Emily thanked the staff at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory and waved as she headed down the mountain. Mt Hopkins wasn’t a cake walk. Neither was nearby Mount Wrightson but she wanted pictures of the elusive jaguar and this was the only place in the contiguous United States that there had been recent sightings.
She hefted her backpack, now filled with five gallons of water, into a more comfortable spot and edged her way down the mountainside. It was early April and already the days were hot here at the southern border of Arizona. That meant she didn’t need a sleeping bag, she was making do with an ultralight blanket, compass on her pack strap and topo map tucked into the outside pocket of her cargo pants. Food and a backpacking stove were pretty much all else in the pack. She carried a survival knife on her hip and had two hiking poles, to help her navigate up and down the crags and canyons of the Coronado National Forest.
Emily wanted to find a jaguar in the U.S. Her whole master’s thesis was on the mating habits of the jag and the environment a mating pair had to have to succeed. Most of her studies had to be done in Mexico or further south where habitat still existed for her beloved cats—the third biggest cat in the world and the apex predator feline in the New World. She wanted them back in her own country where their ancient range started north of Flagstaff, west to California and east into New Mexico.
She struggled down the mountain to the gullies and canyons that lay like folds in the earth where water ran, from snow melt and the occasional spring. This is where the cat would be. Where water and prey could be found. In South America, the jaguar hunted riversides. Here, the cats hunted waterways, even if there wasn’t apparent flowing water. Javalina, rabbit, even desert tortoises were prey and Emily thought there was a good chance if she could wait out her water supply, to catch a glimpse of her favorite animal.
“You’re going into the wilderness with just a knife?” her mother had exclaimed. “Isn’t that cat about two hundred pounds?” Her voice went up an octave. “Take a gun for pity’s sake.”
“Mom, do you know how much five gallons of water weighs? Forty pounds. A gun is too heavy. Besides, I have to take my camera, too. What with the lenses, that’s another eight pounds.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re gonna get eaten.”
I shrugged as I tucked my baggies of dehydrated meals into the outer pack pockets. The whole inside of the pack would be full of water. “Then I’ll be eaten.” I grinned at her. “But I’ll have great pictures of the jag and will have fed an endangered animal.”
At the moment, my biggest danger was in falling off of Mount Hopkins. Near the bottom, sweaty and covered in scratches from the acacia and random cactus, I made camp early along a wash that had multiple game tracks. Jaguars hunt at dusk and dawn. I wanted to be set up in a blind, camera ready before the sun set.
I sat in my blind, freezing at night but comfortable during the day, for two days catching nothing but pictures of fat javelina families and smaller prey animals. A coyote stopped once to stare at me but moved on when I whispered hello. On day three, I moved to another canyon. There was an actual trickle of water running through this one. I filtered water and treated it, extending my stay in the forest and set up my blind. I took lots of bird pictures, mice, rabbits, coyotes, a lovely Gila monster, and several other animals, but no jaguar. After two days, I moved on.
The next canyon had no running water and I was down to my last two and a half gallons. I’d cut my food into half rations since the tiny stream earlier had extended my stay. I ignored my stomach’s protests and hunkered down to watch. More pictures of creatures passing by but no jag. It was impossible I thought, two mornings later. Without the water, there was no way to stay any longer. By now I was at the southern edge of the park. A single track dirt road was only two miles away that led back to the west and I19. Two quarts of water was going to have to get me there.
It was after eight when I reached the dirt road and turned west. I loved how the morning sun cast dark shadows across the face of the Santa Rita Mountains. I was looking upslope and noticed a movement among the scruffy juniper and oak. I stopped to stare. My heart began to race. There, just up the hill, a jaguar stepped out from behind a scrub oak and turned its head to stare at me. From my position, I couldn’t tell how big it was or even if it was a male or female. Slowly I brought my camera up to my eye. The cat stood, as though it were waiting for me. I took four, rapid-fire pictures, then the animal sprang up the hillside and disappeared over the shoulder. I tried to get shots of that graceful uphill run but I knew before I looked that they were blurry.
My walk back to the highway was spent glorying in the sight of that magnificent, regal animal, remembering every detail. At home my thesis advisor told me to use the blurred photos as well. “We get so few,” she told me as she gently touched the printed photos. “Let’s use every one to help save this magnificent creature.”
As for me, I fall asleep every night, remembering how the jaguar leapt up the hill, powerful and graceful, king of the desert.
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