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In an hour, I’m headed into one of the remotest and least populated corners of South America. There, I might be lucky enough to see my first jaguar. These are the biggest cats in the Americas, and they have the strongest bite force of any feline in the world. Pretty damn exciting.

The prospect of seeing a jaguar has me thinking about the first times that I’ve saw other species of wild cats. I encountered my first mountain lion, or cougar, well over a decade ago. I was driving down a two-track road after fishing cutthroat trout until dark in a high mountain lake. I came around a corner just in time to interrupt a mountain lion that was approaching a small herd of mule deer from behind. The deer bolted in my headlights but the lion stared at me rather lazily before loping off into the timber. He was about five feet long.

Oddly, my first bobcat was on that same road. It was carrying a dead ground squirrel in its mouth.

My first lynx was on yet another road, this time the Dalton Highway (actually a dirt road) that parallels the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Its oversized puffy paws were purely animal but it’s flat face had a unsettling human quality. The lynx looked at me with complete incomprehension, as I was almost undoubtedly the first person it had ever laid eyes on. In that area of Alaska, the only road to the east is several hundred miles away in Canada; the only road to the west is in Eastern Europe.

Looking back on all these cats, I’m struck by the fact that all three were encountered along man-made roads. It’s as though they had to emerge from the primitive wilderness and meet me halfway into civilization in order to make my acquaintance. I thank them for going through the hassle of it.

But no matter the turf, running into a big cat is a blessing for a human hunter. Unlike bears, which are highly omnivorous (meaning they eat just about anything) cats are true hunters. They live on meat, and meat alone. So, when I see a big cat I feel as though I’m looking into a special sort of mirror that reflects my primal self back to me. I see a cat and I say to myself, “that’s a good life, right there.” While I can’t say I understand cats in a full way, I can say that I envy them completely.

Thankfully, the place I’m headed now has no roads. We’ll be traveling by river and then on foot. So if I meet my jaguar, it’ll be on his terms.