Two Saturdays ago, my wife Jenna and I went on a hike around the Lafayette Reservoir, which we have wanted to hike since moving to Walnut Creek in 2016. But this was our first time. We decided to take the longer, more challenging Rim Trail around the reservoir, which, as the name implies, goes along the tops of the ridge that encircles the body of water. It was a beautiful warm day, hardly a cloud in the sky, and while there were others on the trail as well, it was not overly crowded. About halfway through, we decided to take a little detour from the Rim Trail due to one heck of a slope we wanted to avoid. So, instead of trudging up that portion of the trail, we took a right on Canyon Trail, which kind of cuts through the far end of the circle around the reservoir and ultimately syncs back up with the Rim Trail. As we were heading down this portion of the trail, we started to notice signs of wildlife. Large wildlife. We were walking past large animal droppings, and we soon realized that the canyon we were entering must be home to a big animal. Big animals, more precisely. It wasn't long before we realized we had entered into the home of the majestic Mountain Lion.
We must have passed easily a dozen droppings along about a quarter-mile of the trail. What was really interesting was that it seemed like the cats were treating the human track as their own bathroom, which I find quite humorous. As we finally approached the bottom of the valley, we realized most humans stayed on the rim trail and that we were by ourselves. It also got quiet down in the valley, sheltered from the wind, which was a little eery to tell you the truth. Then, about another quarter-mile further and starting to make our way up the other side of the canyon wall, we saw the prints. Fresh paw prints.
We immediately stopped and investigated. I had never seen big cat tracks like this before, and it was fascinating to see in the wild. As we looked closer to all of the tracks, we noticed that we could make out four distinct paw print sizes. One was a little one, another one was probably a teenager, and then two larger ones which we think were both adults, but with one distinctly the biggest of them all. We believe that was a full-sized Dad male cat, but again we had never seen these in the wild before, so these are just best guesses.
We were able to track the prints back down the trail, the direction we had just come from for a few hundred yards. It then looked like two of the cats veered off the trail to the south, where we guess is where they live. Two of the prints continued forward, though, the teen and the mother. This went on for another hundred yards or so when deer prints appeared. These two cougars were hunting, and we were tracking the drama maybe just a few hours after it had happened. We were there around 12 pm noon, and these cats are nocturnal and like to hunt in the dawn and dusk hours of the day. And due to the freshness of the tracks, we believed we were within 6-18 hours after this event took place. So we kept tracking and trying to look for any evidence we could find of "the hunt," but none was to be found. These cats probably missed the mark, but given the park's ample wildlife, I'm sure will not go hungry for long. It is also very possible that the hunt went off-trail, and we just weren't able to see the signs, as we are still very amateur trackers. Maybe next time we'll catch the main event!
So along the remaining portion of the trail, which we decided to take another route that would take us straight back to the lake trail instead of back on the Rim Trail, we found cat tracks the entire way. We even found another big cat dropping maybe 50 yards off the main asphalt trail that circles the reservoir. I don't know if this was evidence of the same pack or not, but suffice it to say, this park has an active Mountain Lion population. While I would love to see one live in the wild, I don't think I would want to be caught alone in this park after it closes.
But what is truly incredible is that this park is a mere 15 minutes away from our apartment, and some neighborhoods in Lafayette back right up to the park borders. And it has been like this for decades, and most of us are none-the-wiser. For example, we passed four hikers while tracking these prints, all of which were utterly oblivious to the ample evidence of the wildlife surrounding them on this trail. And when we told them what we were looking at, they were shocked and immediately concerned and appeared worried for their safety. In truth, there was hardly any reason for concern as these prints had been set in the dirt many hours prior. And to anyone who owns a cat, what do they do during the middle of the day? That's right; they sleep. Big cats are no different, especially during the heat of the day. Lastly, if these cats were hunting us, we would not benefit from seeing their tracks ahead of time. They are much better than that!
This leads me to my next comment. Many people have probably seen the viral video of a man aggressively pursued on a country trail by a Mountain Lion protecting its cubs. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a watch. You can check it out here. It's a terrifying predicament to be in, and I'm glad the guy made it out alive. However, I think the hysteria is overblown and that it speaks to the massive disconnect that modern society has with nature. This man did nearly everything in the book wrong when it comes to properly behaving in the wilderness. Let me explain:
Time of day: Dawn or dusk. Hard to tell which one, but it was clearly in the dim light hours of the day and not a time to be caught out in nature. This is when hunting goes down.
Getting close to cubs: This really is self-explanatory. I know it would be cool to get shots of baby cougars in the wild, but you have to understand the parents are not far off. And if you don't see them, you're probably less safe than if you do.
Defense: When in a situation like he found himself in, you want to make yourself as big and as loud as possible. The man literally tried to hiss at the cat at one point instead of yelling. And instead of using both of his arms to make himself as big as possible by waving them in the air, he kept one hand on his phone to keep filming. Hence an 6-minute pursuit ensued and didn't end until the man threw a rock at the cat, scaring it off. I'm not sure if throwing a rock is a text-book example of defending yourself against a big cat, but it ought to be.
However, my point of this is not to blast this guy. My point is that these animals are amongst us, have been for a long time, and are much closer than most realize. We have become so disenfranchised from nature and the wild not to recognize it. How many of us blow right past all of the clues and evidence like the hikers we saw? In fact, how many of us blow right past all the ingrained details and realities of life simply because we don't know what we are looking for? I'd bet the vast majority of us. We don't even notice the paw prints in the dirt and mistake cat poop for dog poop. They look similar, but they are not the same. Once we start to realize these facts and understand these animals for what they are (beautiful animals that live amongst us on the land we have encroached upon), we begin to see the beauty and activity of all the nature around us. It's there; it has always been there. We just need to know how to look.
So how does this relate to wealth planning? I'm glad you asked. A situation like this is an excellent illustration of the concept, "you don't know what you don't know." Or taken a step further by the great Mark Twain, "it's not what you don't know that can hurt you; it's what you know that just ain't so."
Suppose you're going through life thinking everything is great, and you have your investments and finances handled, and you have a general idea of where you're going but nothing too specific. Still, maybe you are missing the signs and markers along the way that could tell you otherwise (don't know what you don't know). In that case, you are leading yourself into a potentially harmful situation that you do not even understand (what you know, but it just ain't so). You could be the innocent trail-goer minding your own business, missing all the signs of wildlife, and then putting yourself into a terrible situation similar to the guy in the video.
This is why having a knowledgeable understanding of your current circumstances and a detailed strategy moving forward is paramount to generating positive outcomes OR avoiding adverse consequences. And often, the avoidance of adverse outcomes tend to be the most impactful. After all, you don't get many run-ins with a Mountain Lion and live to speak about it. Or, you know, share a YouTube video about it. So for these reasons, it pays to be a tracker, both in life and in wealth.
Matt Faubion, CFP®
Founder - Wealth Manager