on as instructed. But, being the camper that I am, I thought I had destroyed the mantles when they burst into flames as I started the lantern. However, I resisted the temptation to blow them out and, after turning from white to black and then back to white (how amazing), the lantern worked just fine.

The girls and I then rummaged around in the scrub oak and bushes surrounding the camp site to find enough dry, dead wood to build a campfire.  Heidi insisted on starting the fire.  Sometime after dark we had a fire going and proceeded to roast our marshmallows and carefully construct enough s'mores to fill us the rest of the way up after having eaten our chicken and fish sandwiches from McDonald’s, our Cool Ranch Tortijas and sharing one can of pop that Whitney had smuggled in to the camp in her back pack.

By now it was about 11:00 PM and Ashley announced it was time to visit the luxurious Wasatch State Park restrooms. I mean that. In fact, I’d have to say that in all my camping days, I’ve never enjoyed finer camping accommodations. The girls were particularly impressed that the restrooms had mirrors, which lengthened the duration of their stay.

Heidi wasn’t ready to go and said she would just go later. A vision of myself being drug from my sleeping bag to accompany her to the restroom just after drifting into a deep, much needed sleep, was not an appealing thought, so I insisted that everyone go now. We had to take the Taurus down to the parking lot so we wouldn’t be charged for two cars, so we loaded up and, after dropping off the Taurus, made our trip to the restroom. After a few “eat more fiber” jokes directed at one of the girls, we made it back to the camp site.

Once we had made sure all the food was cleaned up and put in the car so as not to attract any wild beasts, we took the remaining chips, some water and a couple flashlights into the tent. I slept along the North facing wall of the tent with the three girls perpendicular to me, their feet at the other side of the tent. Heidi was along the tent opening which faced eastward. Ashley was next to her and Whitney next to Ashley with her head close to mine.  

It was beginning to get pretty cold and I was looking forward to getting wrapped up in my two sleeping bags with broken zippers and padding coming out. The girls had the three new bags with the “Hot Feet” feature. After a couple minutes of twisting and turning, pulling and pushing, I finally managed to almost get my entire body covered. I was ready to breath in the midnight air and drift into a deep sleep.

I then heard a sweet (very irritating) voice say, “Dad, you forgot to turn off the lantern.” I patiently exited my warm, comfortable abode and turned off the lantern. Lucky for the cougar he didn’t attack right then. He would have been easy to track down at night because he would have been wearing a lantern.

It wasn’t long before I was partially awakened by sounds outside the tent.  My eyes were closed as I listened for what had awakened me.

Heidi had been awakened first by the sounds. She had taken one of two large flashlights from down by her feet and lifted the flap just enough to shine the light through the tent mesh and see what we believe was a raccoon scamper across the site in front of the tent. She had to look out of the tent at a sharp angle to the North in order to follow the raccoon as it entered the bushes. A split second after entering the bushes the horrific screams of a violent death...not a fight or battle...but a killing, rang out. The bushes thrashed about violently. Heidi dropped the flashlight in horror exclaiming in a frightened whisper, her voice quivering with fear, “Oh no!...Oh no!... Dad!...Dad!”.  

The attacker made no sound itself, only the thrashing and horrific screams of the doomed smaller animal, a sound I had never before heard, not even in a horror movie. It proceeded with the kill in rapid fashion, like the scene from Jurassic Park, with the cow and the Velociraptor.

Now near tears Heidi uttered,”Dad?”

Feeling an ample amount of fear myself I whispered, “Just a minute,” as I tried to discern what it might be that was wreaking havoc outside our tent, and what it would do when it finished its kill. Would it want more? Would it be satisfied?

“What is it?” she said, her voice trembling.

“I don’t know,” was all the assurance I could give her.

“I’m scared....Dad?....What are we going to do?”

“Be quiet....Don’t move,” I said in a whisper. I reached down and grabbed the heavier of the two flashlights. I normally would have had a TigerLight, a flashlight equipped with pepper spray, but had loaned it to The National Institute of Justice. I had no weapons, not even a knife. The screams of the smaller animal abruptly ceased and we could hear the crunching of bones and the tearing of flesh as if it were happening inside the tent. It seemed as if all our senses were intensified as the reality of what was taking place outside our tent sunk in deeper and deeper.

Not seconds after the finally cry rang out the incredibly strong, sickening odor of a dead animal permeated the tent, a conclusive, frightening bit of evidence that the kill was complete. However, the ordeal was far from over. 

The killer continued to feast on the raccoon, or what we believe was a raccoon, for what seemed like an eternity. The thought came to my mind that the more it ate, the less likely it would be to come to the tent for more. I began to think, “Eat it all. Eat the whole thing.” At this time we were still guessing what the killer was. We knew it was powerful, attacked silently, no growling and devoured its prey voraciously. The sounds reminded us of the cow and velociraptor scene in Jurassic Park.   

By some miracle the two younger girls did not awaken during the kill. Whitney awakened after the kill, and seeing me poised with the flashlight raised to a striking position and sensing the fear in the air asked, “What’s wrong?” By this time the feeding had stopped and the attacker had moved through the bushes to the West, but how far we could not tell. I was hoping that it had taken what was left of the kill and headed back up into the mountains above us; No such luck.

Heidi started to tell Whitney what was happening and I found myself saying,”No.” Again she started to tell her, I’m sure seeking comfort in numbers. “No” I said again, and then a third time. Whitney did not ask and we did not tell, until much later, leaving out the details. Whitney later told us she could sense it was something really bad and she was glad we didn’t tell her.

We heard nothing for about 10 -15 minutes so I decided to lay back down, hoping to relieve the tension somewhat. A combination of cold, tension and adrenaline now had me shaking. I pulled the sleeping bag up around me, keeping the flashlight in my hand. I tried tightening and releasing my muscles to stop the shaking and after about half a dozed attempts, the shaking stopped. I shared my discovery with Heidi and Whitney to help them stop shaking. Ashley didn’t need it. She remained in a deep sleep. My only concern with Ashley was an occasional bout of light snoring that I feared might attract the attacker. So, occasionally, over the next four hours, I would have to nudge her a little. It always did the trick...for a while.

I had just begun to relax a little when I again heard the rustling of bushes and the breaking of twigs getting closer and closer, followed by an eerie silence as it left the brush, either stopping or stepping onto the hard dirt surrounding the tent. I was lying down now and my head pressed against the tent in the Northwest corner of the tent. Lying on my back I listened intently, trying to determine its proximity to the tent. Then it became quiet and I strained to hear.  

Suddenly, adrenaline shot through my body as I heard a foot step on the corner of the tent, pulling the tent against my head. I did not move or make a sound, fearing that if I moves, it would feel it and if the girls knew where it was, panic might erupt. I had decided that yelling and screaming would be our last resort, although the possibility of putting an end to the ordeal, even at the risk of drawing its aggression, was very tempting.

I moved my head slowly away from the tent wall, my eyes fixated on the thin fabric that separated the killer from my beautiful daughters, waiting for a claw or teeth to come slashing through in the same violent fashion used to annihilate the smaller animal. My gaze fixed on the tent wall, I listened intently as the feet moved toward the front of the tent. As its hind feet came onto the plastic, I gauged the distance at about four to four and a half feet from the front feet to the hind feet. Chills coursed through me as, for the first time, I realized its approximate size.

An unexpected feeling of anger and near rage swept through me as I realized this beast might attack one of mine. A sudden and intensely strong desire to rush out of the tent and try to crush the skull of this evil menace overtook my thoughts and I started for the tent door, trying to visualize what might happen when I emerged from the tent. The thought of loosing the battle and allowing the attacker unchecked access to my daughters overtook my thoughts and I stopped short, frustration, fear and anger taking on new heights of intensity as we sat in the darkness, waiting for its next move.  

Should we shine the flashlight at it? Should we yell and scream? Should I awaken Ashley and have all of us burst from the tent yelling and screaming. Had anyone else heard the commotion? Was anyone coming? I tried my cell phone. We were less than a quarter mile out of range.

Probably the worst part of the whole ordeal was not being able to see it, know its thoughts and intentions. During the next four hours the process repeated itself over and over. It would appear to have left. We would start to relax. There would be a silence that would suddenly be broken by the same distinct sound of rattling bushes, twigs breaking, then a moment of silence as it stepped onto the hard dirt of the camp site. This would be followed by a tensing of every muscle and a rush of adrenalin as this invader stepped onto the tent tarp, pausing, thinking, probably smelling the air, then pacing around the tent, looking for signs of life. Often it would walk down the north side of the tent, along the east side to the southeast corner and then circle back. Many times it was difficult to tell whether or not it had left or was standing there.

I prayed for time to pass quickly, for the sun to rise. It seemed like this process repeated itself about twenty times over the next four to five hours. A few times I carefully shined the flashlight on my watch, 2 o’clock...3 o’clock...4 o’clock. Finally the sky began to brighten. I had remained awake most of the night, with brief moments of sleep, abruptly interrupted by the intruders relentless returns to the tent.

It began to get light. I hadn’t heard him for some time. Then I heard him, near, but not right by the tent as other times. It shook, making the sound made by a large dog or horse when it shakes after standing up from a nap. Then I heard it...three low, distinct purrs. It then walked away from the tent. It was getting light and I sensed that it might have decided to retreat back into the mountain and come back another night.

I lied down. The girls were asleep. I closed my eyes, saying yet another prayer that it would not return. I fell asleep for an hour or so, waking up around 7:00 AM. I listened for a while then slowly unzipped the tent and stepped out, quickly gazing around the sight, but somehow confident that our intruder was gone.

It had rained sometimes during the night, but the sky was now clear. I scanned the ground, looking for tracks. There it was; a large paw print about the size of the palm of my hand. But, strangely, we could see no others, at all. We then headed for the nearby bushes to see if the remains of the carcass were there. We expected blood and guts, a gruesome sight. We could see the trampled bushes, the broken branches...but no blood...only one paw print as evidence that a cougar had been there.

We reported the incident to nearby campers and to the kind lady at the entrance gate, who notified the Rangers. They came to the camp site and we gave them an account of the nights proceedings. We initiated another search around the camp sight and just on the other side of a small log bordering the camp site, in the softer dirt, one of the rangers found a large print which he and his partner identified as a good size cougar, not huge, but fairly large. The print was the same size as the one in front of our tent.

Later that day we all went to the Zoo to get a better look at our nemesis of the previous night. Will we go camping again? Yes, of course? Were we better equipped? Yes, always with TigerLights and often with firearms and sometimes with the giant canisters of bear spray. Will we go to Wasatch State Park? Without a doubt! We wanted to go back the next night, park in the car and wait for it to return so we could get a look at it, but I wasn’t ready for another sleepless night, just yet. 

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