Unbeknownst to me, Dad was checking for cougars.

The thought of cougars being in our area never crossed my mind. We've gone to the same spot - an hour away, in the woodlands above Tollgate - to get our Christmas tree for five years. This year, we saw rabbit tracks. Last year, we saw deer. The year before, we saw a car with windshield wipers on its headlights. Cougars didn't worry me.

But Dad was nervous. I thought he was just searching for suitable trees, but he admitted he was really looking for cougars. He even had a killer plan, for use in case of attack: He'd wrap his coat around his left arm and hold it in view of the cougar. In his other hand, he'd have the Leatherman, his prized pocketknife, with the blade out. The cougar would leap up to bite his offering of the well-insulated left arm, at which point he would stab the animal in its exposed underside (or, in Dad's own words, "Cut its throat").

Now, safe at home, where I struggle to do homework as Dad blows one of the New Year's horns (they came out with the Christmas decorations) with his nose, the image of him killing a cougar in hand-to-hand combat seems quite funny. I hope, though, that I never have occasion to laugh at it.

What would I do if a cougar attacked us? Run, probably. And fall under and get stuck in three feet of snow, probably.

The snow, actually, was hard-packed, and in most places, we only sunk down a few inches as we walked. Unfortunately, though, there were patches of snow that were not at all hard-packed, and these patches were like land mines - impossible to identify until you'd hit one.

Just after we had selected and cut down our tree, I stepped into one such patch. I sunk past my knee (oh, the cold! the wet!). I couldn't move my leg a bit; I was stuck. Dad had to pull me out, and the process nearly snapped my ankle, because with the first pull my leg moved up, but my foot stayed stuck. Eventually I got out with my leg intact, and followed Dad - who'd rigged himself a nifty harness to drag the tree - back to the Bronco, treading very carefully.

Dad made hot chocolate on the tailgate, and we came home. The tree, at the moment, is on the porch drying, and won't be decorated until tomorrow, but the six boxes of holiday decorations came out anyway. I set up a silver, tree-shaped structure that holds Christmas cards, which must have been invented by a very evil person indeed; it took me 15 minutes to complete three little steps (the pieces kept unhooking themselves. As soon as I thought I'd gotten it, I picked the tree up to move and the whole thing fell apart).

With the exception of that demon's toy and the headless reindeer, (poor thing, its head's been lost for years), the decor is quite nice. Mom is pleased with the tree; it's full and well rounded, probably the best tree we've had. It better be good - we worked hard to get it

And next year, we'll find another great tree. Right now, I'm not worried about encountering cougars. If the rate of our natural phenomena sightings (remember - wipers, deer, tracks) continues, there's no danger whatsoever - cougars just don't fit with that group. If we get lucky, maybe we'll see a bunny.

Sara Phinney is a junior at Pendleton High School and can be reached at sara87@oregontrail.net.

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