Former high school English teacher Ron Bell and his wife, Joanne, own a cabin near Kyburz, California. Here he recalls an encounter with a wild animal that happened at the cabin when he was searching for a coffee mug.
Q: What was the creature?
A: The creature in question was a bobcat, a medium-sized wild cat (smaller than a mountain lion, about 30-40 pounds).
Q: Where is your residence located?
A: The cabin is located in the Eldorado National Forest about a mile past Kyburz, (population of Kyburz, about 150). It’s right on the edge of the American River, South Fork, a bit more than halfway between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe.
Q: What exactly happened?
A: The incident was at night (as) bobcats are mostly nocturnal. I went into a brushy area some distance from my cabin, where I thought I’d left a coffee cup earlier. (I was just determined to find this cup.) I stopped at one point to look around.
There was a lot of moonlight, and I don’t recall having a flashlight. I became dimly aware of something touching my leg, something that wasn’t a plant because it moved slightly. I looked down and saw a gray animal, a bit taller than my knee, right next to me – my leg was actually touching it!
At that moment the bobcat moved away into the undergrowth. In other words, it had frozen in place as I approached, not intending to be noticed and not anticipating that I’d stop so close. It left quickly but not in a rush, and silently, when it realized I was no longer fooled by its pose.
Q: How did you react?
A: I wasn’t frightened of the bobcat. It’s not going to attack a human. Even bigger animals like bears or mountain lions rarely attack humans. We’re not what they normally eat.
I’m not afraid of any of the wildlife, though I would prefer that bears and rattlesnakes stay away. They’re inconvenient to have around, as are raccoons. (You definitely don’t want to attract raccoons.)
Rattlesnakes, by the way, rarely bite humans, and it’s almost always the human’s fault when they do. The classic rattlesnake bite victim is a 20-something man who’s drunk.
If I wanted to see more wildlife, I’d have to stay up all night, outdoors, with night-vision goggles.
Q: Have you had any other interesting encounters with similar animals?
A: I’ve also seen bobcats in the daytime, and they’re curious about humans – my wife and I had a long stare-down session with one once. It looked at us for a long time; we looked at it. We were about 15 feet apart.
We don’t typically see a lot of wildlife except for birds and squirrels and, occasionally, raccoons and deer. (We also see) rattlesnakes, which are very common. Bears occasionally show up in the area along the South Fork of the American River at about 4,500 feet.
People see a mountain lion once in a while, but not often. River otters and pine martens – a large, weasel-type animal – have also been spotted near my cabin.
Q: Was this encounter different from other encounters?
A: Only in that I was much closer to the animal than would normally be the case. Because the cat was in the “freeze” position, (“If I don’t move even the tiniest bit, the human won’t see me”), it let me get so close my body was actually touching it.
These cats will sometimes get within 20 feet or so of a human, if they’re curious, but most of the time you’ll never see them at all.
Q: How large is your lot?
A: I don’t know how large the lot is; no one pays any attention to boundaries, because it’s in the forest. To get there, you drive off of Highway 50 down an old road that was part of the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road (built 1858-59), then part of the Lincoln Highway, which was in turn replaced by Highway 50 in the 1930’s. Access to the cabin itself is by a footbridge – there are no roads going to the south side of the river.
Q: How many buildings are around it?
A: There are several hundred cabins in the Eldorado National Forest, all built in the early 20th century, scattered here and there along the river and in a few other areas. No new construction has been allowed in the forest since about 1950.
A family from Sacramento built my cabin in the early 1920’s – by hand, themselves, even milling the lumber onsite, and incorporating pieces of older buildings – beams, windows, doors, etc. – into the structure. This was a large extended family who shared the vacation home.
After some years – I estimate around 1940 – the three branches of this family quarreled, and divided the cabin into three parts. They took a 1000-sq. ft. building and divided it into three units, with no connecting doors – each had a kitchen, living room, and loft. Then, each branch built a small separate “bunkhouse” sleeping area just outside their “unit,” each with a bathroom – the three families refused to share any facilities. So, there are four buildings in all, the “big” cabin and three smaller buildings, making a “compound.”
Q: When did you buy this cabin?
A: I bought this place in 2005 from the original family. It had been neglected for many years, and the different sub-families still hated each other. I never learned why. My wife and I restored the buildings, maintaining their historic appearance and materials (though the three units inside the big cabin are gone – it’s one dwelling again. We just removed some walls, and repurposed two of the kitchens – one became a bedroom). The buildings are considered a “historic resource” by the Forest Service, and I would like to have them given landmark status, since they’re among the least-altered early buildings in the area. I live here part-time, except in winter.
Q: Are you working on your writing?
A: Yes, I am actively writing, and as you can imagine, the cabin is a good place to work. I often go there by myself.
—By Keshav Anand