Ryan Hansen figured a couple of spooked deer had tumbled down a snowy slope, landing in a tangle in front of his snowmobile on Dec. 27 on a logging trail near Spearfish.
“At that point, I realized there were two different fur coats,” he said.
And one of the coats belonged to a mountain lion.
Hansen, a physical therapist from Rapid City, had to swerve his sled to avoid the animals, which came to rest against the right side of his machine.
Almost immediately a deer, blood oozing from wounds on its neck, popped up and fled toward four other riders in Hansen’s group.
A mountain lion was right behind, first leaping into a gap between the riders, then stopping for an instant before bounding away, back up the hill side.
“It all happened so fast,” Hansen said.
That was the assessment for four of five other members of the party who had witnessed the encounter on a sunny, pleasant Friday two days after Christmas.
Hansen and his father-in-law, Dave Luers of Pierre, an uncle, Jon Born of Chaska, Minn., brother-in-law Todd Mellinger of Fort Collins, Colo., and friends, Rusty Hollingsworth of Pierre and Blake Hyde of Sioux Falls, were riding on a trail in Long’s Draw near Spearfish.
“It probably took us five to 10 seconds after the lion ran by for us to comprehend what happened,” Mellinger said.
Hansen was riding second in line. Luers was in the lead and didn’t notice what first appeared to be a couple of deer running down the slope, Hansen said.
“I still wasn’t thinking cat at all,” Hansen said.
Landing close enough for Hansen to touch with an outstretched boot, the deer bounded away directly toward the other snowmobilers.
“It was running for its life because it had just gotten attacked,” Hansen said.
Born, next to last in line on the trail, thought it odd to see a deer coming toward him.
“My immediate thinking is that Ryan has hit a deer. The other animal went straight up the hill,” Born said.
A strange-looking deer, he thought.
“I’ve never seen a deer with a 6-foot tail before,” Born said. “Then I said, ‘Holy cow, that’s a mountain lion.’”
The group stopped to marvel at what they had just witnessed. Luers returned to find out what he just missed.
“You never imagine you would see a mountain lion, let alone one on the hunt and actually in the process of attacking an animal,” Hansen said.
The biggest regret of the day was not using helmet-mounted video cameras on the trip.
“We had talked about (using the cameras) before the ride started, but we blew it off. We’re disappointed we didn’t do it,” Mellinger said.
“If we had had those on, this thing would have gone viral all over the world. We would have had three or four helmets watching it,” said Born, who snapped still photos of the disturbed snow leading to the trail where Hansen’s sled came to a halt, loose fur and spatters of blood left by the deer.
“There wasn’t a ton of blood, but it was dropping blood every time it took a step,” Born said.
Hansen is just glad to have had plenty of witnesses along for the ride.
“If I had been the last rider in line, I’m sure nobody would have believed me,” Hansen said. “I told my wife it would have been better if the cat had reached out and gave me a little scratch, I would have had something to prove my story.”
The riders estimated the cat to weigh between 100 and 150 pounds.
“He could have taken any of us down, that’s for sure,” said Mellinger, who said he has seen mountain lions in the wild in Colorado before but never this close.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal, I think,” Mellinger said. “I still can’t believe it happened.”
“The mountain lion gets bigger every time we tell the story,” Hansen said with a laugh. “It was plenty big when you’re 10 feet away.”