Close Encounter of the Cougar Kind

So there I was – hauling ass down the Puntledge Plunge after a post-work trail climb in Forbidden Plateau. The late afternoon light was fading and I had been motivated to leave work and make the most of it. A grueling climb on these tired, out-of-shape legs was exactly what I needed. As I descended, it was just dark enough in the forest to warrant my waistbelt light but it wasn’t yet dark. Pale purple sky was slowly giving away to starlit night.

Up ahead, a slight movement caught my eye. Was that a deer? No, the shape was all wrong. COUGAR! I froze in place and tried to confirm my suspicions. There was a softness, a roundness to this animal that didn’t quite match my regular forest creature encounters. A swish of the tail was enough to make me snap into fight, flight or freeze mode. This big cat had turned its head to look at me. No doubt now.

Not my photo. The last thing on my mind was documentation.

My mind started churning with the DOs and DON’Ts with cougars.

  • Don’t look in its eyes.
  • Back away slowly.
  • Hold your arms up so you look large.

I realized then that my waistbelt light was on, perhaps having the effect of eye contact. I fumbled to switch it off and began my slow retreat. I was trying to mentally map out the trail system behind me and figure out if there was another way back to the trailhead. I had no extra gear with me – to hold up or to wear – and soon I would be really cold as the sub-zero temperatures took hold.

As my light extinguished, the cougar started – a slight jump of surprise – and it bolted off the trail. I waited. I listened. I tried to keep my mind from reeling. What to do now? I waited some more. This is the part that all the safety manuals have omitted – what to do once the path is clear.

After three or four minutes, I decided to continue in the direction I had originally been going. The cougar had left in a hurry and there was no other way back to my car. I decided that I may have a short window of opportunity to get past the area while it was still spooked. I remembered that I had my (tiny) vial of dog spray in my waistbelt and gave it a test spray (more of a dribble really), thinking that it would really be no match for claws and jaws in this situation.

This is where I really entered unknown territory. Should I pass by quietly? Should I make a lot of noise like you do if a bear is around? I decided to yell and call out and sing. I figured that it knew exactly where I was so I may as well vocally expel some of my terror.

I slowly made my way to the point where it had been standing – about 40 meters – and I studied the muck for footprints, wondering how large a beast I had seen. I couldn’t find its tracks but I didn’t want to linger. I sauntered along, making sure that my vocalizations didn’t sound like a wounded animal (so much for my singing skills).

At some point, I decided that I needed to move more quickly as I was getting chilled and starting to shiver. It seems like a bad idea now but I began to run. I had about 4 km left to get back to the parking lot and darkness was rolling in now. You can only imagine how often I did a shoulder check as I made my way back. I do wonder what the longer term impact of this cougar sighting will be on my solo running pursuits.

This is my second cougar sighting, both having happened when I was alone on forest trails. In both encounters, I have come up behind the cougar, seeing it before it saw me. I know that cougars are all around these forests and there are often sightings. I am certain that I have been seen and have spooked cougars and bears countless times, unbeknownst to me. I hope that others realize that cougars will retreat if they can and if they are well-fed. I count myself privileged, not just because I am alive to tell the tale, but also because I got to witness the majesty of our own King of the Forest up close in its own territory.

Published by

Along A Path

general lover-of-life, including ultra-running, teaching, enjoying craft brews, being outdoors and living simply

4 thoughts on “Close Encounter of the Cougar Kind”

  1. Oh, M! How frightening! This is my running nightmare. I am completely freaked out running by myself in the woods, even close to civilization, and pretty much avoid it for my own sanity, if not safety. I carry bear spray for emergency defense from all things with sharp teeth and claws.

    I think perhaps the cougar started and bolted after you turned off your lamp because you revealed yourself to be an adult human and not some curiously mysterious bobbing light in the forest. 😉 Hopefully the cougar was just as scared as you were!

  2. Wow!! So glad you’re ok, but what an experience! Thanks for sharing Martha, and for the reminder to be prepared and keep our wits together!
    Hope you are well, I miss you! 😎

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