Collecting Yamadori is something that few truly experience, and even fewer really get. It’s something that sinks into your core, the desire to be in the mountains as much as possible, to hike just one more ridge, and check one more rock-face; the endless search, and undying belief that the coolest, craziest, ugliest, most gnarly and beautiful tree you’ve ever seen must be just over that next rise.
It’s this passion and drive that takes us out there every chance we get. Any serious mountain collector has had those moments when their life was literally hanging in the balance, between thin air and sheer rock. There are dangers a plenty, but that only adds to the thrill. However, on rare occasion there is a moment that truly takes your breath away; a moment when you know you are in mortal danger, and you’re more alive than ever.
Below is my story of one such encounter. You may remember last September when I posted pictures of a mountain lion who decided to spend part of the day with me. I promised then that I would fill you all in on the details… eventually. I waited in hopes of getting the story published, and was extremely excited to have that hope answered. The American Bonsai Society published a wonderful 6 page article featuring this story and several photo’s in their publication: BONSAI, Journal of the American Bonsai Society. Thank you ABS!!! …. (There is also a non-bonsai related publication that is looking at publishing a “general audience” version of this story. I will be sure to let you all know if/when that happens.)
I’m sure many of you have already read the story in the Journal, but for those of you who are not members of ABS I’m posting the story here. I highly encourage you to join if you’re not already a member.
Here is the full story as first printed in the ABS Journal, with a few additional pictures thrown in.
“Bonsai from the Wild: The Dangers of Collecting
I spend many hours scouring the mountains for native trees suitable for bonsai. Occasionally I have very interesting experiences, and I thought you might enjoy reading about one recent experience in particular.
Some of you may not realize that collecting Yamadori can be quite dangerous in several ways. There are the obvious risks of falling from a rock face, down a crevasse, and being pinned or crushed under shifting boulders. It’s also easy to get caught in severe weather when you’re exposed on the side of a mountain – the same type of weather that creates such awesome character in the trees we seek. Granite with lichen gets insanely slick when wet! Several Japanese collectors met their demise falling from steep cliff sides where they collected the coveted Shimpaku Juniper Yamadori. We are lucky to have far better climbing gear these days, but fortunately it’s not needed in most cases.
Other dangers come from wild animals. We run into numerous rattlesnakes when collecting from rocky hillsides, and there are several large predators that call these areas home, including bears, wolves and cougars.
At the 2012 ABS/BCI convention in Denver (Visions of American West), I took a workshop with Marc Noelanders. The workshop trees were collected Douglas Fir’s, so naturally the topic of collecting came up. In the discussions, I made the off-hand remark that I carry a gun. When Marc asked why, I explained that I often see rattlesnakes, and there are bears, cougars and wolves in the mountains where we collect. He promptly said he would leave the collecting to me. At that point I had yet to see a mountain lion (cougar) in the wild.
I’ve lived in the beautiful state of Wyoming for over 25 years. I’ve enjoyed many hours in the mountains hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, skiing and backpacking. I have encountered all kinds of wildlife, including bears and wolves. I’ve guided American and International hunters part time for the last 8 years. Until this past September I had never seen a mountain lion in the wild. I have no doubt that they’ve seen me – we have a high population of them in the mountain range near my home. But lions always – well almost always – avoid humans.
In September of 2014 I was collecting in a remote and relatively new area. I had just collected a tree and was ready to backtrack to pick up another tree I’d left to grab on my way out. I noticed an eerie shift in the air; one of those moments when everything seems to go unnaturally quiet. The birds quit singing, the squirrels quit chattering, and even the wind seems to calm. I’ve experienced this before without incident, so I didn’t let it rattle me too much. I settled my pack frame back on my shoulders with the tree strapped to it, and headed toward the truck, a bit more vigilant than before.
I reached the first tree, picked it up, and turned to leave…15 yards away was a mountain lion running towards me! It stopped when I turned around and retreated a few yards, giving me time to draw my sidearm. He crouched low in the sagebrush, lying flat to the ground. I held my gun on him, slipped my phone out of my pocket with the other hand and quickly snapped a couple of shots one-handed (as any modern American would do!)
I knew that running would only encourage an attack. The gun in my hand helped me to keep my nerve and remain calm. I figured intimidation was my best defense, so I moved slightly toward the cat and up the hill for a better vantage point (shooting a few more pictures of course). The cat must have realized that I could see him because he stood up and began to circle uphill to my left. After gaining some higher ground, he started toward me again. I fired a warning shot, but it only made him flick his ears. It wasn’t until I charged him a few steps and yelled that he retreated over the rise. I stepped slightly up the ridge to watch his retreat, but lost sight of the animal.
I knew he might try to circle back, so I continued down the ridge, only turning my back for a step or two at a time. After a hundred yards or so I saw him again, this time creeping through the aspens about 60 yards behind me. Now my heart skipped a few beats. I felt a measure of fear because I knew that he was hunting me, and one of us may very well have to die. I was also a bit saddened because I didn’t want such a majestic animal to die needlessly. I was prepared to kill if he threatened my life, but not until then.
I turned to face him again, but this time I pulled out my better camera. Why not? I mean, if he was this persistent I may as well document the encounter to the best of my ability. (Please note: if the cat had been any more aggressive or if it were close to being dark I would not have wasted any time working my way back to safety). I felt assured that intimidation and boldness would hold the cat off better than any other tactic. I moved cautiously toward him to about 40 yards, and I stopped to watch. He crept off the trail behind the aspens and waited. I think he knew I could see him so he gave up on hiding. This time he moved out and leaped onto a large rock where he crouched, watching me in return. I moved a few steps closer and began speaking to him. I let him know that I had no desire to kill him if I didn’t have to; I was happy to leave him here in peace, but he would die if he tried anything. (Obviously he couldn’t understand my words, but who knows – maybe he got my intent. Plus speaking with him helped me to keep my nerves calm). He laid down on the rock and acted bored…I wasn’t fooled.
Twix, my Siamese cat at home does this. He’ll be playing or doing something he’s not supposed to, and when I catch him he acts like he wasn’t doing anything at all. He’ll stretch or sprawl out, yawn, and lick his paws…all of which this big cat did! It was fascinating. I’m not an expert on wild cat behavior and I have no idea what the cat was thinking, but he must have been a bit perplexed by my behavior, just as I was by his. From all of my experience with wild animals and everything I’ve ever heard or read, mountain lions should avoid humans. Even if they attempt to attack a human, they run when chased or shot at. This cat did neither, which is concerning when considering the safety of unarmed hikers or campers, especially children.
During this whole process I was praying: praying that this lion and I could part company safe and sound, and thanking God for the opportunity to witness such a magnificent creature in its natural habitat.
I kept talking to the cat. I told him to stay on the rock while I left. He did.. for a bit. I worked my way slowly across the flat a couple hundred yards to the draw where I could descend across the creek. As I dropped into the draw, I paused for a second and then stepped back up to check on the lion. He had come off the rock and was circling upstream from me.
Stepping up the pace, I crossed the creek watchfully to the timber on the other side. Rather than head straight for the truck, I stuck to more open timber. I made it about half way through before I saw him coming again. I turned, speaking loudly to him so that he knew I could see him. I slowly worked my way through the timber, pausing and turning to face him every few steps and kept an eye on him as much as possible. Every moment that he thought I wasn’t watching, he was advancing, trying to cut the distance between us. I managed to keep about 50 yards between us all the way through the timber by facing him and tossing rocks through the trees. I couldn’t reach him, but the rocks hitting trees slowed the cat up.
When I reached the edge of the timber I stepped about 20 yards into the open and turned back. He darted to the edge of the trees and crouched behind the grass, blending into it and looking more ready to pounce than he had at any other point. I shouted to him that he was dangerously close to being shot, and he had one last chance to leave. I picked up another rock and sent it his way while simultaneously charging him, whooping and hollering. He spun and dashed back into the trees, seeming more alarmed this time.
I finally made the last stretch to my truck without seeing any sign of the cat. I have no doubt that the lion watched me the rest of the way, but he kept far enough away to avoid being seen. Relieved, I piled into my truck and breathed for what seemed like the first time in a while.
I was quite lucky that I turned around when I did. If I hadn’t, I likely wouldn’t be here to tell the story!
So here are a few things to consider if you ever find yourself in the wilds searching for Yamadori, or just out for a hike.
1) It’s best to have a dog or hiking partner along to watch your back or help in a tight situation.
2) Be sure someone knows where you’re going and will check up to make sure you made it back safe.
3) Carry some type of defense – a gun or bear spray (or both) is best.
4) Keep a level head and don’t let fear control your actions in the midst of a dangerous situation.
5) Be prepared for the elements, especially out west. The weather can change very quickly and snow is a possibility any time of the year.
I feel incredibly blessed to have had such an awesome experience, and that the lion and I were both able to leave uninjured to hunt another day. Hopefully the cat will stick to hunting deer and I can hunt trees without being stalked.
There is a fascinating article featuring Japanese Yamadori collectors at Brian Van Fleet’s blog site: Nebari Bonsai – http://nebaribonsai.wordpress.com/the-shimpaku-juniper-its-secret-history-from-kindai-shuppan-2003/
Steve Varland and I have been operating a small business called Backcountry Bonsai for the past few years. This is just one of the many adventures we have in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. We love roaming the mountains for inspiring trees and sharing our adventures with others who are passionate about bonsai. We welcome you to follow us on ‘facebook’ or http://www.backcountrybonsai.wordpress.com.
Thanks for reading!
© Dan Wiederrecht 2014″