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Doniga and the Lion

On the hunt for California’s wildest creature with a mother, rancher, author, and tracker.


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Doniga Markegard and her daughter Quince, eight, with two of the family horses. Markegard’s four children are free to roam their land at will—“That way, they’ll be able to think for themselves.”

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Husband Erik Markegard, who, alongside Doniga, runs Markegard Family Grass-Fed meats.

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Markegard tracking a mountain lion’s prints on her property in San Gregorio.

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Markegard cuts a striking image as she leads her horses along the ridgeline of her family’s property.

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2018 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

The tawny moon
has slid away and the dawn sky is swiped with blood-red streaks when Doniga Markegard pulls up at the taqueria and gas station in Pescadero. She’s already fed her cattle, pigs, horses, and four children before heading out from her ranch in San Gregorio to meet me. Markegard is 37, dirty blond, and winsome, wearing a morning-person smile and a weathered, feathered cowboy hat. “Hey,” she says, reaching for an easy hug. “Beautiful moon, huh?”

I’ve just read Markegard’s finely observed memoir, Dawn Again: Tracking the Wisdom of the Wild, which stirred up a yearning to follow the wilderness tracker, naturalist, and sustainable cattle rancher deep into the wilderness to look for signs of animals. Today we will be tracking perhaps Northern California’s wildest species, one member of which was recently captured lurking around Diamond Heights in San Francisco, about 45 miles from here: the Puma concolor, aka the cougar, puma, or mountain lion.

Markegard has been an expert tracker since she was a teen, when she dropped out of high school in Fall City, Washington, and became a dreadlocked runaway, traveling a patchouli-scented circuit of rainbow gatherings and bluegrass festivals. After several aimless months and a traumatic sexual assault, she met a Waitaha Maori medicine man from New Zealand who convinced her that the best way to heal was by immersing herself in nature. He turned her on to the Wilderness Awareness School in western Washington, where she and a band of fellow feral high school outcasts were taught survival skills, bird languages, edible-plant identification, and wildlife tracking, all while journaling every observation and teenage feeling.

Markegard had found her calling. In 2004, she tracked the first wolves to migrate from Poland back into Germany after having been exterminated there. Later, the Peninsula Open Space Trust hired her to track cougars in the Santa Cruz Mountains to make sure their paths didn’t cross new hiking trails. She’s since worked with scientists to photograph, trap, tranquilize, and collar mountain lions and to replace or remove the collars when the batteries (or the mountain lions) die. There’s a permanent exhibit at the Exploratorium, Making Sense of Sound, that features Markegard describing the clues she listens for as she tracks. These days Markegard, busy on her ranch, mainly tracks as a kind of meditation, to prick her senses to everything around her.

“The oldest science known to humankind is tracking,” she says as we hop into her big truck adorned with the cheerful cow logo of Markegard Family Grass-Fed meats. “It is based on observation, understanding the patterns of the landscape and how everything is interconnected.” Awareness in nature—of rustling leaves, animal prints, and alarmed birdsong—helped people in the past find food, avoid predators, and survive. Markegard believes it may help us out of the precarious environmental situation we’re in today. “Tracking, and awareness of nature, is key to how we can live in harmony with this planet, rather than continue to destroy it,” she says.

We drive about
10 miles to the grassy ranchland that Doniga and her husband, Erik Markegard, lease for their cattle, an area surrounded by trophy ranches owned by tech billionaires. We climb into the 4x4 Kawasaki Mule we’ve been hauling, and she points to an animal trail following the ridgeline down from the Santa Cruz Mountains. “This is where the cats come down,” she says. Markegard leads me down to a creek by the side of the road. This is a predator latrine, she says. She’s looking for scraped areas, where mountain lions, which have scent glands between their toes, paw the dirt to mark their vast territory. She points out coyote, fox, and deer scat. Markegard noiselessly glides along the animal trail as I crunch behind her. None of the scat or tracks says mountain lion.

We get back into the Mule and drive a rutted ranch road, mist rising on the irrigation ponds, the ocean coming into hazy view. Markegard points at dimples in the mud, which turn out to be bobcat tracks. Segmented scat that looks like something a toy poodle would leave is also bobcat. “If the scat is blackish,” she says, “that indicates there’s a fresh kill around, since the animals eat the organs first.”

We continue by foot. She points out deer trails, which predators follow, just as they do hiking trails and fire roads. “They take the easy route, like we do,” she says. In a wash we find small tracks with digging claws, and she asks me to guess the animal. She outlines the size of a body that would fit the tracks with her hands. “Weasel?” I ask. “Close. Skunk.” She points to clawed coyote tracks and suddenly drops into a plank to demonstrate how a coyote moves, leading with its nose. She’s a shape-shifter, showing me by turns how a stealthy puma moves, then an agile raccoon, embodying the animals as if possessed by their spirits. Then she jumps up, smiles, wipes her hands on some grass, and continues on with the gait of a person who rides a lot of horses.

The sun has warmed us up, but I shiver. “Would you be afraid if you saw a mountain lion?” I ask.

She looks at me like I’m crazy. “I’d be amazed.”

In all her years tracking, even when she could tell from alarmed bird sounds and fresh kill remains that predators were near, she’s seen only a handful of pumas, and even then, usually just the tails disappearing. A friend of hers who studies the cats has encountered more than a hundred of them and has found only one that was aggressive—an alarmed mother with kittens—but even then he easily backed away. Despite widespread fear of mountain lions, only three people in California have been killed by one since 1986. “They’re very elusive,” Markegard says. They’re also afraid of us: A recent study at UC Santa Cruz involving 17 mountain lions, infrared cameras, and motion-triggered sound recordings showed that in 83 percent of cases, the cats will run away from a fresh kill site when they hear something as subtle as people talking.

Still, it’s hard to forget a passage in Markegard’s book in which she writes that mountain lions have nerves in the tips of their teeth so they can feel the space between vertebrae and quickly sever a spinal cord. “People don’t like the idea that they’re not the keystone predator in this territory,” Markegard says. “Mountain lions are.”

Markegard’s awe of
mountain lions is unusual for a rancher, especially one who has witnessed the slaughter of 14 of her goats, in two separate incidents by two different cougars. “The way we look at ranching is that we’re in their territory, and death is part of ranching,” she says. Some of her ranching neighbors don’t see it that way; not only are they willing to shoot predators that kill their animals—which is legal, with a permit—but they would gladly bring back a now-lapsed bounty on the animals. Last year, Markegard tracked one that had crept into a home in the hills near Pescadero and snatched a little dog at the foot of the bed where a mother and child were sleeping. “They left the door open right on the puma’s travel route,” she says, shrugging.

After a couple hours, Markegard scans the landscape and says it’s unlikely we’ll find mountain lion tracks today; the cats have a huge territory, up to 100 square miles, and don’t frequently return to the same place. We pause at a herd of the black-and-white Belted Galloway cows her family raises. Even though the Markegards practice “regenerative ranching,” which means no chemicals, pesticides, hormones, or grain and involves moving the cattle around to simulate the hoof action of elk and antelope that once kept these grasslands healthy, it seems odd for a spiritual naturalist to have become a rancher. Actually, Markegard became a rancher by accident; while she was tracking on a ranch, a rancher was tracking her.

When Markegard was 21, she was living at a field station research center in San Gregorio, working for the Riekes Center Nature Awareness Department. She was testing CyberTracker, an app developed for Kalahari hunter-gatherers by Justin Steventon and Louis Liebenberg—author of The Art of Tracking—who realized that the tribesmen, many of whom are illiterate, needed a way to record data of animals’ spoor, tracks, and kill sites to identify migration patterns that were being cut off by fences, leaving their people with little to hunt and eat. Markegard was using the app to track mountain lions. She followed their tracks into Broken Arrow, the private ranch then owned by musician Neil Young. Whenever she heard the ranch manager cruising around—he was always alert to trespassers eager to catch a glimpse of the rock star—she would hide, which she does well.

Eventually, the ranch manager, Erik Markegard, caught up with her. He showed up at the communal house where she was staying and met Doniga, whose clothes were filthy and whose matted hair nearly hid her calm, green-eyed gaze. “He was incredibly repulsed and attracted to me at the same time,” she recalls. He told her on the spot that he was going to marry her someday. That evening, Erik agreed to let Doniga track on Young’s ranch, and several tracking expeditions later, she agreed to marry him.

I’m listening to
her story and scanning the mud for tracks. “This looks like a really big dog,” I say. A whole bobcat track would fit inside the toe. Markegard looks. “Mountain lion,” she says, excited. “It’s rare to see such clear tracks. You have good mountain lion energy.” The fat puma track is perilously close to a group of calves, but she’s cool and focused. She measures the distance between tracks and remarks that the cat didn’t even slow its gait near the calves. We backtrack to figure out what it was doing, following the paw prints down a hill to an area overlooking a wide drained pond covered in clover, where Markegard usually sees deer; eerily, there are none this morning. She gets down on her hands and knees at a point where the puma tracks cluster—this is where it stopped, turned, waited. Markegard can tell by the tracks that it’s a male, and a big one. She points to one paw print that flattened some grass. “It’s so fresh the grass hasn’t sprung back.”

Then she sees another track that stops her: It’s the bare footprint of her youngest daughter, Quince, eight, mingled with the puma track. The image raises the hair on the back of my neck. The weekend before, her family was out here, and Quince decided to go feral, stripping off her clothes, covering herself in mud, and hiding in bushes. The Markegard children—like the kids in the movie Captain Fantastic—live mostly outdoors, with wild hair and calloused bare feet. Still, the little barefoot tracks next to the puma’s give me pause.

“Doesn’t that freak you out?” I ask.

“A little,” she says. “But I love that my child is that wild.” Plus, she says, Quince knows how to make herself big if she sees a cougar. Markegard crawls around in the mud, seeing which way the puma turned. From its tracks, she can reconstruct its story. It waited at the bottom of a deer trail that crosses the road, hidden behind willow branches, with a good view of the area where the deer feed. Then it’s likely that the puma pounced, dragging a deer into the bushes for dinner.

“Pumas evolved with deer, and 98 percent of what they eat is deer,” Markegard says, adding definitively, “The mountain lion was paying attention to the deer, not the cattle or the footprints.” Her tracking skills are, in effect, also ranching skills, allowing her to figure out the safest place for her animals to graze. “If this was my area for calves, I’d get them the heck out of here.”

We follow the tracks until they disappear into the wet, grassy meadow. Markegard hears a fanning of bird alarms and a silencing of frogs on the other side, indicating the presence of a predator. We both have a spidery sense that the puma is very near.

He’s hiding, though. We turn away from the bushes where the mountain lion is likely hovering over his kill, or sleeping it off, and we hike back out. Markegard says it’s incredibly difficult to see a puma while tracking; it’s as if they sense that you’re on their tail. You have to happen on them by chance, in the kind of encounter that gives you the rare realization that we’re not at the top of the kingdom here, just another animal in an interconnected web.

After hours of
hiking, we return to the taqueria–gas station and ravenously tear into some tacos. Then I hop into my car and follow Markegard back to her coastal ranch. She opens a gate off the highway and we drive over a rise where the grasslands tumble down to a wide view of the Pacific. There’s a big barn, and next to it an old farmhouse surrounded by daffodils, with a llama lolling around the front yard. Inside, the house looks like a way station for the outdoors, filled with saddles and tack, boots and hats at the ready. The rooms have stuffed deer and elk heads on the walls, animal skulls on the shelves, and a grand piano beneath which puppies have been born. The kitchen, with a woodburning stove, is the heart of the house, with a long ranch table. A ranch hand comes in to ask some questions about the business, which produces meats sold online and via several farmers’ markets, some pickup spots on the Peninsula, and community-supported agriculture programs. Markegard makes us tea.

It’s a rare quiet time for Markegard. She’s got the ranch and the business to run with her husband. She is promoting her book. And, of course, she is the mother of four wildlings—Quince; stepdaughter Lea, 15; Larry, 11; and Quill, 9—who attend a wilderness immersion school part-time, along with a regular school. “We’re preparing them to walk out and survive in the wilderness,” she says. “That way, they’ll be able to think for themselves.” Markegard believes that children who spend time in nature are far less likely to suffer from ADHD or depression than kids who spend a lot of time inside on their devices. Larry can already start a fire with friction. They each have their own horse, which Markegard considers essential to their education. “Having a relationship with a horse is special for a kid, so different from time in front of a screen or even a sports team, because you’re communicating with an animal that is intuitive,” she says. “Whatever happens, they always have a best friend in their horse.” The children compete in vaulting, an event that is like gymnastics on horseback, and ride the ranch with their parents, moving cattle and mending fences. Only the eldest has a cell phone, which she rarely uses.

The Markegards have lived on the ranch since 2006. They began ranching according to the principles of permaculture and holistic management, working with nature instead of against it. Doniga had to become aware of how livestock affects the landscape, how nutrients cycle from plants through an animal, and how to mimic ancient elk-grazing techniques to keep the land productive and healthy. “I used the same techniques I used to track mountain lions to be a cattle rancher,” she says. Before I leave, Markegard invites me to a weekend party on their land in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She and her family will get there on horseback, but she draws a map and tells me I can backpack the two and a half miles in. I go with a friend, and during the hike between the car and the party, we drop into that quiet awareness that trackers cultivate, out of range of the city and the insistence of our devices. When we reach the Markegards’ land, it’s no simple campsite. There’s a massive four-story tree house, built by Erik, towering in the redwoods, complete with a steel drawbridge and a Kids Only sign; it’s where Doniga, on a rare indoor spurt, wrote a chunk of her book.

Tepees are scattered over the grounds, and there are empty railroad cars equipped with a kitchen, a composting toilet, and a piano. The horses are resting in the corral after a long ride. Outside the tree house, a big garden rolls downhill and there’s a play area for the children, who are climbing trees and running around barefoot. When I talk to the kids, they give me complete, present attention, unlike any children I’ve ever met. Surrounded by friends, the Markegards tend a big fire in a barbecue pit. Over the course of the evening, we eat, sing, and look up at the vast stars, as humans have always done.

Rising the next morning, the air cold enough to see our breath swirl outside our sleeping bags, we join the Markegards and a few other guests inside the kitchen railway car. Doniga has been up making cinnamon rolls and a frittata for breakfast. She and Erik play a lazy round of cards with the kids, then Doniga puts on her hat and sets the day in motion. One by one, each member of the family tidies up and heads to their horse. Quince jumps on and rides barefoot, turning circles on the trail, eager to set out. They all saddle up, Erik in the lead, Doniga bringing up the rear, and ride 17 miles of trails back to their ranch, watching for rabbits and birds and passing lightly through an ancient land of redwoods, ferns, coyote brush, and mountain lions.

Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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