Up Close with a Cougar: The Story Behind the Image

Up Close with a Cougar: The Story Behind the Image

Whether or not you’ve been lucky enough to see a cougar in person, chances are that if you spend enough time in the Sea to Sky woods, a cougar has seen you.

Depending on your point of view, I’ve been fortunate enough to see three of these beautiful creatures in the wild – and each time, I’ve nearly crapped my pants. cougar sightings.

The Big One

The most recent time I encountered a cougar was up on Blackcomb Mountain.  My friend Scott and I had been doing bike trail maintenance and were enjoying a river chilled beer about halfway up the trail – again just after sunset (there seems to be a theme emerging here).

The Sound of Yelling And Screaming

We heard some yelling and screaming a few hundred meters down the trail.  Scott being from Santa Cruz was used to wooded areas full of tweakers living in squats, and was immediately on edge.  To me, it sounded like a couple of pre teen boys having a play sword fight in the woods, but we were a bit far from any houses for kids to be playing out here.

We walked down the trail and didn’t see or hear anything and our stashed tools were just where we had left them.  Quickly finishing our beer, we started the ride out with Scott’s dog Zephyr in the lead.  We rode the newly manicured section and Scott had uncharacteristically stopped a few hundred meters into our descent.

‘How good are those new corners!” I commented to Scott.

He pointed ahead and just said: “Look.”

cougar sightings sea to sky ben haggar
Photo: Ben Haggar

Cougar Sighting

A mere 15 meters in front of us was a large male cougar clinging to a cedar tree directly beside the trail.  The biceps on the cat were incredible – with its small head, he looked like a steroid enriched gym monkey.  Zephyr had stopped dead in his tracks as we stared at the cougar and he stared right back at us with unwavering deep black eyes.

I reached for the only camera I had – a small Canon G7X point and shoot and got a couple of blurry pictures.  The cat was flicking its tail visibly annoyed and started to climb down the tree.  Zephyr barked and sent the cat back up the tree.  I didn’t have the peace of mind to actually change my camera settings, so I took a deep breath and finally got a sharp photo – amazingly handheld at 1/6th of a second.  I snapped one more photo before it was clear that we had to leave this cat be.

Two Options to Escape

We had 2 options: bushwhack around the treed cougar with our bikes, or ride directly underneath it as quickly as possible.  For better or worse, we chose the latter option and without looking up, rode underneath the cat – Scott in the lead, Zephyr in the middle, and me in the back.

We probably could have reached up and touched its tail as we rode past, but we speedily made it to the next hill top, watched the cougar jump down in one smooth movement, and disappear into the bush.  It was not the time to hang out and chat, so we rode as fast as we could down the trail until we ran into two female friends of mine who were running down the trail (equally as fast).

It turns out that they were the ones yelling earlier.  While walking their dog, the cougar boldly walked to within 3 meters of them – very interested in their dog Daisy.  It took a lot of yelling, posturing, and stick throwing for the cougar to back down, while they descended the trail as hastily as possible on foot.  I can only imagine how terrifying this experience would have been for them.  Scott and I are both decent sized men, on bikes, with a dog, and it was still a nerve wracking experience for us!

We rode short sections of the trail, then waited for the girls, and repeated this until we made it out to the safety of the road.  Earlier, unbeknownst to us, that cougar was probably stalking Zephyr (he is deaf by the way) as we obliviously dug in the dirt, and fixed a bridge.

Other Encounters

Stalked by a Curious Cat

My first experience with a cougar was 8 years ago in the hydro cut behind Valleycliffe – a trail that I had biked and ran many times before.

The sun was already below the horizon as I embarked on my usual after work ride in May. I heard a rustling in the long grasses behind me and to the left.  I stopped, looked, and saw nothing, so I continued on my ride.

A few meters ahead, I heard the same rustling.  Again, I stopped, looked, and listened, but heard nothing but the steady wind from the South.  At this point, I was starting to get a little unnerved.  I definitely wasn’t going back in the direction I had come, so I kept on my ride.

A short distance up the trail I looked into the woods to my right and tracking right along with me was a medium sized juvenile cougar.  It was going the same speed as me and keeping a watchful eye.

With the hairs standing straight up on my neck, I took the first trail to my left and rode as fast as I could out of there.  Glancing back as often as I could without crashing, I didn’t see the cougar again.

Chihuahua for Dinner

My second cougar sighting was 3 years later on a similar after work mission. I was running down from Second Peak on the Chief as the encroaching darkness of Friday night slowly encapsulated my shrinking field of vision.

Suddenly, something more like a shadow than an animal flashed across the trail and leapt quickly uphill.  Both the cougar and I stopped to survey each other for only a few seconds before it went on its way deeper into the forest.  This cat was roughly the same size as the first – like an elongated feline version of a German Shepard.  It was not interested in me whatsoever because clutched in its mouth, was a small, limp, light brown figure.

The cat left without a sound and I continued on my run.  A few hundred meters down the trail, I came across two women who were in hysterics.  They had been walking their Chihuahua and suddenly, the unseen cougar had pounced out of the bushes and snatched the small dog right in front of their eyes!  I escorted them down the final section of the trail trying to calm them down, but to no avail.

I escorted them down the final section of the trail trying to calm them down, but to no avail.

Staying Safe

I am very happy and feel extremely lucky that I have got to see this number of cougars in the wild without much of any incidents to speak of.  Attacks on full grown adults are very rare, but these are large, powerful animals which deserve our respect but not our fear.  I am by no means an expert in wildlife behaviour and urge everyone to research this further, but  in case you find yourself in a situation with a cougar, here is what the experts recommend you do:

  • Stay calm, make yourself as large as possible using your arms or by picking up a stick, and back away slowly – always keeping your eyes on the cougar.  Pick up any small pets and children, and never turn your back and run as this might trigger an attack.
  • If you see that a cougar is watching you, maintain eye contact, yell and make loud noises and again, back out of the area.
  • If a cougar shows aggression or begins to follow you, respond aggressively.  Keep eye contact, yell, show your teeth, and pick up sticks or rocks – anything you could use to for self-defense
  • If the cougar attacks, fight back focusing on the face and eyes.  Make the cougar know that you are a threat and not prey.

For more information about cougars and safety tips check out https://wildsafebc.com/cougar

To report cougar sightings call the Conservation Officer Service line (1.887.952.7277)

Check out some of Ben Haggar’s other adventures.

Squamish.com Staff Writer

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Our in-house writers capturing the magic, one story at a time.
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