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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 or flight mode. This big cat had turned its head to look at me. No doubt now.

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.

Image result for cougar retreat

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

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.

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 as 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 and 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.

OR “When To Pull the Plug on Adventure”

We recently had a beautiful, snowless cold-snap here in the valley. For a few weeks, the temperature rarely rose above freezing and we were treated to bluebird skies and blinding sun. On one of these days, I decided to head out onto the Forbidden Plateau trails for a run. This is an area that we have explored often (especially B) and which feels incredibly remote although it is only minutes from town. Although I know my way around some trails, I find the many ridges and creek drainages a bit confusing and do not yet have a reliable mental map of the area.

Having a work-free afternoon, I decided to head out and try to run B’s “short loop”. This is a 10km mountainous loop which takes about an hour and a half to complete. We have run it together before but B has always led the way. I figured that the only way to truly learn the route was by leading or going it alone.

The first 7 km were uneventful and familiar. I have run the Comox Lake Bluffs many times and love the occasional views of the lake and glacier.

From Comox Bluffs looking west over Comox Lake

From Comox Bluffs looking west over Comox Lake

After crossing the Comox Main Logging Road, I headed up Boston Tea Party, Goat Head and Dust Witch trails, all of which were mostly familiar but there were some sections of smooth, exposed rocks where the worn trail faded and could have gone in a number of directions. Luckily, heavy use by mountain bikers made route-finding easy, but I occasionally wondered if I had left B’s Loop. Popping out onto a clear-cut area or a logging road spur jogged my memory and I discovered that I was exactly where I wanted to be.

As I climbed up towards the height of land, the Boston Ridge, I came upon a familiar ATV track and merrily cruised along the ridgeline. In the back of my mind, I knew that B would never stick to a wide track when there were so many exciting single track routes nearby. I slowed my pace and peered down each trail option, trying to spy some familiar landmark. I found a named trail heading down off the ATV track – Easy Rider – and decided to take it, knowing that it was not part of B’s Loop. The fact that this trail had a sign posted and that it headed down off the ridge gave me enough confidence.

Easy Rider is a mis-nomer. This trail drops severely off the ridge and had me scrambling down with four points of contact through rocky outcrops and washed-out trail. Somehow it didn’t feel right. I am always wary of losing so much elevation so quickly, knowing the effort required if I had to hike back up. So when I came to another trail junction with a sign – Back Door – and I decided to take it. This was my error.

Back Door took me on a long circuitous route, through more unfamiliar sections and had me guessing at my direction. I seemed to be heading generally West, which I knew was the wrong way. I was also no longer heading only down, but I was climbing and dropping erratically.

Suddenly I had that Frodo-feeling, “I have been here before”. Back Door had spat me out on Easy Rider again. But now my confidence in my route-finding was gone. The -4° C temperature was starting to chill me. The sun, although still visible, was almost below the mountains. I had been out for just about two hours. I took out my smartphone and tried to pull up the route map from our previous run but just then my battery died. All signs were telling me to smarten up. I decided that I did not want to be the next Search and Rescue story. I did not want my photo on the front page of the local paper with the caption “She Was Only Wearing Running Shoes!”. I would not disgrace my ultra-running friends with such nonsense.

In deciding to pull the plug on my adventure, I had to retrace my steps. Just as I had feared, I had to climb all the way back up the steep trail to the ATV track on the ridgeline, which had the benefit of warming me up. Once there, I followed the ATV trail back to where I had joined it earlier and decided to continue along it, hoping that it would take me back to the main logging road, which it did. As I chugged along the gravel road back towards my car, I felt enormous relief. All had turned out just fine.

Looking back, I see that my confusion only lasted about 8 minutes. I still had more than an hour of functional light in my favour. My GPS track, before the battery died, shows that I was only 200m away from rejoining the end section of B’s Loop. If I had stayed on Easy Rider, I would have ended up exactly where I intended. Having just re-run the route with B yesterday, I clearly see where I was and where I needed to be. I can see that I was not in trouble.

But at the time, I recognized that I had reached the limit of my comfort zone for solo adventure. I am glad that I chose the cautious path.

(Or The Sharing of Newly-Discovered Trails)

As running/racing season approaches, B and I start to go our separate ways when it comes to weekend running. I generally stick to my favourite, familiar routes and try to ramp up my speed or at least bring some consistency back. But B heads for the hills. He is determined to regain his climbing strength and works hard at it until it returns. There are lots of hills close by, since we now live at the base of a ski mountain and a ‘mecca’ of mountain biking trails. When he is in trail-discovery mode, he ventures far off the beaten track to places where he thinks trails should be and he hunts around until he finds them.

My favourite kind of run is when B takes me out to some of his recently discovered trails. In order for this to work, I have to be in fairly decent shape. His tours are rarely short, flat forays into the nearby forest. I have to be prepared to ascend, sometimes quickly, and I need to be fit enough to be out for a number of hours. As everyone knows, the best trails are nestled out of reach of 90% of the population.

For the past month, B has been heading into a suspected trail system near Comox Lake and Forbidden Plateau. He comes home with stories of finding a steep climb to some ridge with sweet single track but then ending up on a forest service road with no way back onto trails. He pours over his GPS route and other maps, trying to figure out a way to make a loop or lollipop route of the trails he has discovered.

Finally, last week, he had found a way to connect a number of his trails to make a three-hour loop route of great climbs and nice single track trails. And today he invited me to join him. The day started out frosty and cold – with ice at the edges of our pond, but the blue sky promised a sunny warm spring day.

We parked at Nymph Falls Park and headed out to the Comox Lake dam – a route we have run many times.

Here we enter the BC Hydro trail system

Here we enter the BC Hydro trail system

It simply meanders on single track up river to the dam at Comox Lake. But then we headed towards the lake shore and up, up, up onto the bluffs above. Occasionally, we were treated to long-reaching views towards the west end of the lake.

From Comox Bluffs looking west over Comox Lake

From Comox Bluffs looking west over Comox Lake

The ridge line has sections of smooth granite and it is covered with Arbutus trees.

If I had a swiss army knife on me, I would have carved our initials! MG + BG 4 ever

If I had a swiss army knife on me, I would have carved our initials!
MG + BG 4 ever

Sweet, meandering, sun-dappled single track with no one else on itA great find indeed!

Sweet, meandering, sun-dappled single track with no one else on it
A great find indeed!

A gradula descent back down to the lake

A gradual descent back down to the lake

It was undulating and scenic. At the high point, we parted ways and, after continuing a bit further, I backtracked the same trail to the car – giving me a decent 20 km, 2.5 hour run. B headed farther and faster around his newly discovered loop and returned at the 3 hour mark. After I get over this darn lingering cold, I will join him for the rest of the scenic three-hour tour.

For my own memory, here are the trail system names – Nymph Falls Park, Bear’s Bait, Comox Bluffs, Tomato Creek, Boston Tea Party, Cabin Fever.

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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