Larkin Dawson was having a nice calm Easter Sunday with his family in the picnic area of Sonoma Valley Regional Park. Then he began walking home, alone, taking the asphalt path through the woods to his Glen Ellen home. And that’s when he got an inkling he was being followed.
“I heard a snap, I looked over and I thought I saw a tail, I wasn’t quite sure,” the 13-year-old said.
He continued walking, senses heightened. About five minutes later, he saw it: a big cat, not too close, looking down at him from a nearby ridge. He kept on moving, and the cat moved with him.
“It was walking parallel for probably about five minutes,” the teenager recalled. “And then it started cutting closer and closer.”
Dawson realized that it was headed for an outcropping of bushes along the trail that would make a perfect spot for an ambush. So he chose not to go there, instead shouting and waving his arms in order to “look as big as you can get.”
At that point, “it came out and started coming down the hill at me,” the teen said. The mountain lion halted about 40 feet away, and after a bit of a standoff, “It kind of stopped and then just turned around and walked back over the hill.”
That was around 5:45 p.m. Sunday, and by Monday afternoon things had mostly settled down again. But Jill Dawson, Larkin’s mom, had to admit: “I’m still reeling.”
She described her son as “Not a big kid, about 100 pounds,” and she wondered whether she had done the right thing letting the eighth-grader walk home alone through the woods.
“He’s fine going home by himself,” she told herself at the time. “And he was, I was right – except that there was a little extra” to the story.
“He kept his head, and so impressed me,” Jill Dawson added. “But of course as a parent, you try to protect your kids.”
This wasn’t the first mountain lion sighting for any of the Dawsons – even for Larkin, who once saw one while riding his bike near Dunbar Road – but it was particularly scary given the big cat’s behavior Sunday.
Even so, “I wasn’t actually scared when it happened,” Larkin Dawson said. “But then I was more scared on the way home, just walking the rest of the way. I was pretty scared then.”
He didn’t want to run, as that might have attracted the animal’s attention again. “I waited till I was away from the hills and stuff, and then I just started sprinting.”
As it happens, his father Arthur Dawson had a very similar experience with a big cat on Sonoma Mountain.
“I had my own encounter about three years ago, just about this time of year,” he said. While running on the mountain alone, he suddenly heard something moving in an “intercept path towards me through the brush.” Out came the lion, which stared intently at him.
“I put out my arms, I looked her right in the eye and said, ‘No!’” the elder Dawson recalled. But the lion kept staring for a while. Eventually, he said, she “turned around and headed off the other direction.”
He went home and told his family what happened. Young Larkin, then only about 10 years old, heard that story – and given Sunday’s events, “I’m really glad that he got that information,” his father said.
The elder Dawson, an ecological historian, is just the person to ask about the history of lion encounters in Sonoma Valley. “Locally,” he said, “I haven’t heard of any attacks.”
“There’s more chance of being killed by lightning than a mountain lion,” he said.
According to state records, there have been a total of 13 mountain lion attacks throughout California since 1986. Three were fatal.
Arthur Dawson added that while interviewing older residents of the Valley, whose memories of life here stretch back for decades, “Hardly anyone even mentions mountain lions as something people thought of.”
“We drive cars all the time, there’s risks involved with that,” he noted. But we use our intelligence to “minimize the risks … to me that’s how we should treat mountain lions.”
He added, “I no longer run up in remote parts of Sonoma Mountain.”
As for his son Larkin, “I’m really proud of him. … He did the exactly right thing.”