PROVO — When Kyle Burgess was on a run about 2 miles up Slate Canyon on Saturday evening and saw four small animals scampering around on the trail ahead, he didn’t realize what they were at first.
Thinking they were bobcats (it wouldn’t be the first time he’d seen those), Burgess pulled out his phone and started recording. Seconds later, when their mother came into view, it dawned on him that he was in big trouble.
They were mountain lion cubs. And their mother was going to protect them at all costs.
The instant the full-grown mountain lion mother charged him, Burgess’s adrenaline fired up. He let out a stream of profanities while he backed away. The cougar dove into the trees along the side of the trail, as if to flank him.
She reappeared on the trail. Her eyes locked on him, and she followed him as he retreated backward.
What came next was the longest six minutes of Burgess’ life.
The 26-year-old from Orem did everything he could think of to ward the mother cougar off. He knew not to turn his back to her. He knew to back away — but not too fast. He cursed, yelled, growled and grunted while she continued to follow him, flashing her teeth at him, her ears pinned, her tail swishing.
“Go! Go! Go!” Burgess yells at her a minute into the video recorded encounter.
Burgess said every time he took his eyes off her or tried to stoop down for a rock to throw at her, the mountain lion lunged at him, hissing. With each pounce, her front paws and claws flared. Her powerful hind legs kicked up dust and gravel.
“No!” Burgess screams at her. “Go away! I’m big and scary!”
She keeps following him.
“You’re good!” Burgess yells. “You’re good little kitty cat. ... Nice and slow. Come on.”
He pleads with her to turn back and “go get your babies.”
It seems to never end. She lunges at him several times more.
“OK, this is when I (expletive) die,” he says. “Come on, dude. I don’t feel like dying today.”
But Burgess, who recounted the terrifying encounter to reporters at the mouth of Slate Canyon on Monday, got away without a scratch.
After those six minutes of terror and pure adrenaline, Burgess was finally able to pick up a rock and hurl it at the mountain lion. It nailed her, and that’s when she took off running back down the trail.
“Wow, that just happened,” Burgess recalled thinking after she finally took off. “Honestly right now it still feels like a dream.”
Burgess, who was almost done with a 10-mile loop when he came across the mountain lion family, had to keep headed toward the Slate Canyon trailhead, or else he’d be facing a 7-mile run back. So he waited about 30 minutes before trying again, this time holding a stick and rock in his hand. At one point, some other hikers came up the trail, and when he asked them if they’d seen a mountain lion, they laughed at him.
When he showed them the video recording on his phone, they realized he wasn’t joking.
On his way back down, there was no sign of the cougar and her kittens. He made it back from his run unscathed.
He recounted how strikingly “beautiful” but also how powerful and “scary” the lioness was while he kept his eyes locked on hers. He said his heart and mind raced while he did his best to avoid an attack. During some of her pounces, Burgess said he was so sure she was going to attack, he squinted his eyes, bracing for pain.
“My emotions were a jumbled mess,” he said. “So it was kind of like ... ‘K, well this is going one of two ways. What’s the outcome going to be?’”
Now Burgess is dealing with the fallout of posting the six-minute video on Instagram. It went viral. As of Monday afternoon, it had been viewed over 240,000 times. His phone continued to explode with notifications.
“It’s insane,” he said.
Some viewers criticized him, others commended him for staying relatively calm and not running away. Officials with Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources had nothing but praise for him.
“You did great,” Scott Root, DWR’s conservation outreach manager for central Utah, told Burgess on Monday, where they met at the Slate Canyon trailhead. “You did awesome.”
Root said DWR officers were notified of the encounter late Saturday night and came to the area Sunday morning to look for the mountain lions. But they never found them.
“So hopefully she’s moved on,” Root said.
Root, who first watched Burgess’ video early Monday, said it’s one of the most “emotional” and “terrifying” videos he’s ever seen of a mountain lion encounter.
“Oh man, you have to just stare at this thing,” he said, describing how he “didn’t even blink” while he watched. “Your heart is racing. I could feel myself putting myself in his position and (thinking), ‘What do I do? What would I do?’ And I know the steps, but what would the average person do?”
Root said Burgess did almost everything right. “He backed away. He didn’t go toward the mountain lion or her kittens. He made a lot of noise. ... He stayed large, he stayed loud and he backed away from the area for quite a while. I think he did everything really well.”
The only suggestions Root had was to not trail run alone — and to maybe carry bear spray. He said mountain lions are also more active during dawn and dusk, so avoiding hiking during those times can minimize chance encounters.
“In that situation, with that mother mountain lion who’s being very protective, as you can tell, I would not take my eyes off of her and I wouldn’t bend down,” Root said. “You want to remain large and you want to remain making a lot of noise. And that’s what he did.”
Root said “the second you drop to be lower, that could trigger a response of attack. Even though I don’t think she was out to get him, she wanted to make sure he was not in that area.”
Root said it’s “not unusual” to have mountain lions in the Provo foothills. But “it’s very rare” to see an encounter. “They’re very stealthy and they don’t want to be seen by people.”
Root said Burgess’ video is unlike anything he’s ever seen in his 30 years of working for DWR — and he said it’s going to be excellent teaching material. He hopes hikers and bikers learn from his experience.
“If you see a mountain lion or mountain lion kittens, stop and just back away from the area. If you find a dead deer, especially if it’s been covered up with dirt and sticks and such, stop and back away,” Root said. “Because mountain lions will take a deer and kind of throw some vegetation and dirt and rocks on top of it, and they don’t go that far away a lot of times, so that’s when you want to stay away.”
Utahns can learn more about what to do if they encounter a cougar at wildawareutah.org. He said wildlife officials don’t want people to “be afraid” of the outdoors, but to be prepared if they do have the once-in-a-lifetime encounter like Burgess did.
“It’s scary, but it’s also a great help for us to remember we’re not alone out there,” he said. “It was frightening, but I’m so happy it had a good ending to it. He did well.”
Contributing: Dan Rascon