With some quick thinking, determination and the help of strangers, one with a highly appropriate name, a Running Springs woman survived an encounter with a mountain lion on a lonely Lake Arrowhead trail on May 4.
As the animal crouched to attack, Laura Cuaz used several protective strategies before finally climbing a pine tree and screaming for help.
After dropping her daughter off at the Lake Arrowhead Christian School, Cuaz, 47, had gone jogging on a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) road near the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District’s (LACSD) sewage treatment plant on Alberta Lane around 9:50 a.m. She waved at a plant employee as she passed.
It was the first time she had jogged on the path. Clad in a short skirt and a top, she carried only a water bottle and her cell phone.
On her return trip, about 20 minutes later, she said, “I heard a loud, running sound and leaves crackling. I knew what it was and turned in an offensive stance, shouting as loudly as I could.”
Cuaz, a former U.S. Air Force captain, said the cat stopped about two arms lengths away and crouched. She estimated it had waited for her behind a tree 15 feet away. She immediately began screaming for help.
The cat was not fully grown, she said, but about the size of a Rottweiler. Officers from the California Department of Fish and Game and the USFS later told her it was probably an 80-pound male seeking to establish its own territory.
‘used my water bottle’
“I used my water bottle to squirt its eyes, hoping to startle it,” she said. “I was still screaming and holding eye contact. It retreated about six inches.”
The big cat then walked to within an arm’s length from her. “I was lunging back toward it every couple of seconds when he did, still squirting it with water, but it was still engaged in the attack mode,” she said. “It appeared to be sizing me up, deciding whether to take me as an adversary or as prey.”
As she then tried to poke the cat’s eyes, it went for partial cover behind a tree branch, she said. “I broke off the branch and began hitting it, but it did not flinch,” she recalled.
When she had the chance, Cuaz-a former six-year U.S. Customs aviation enforcement officer who specialized in intercepting drugs being flown illegally into the country-dialed 9-1-1 and squirted the cat with the last of her water.
Her call didn’t go through, so she scrambled up a small pine tree, stopping near its top, about 15 feet off the ground.
Her idea, she said, was that if the cat tried to follow, the tree’s many branches would make its pursuit more difficult, and she could kick downward at it. “It would have to drag me down fighting to get to my neck,” she said.
As she continued screaming, she heard a voice responding to her. She later learned it belonged to one of two U.S. Forest Service workers, putting up a fence along a trail four ridges away.
“They said they had never heard screaming like that before,” she said. “They used a PA on their vehicle to respond.”
The pair, later identified as Jason Ardenski and Michael Mursik, notified sheriff’s deputies on a two-way radio and began searching for her on foot.
As Ardenski and Mursik, who was on his first day as a Forest Service volunteer worker, continued searching, climbing uphill through dense brush, deputies set up a search-and-rescue command post and scrambled Sheriff’s Department helicopter 40 King to aid in the search.
Fire Department rescuers and paramedics were also dispatched, along with deputies. Rick Fischer, a Fish and Game warden, was also called to the area.
“I screamed a little more and then had to stop, as I was losing my vocals and my breath,” Cuaz said. “I needed to breathe and think about my next move.”
It turned out to be shaking the tree to try to dislodge the cat’s foot, now resting on the trunk.
Just then, she said, a white truck “came barreling around the corner on the path. The driver, Justin Luck, the man with the fitting name, was the man I had waved at earlier.”
She shouted to him that she was up the tree and he backed his truck up to it. The truck frightened away the cat, but Luck was going after it.
“Justin jumped out of his truck, brandishing a pocket knife and got the rake out of the truck and was going after the lion, but it was already gone,” she said.
Cuaz said she later learned he had heard her screams after turning off the pump he’d been operating, responding immediately. Luck then took her back to the LACSD plant for a cup of coffee. “It was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had,” she said.
In a post-incident report, Ardenski made some observations about Cuaz’s ordeal.
The helicopter had to break off its search because its fuel ran low, he said, and the mountain lion had begun breaking limbs off the tree in an attempt to reach its prey. Amazingly, he said, Cuaz never heard the helicopter, though it made several sweeps over where she was treed.
“Remember while you are out in the forest on patrol or working on a project, keep your windows and radios down and your eyes and ears open,” Ardenski reminded his colleagues. “It might just save a life.”
Though the experience seemed like 100 hours, Cuaz said, she now estimates she spent no more than five minutes facing off the cat on the ground and another five in the tree.
After the threat was over, she said, “I hung in the tree and just wept. I completely let go. I was done emotionally, I was done physically.”
Asked for her advice to others who would venture onto a forest trail, Cuaz recommended taking a dog along, as well as a “SPOT,” a portable electronic device able to transmit the holder’s GPS location to all 9-1-1 responders.
She also recommends taking bear spray, a bear horn and a whistle. “I ran last night with a baseball bat,” she said. But Cuaz said she has no immediate plans to run again in the area of her close call.
Asked whether she’d been told by experts that she did the right things to fend off an attack, Cuaz said, “they called me the poster child. They said I’d done exactly the right thing.”
Cuaz added that she’d gone over in her mind many times in advance how she should respond in such a situation, so it became almost second nature.
On the morning in question, she said, “one minute I was having coffee at Jensen’s, saying hello to friends, and 30 minutes later I was in the animal kingdom food chain.”
While the incident was unfolding, she said, “I got to thinking about my husband with someone younger and more beautiful and I said, ‘it’s not to be. Not today, cat.’”
The day after the incident, she said, another preschool mother told Cuaz she had planned to go jogging on the same trail, with her daughter, 40 minutes after Cuaz encountered the mountain lion.
“It all made sense then,” she said. “I was glad it was me. God meant for me to be there. The cat would have gotten her daughter. I needed for it all to pull together, and that did it for me.”