Another Cougar Sighting

Yesterday I went on a three-mile hike at lunch up to Deer Lake and the surrounding woods and back. I awed at the vast fields of bluebells and thistle and tall summer weeds and reeds as well as the murky Beaver Creek, whose runoff is part of a biofiltration project. I figured perhaps the cougar, which has been hanging around, may have been captured by peace officers and moved to an area away from people. Not that I want that. It deserves to have territory in these woods just as much, if not more, than we do. But you know if it ever attacks anyone, it will probably be put down, which is sad.

There have been signs at Deer Lake Woods forever warning that a cougar is in the area. Before our Ireland trip a nearby jogger warned me that a cougar had been recently sighted in one part of the woods. I had been running recently in that particular area and felt an odd sense of being watched. That particular set of trails is very narrow with pretty heavy foliage and trees growing right next to the trailsides. I just didn’t feel comfortable there and headed back to the entrance and ran elsewhere.

Today I decided to head back to the actual lake area as I began my third-round training for the 10K (to strengthen for the next race in October). I saw a friend, Denise, in the locker room and asked how her running was going. She said that it was going well but that she had been out hiking in the nearby trails and saw the cougar. She explained the same feelings I had had, that she felt watched and there was an eerie feeling about the area. Luckily she was hiking with a friend that day. They saw the cougar in the nearby brush as it swished its tail and ran away.

Today I decided not to go to these woods but stay on the trails closer to campus. I admit to being kind of a big wuss when it comes to that stuff. I like to run on my own–and on the weekends if I go to the forest, I am constantly trying to stay aware of my surroundings. I like it when Morgan goes with me. The very act of jogging may appear as though you are prey trying to run away.

I used to hike by myself in southern California, and of course most mountains and woods down there have cougars and bears too. The worst thing I ever came across were Pacific diamondback rattlesnakes though. I ditched work early one day and went down to one of the meadows south of the Laguna Canyon area. It was a hot, dry, mid-summer day, and nobody else was around. On the trail start I noticed a small mobile home that had been renovated into a museum, but I did not see anyone else parked nearby. I took off, always with headphones, listing to music and keeping a good pace. I remember marveling at the ocean views to the west and a happy coyote family playing in a meadow to the north of me. A couple miles in I stopped dead when I noticed a big rattlesnake stretched out across the trail in front of me. I did what anyone would do: back up and then turn around and head back to the trailhead. Not five minutes later, on my way back, did I see another rattlesnake, doing the same, sunning itself on the hot, dusty trail. There was really nowhere else to go. I thought about going off trail, but it was all tall grasses and weeds where I’m sure other snakes were teeming about. I backed up and waited. I waited and waited. Finally a cyclist approached, and the noise scared the snake away. I warned him about a rattlesnake on the path he was headed, but he didn’t seem to be worried. I also used to like hiking in Holy Jim Canyon–and there were always reports of cougar attacks, sadly just on young children though.

Cougars around here are spotted night and day, all seasons. They feed on deer (as well as  rodents and insects), so when deer populations rise, so do cougar populations. Last year, when we had a heat wave and drought for months, the very dry heat actually helped to dissipate the scent of deer and cougars were then likelier to attack small humans or domestic pets. The last fatal attack in Canada was in Banff in 2001, when a cougar killed a woman cross-country skiing alone.

When running, make sounds so that you don’t startle a cougar. When coming across a cougar, one should not turn and run–simply face the animal and back away slowly. Try to appear larger by lifting a jacket or raising your arms, and make noise.  Establish eye contact. Again, running may invoke a chase, and playing dead will probably make you an easy target. Cougars are ambush predators, so even though they can run fast, they will stalk and wait for their next meal. Luckily, the cougar is probably alone, so its friends won’t join, though cubs stay with their moms for about two years. They have a pretty large territory, from 150 – 1,000 square kilometers. Fortunately, humans are not instinctual as prey for cougars, which learn their prey as they are growing. For a cougar to attack a human, it has habituated to humans or is terribly starving. Young cougars that leave their mothers and are looking for their own new territory are more likely to attack humans in the late spring and summer if they are very hungry or are used to humans.

I read recently in our runner’s group forums how a red-wing blackbird kept attacking a jogger every time he ran in a particular woods. I read up on this, and it is true that in spring and summer, when the blackbirds are nesting, the male gets very territorial. I did a little research, and it seems that if you put on a hat and paint eyeballs on the back of the hat, the bird might not attack. It just doesn’t like eye contact and can’t tell a difference. I don’t know if this would work with a cougar.

Hey, I might be acting like an advice columnist today–but if I’m out on the trail by myself and spot a cougar, I will most likely crumple in fear. Or maybe I will be still and smart, like when I ran into two rattlesnakes back to back, years ago. One can never know how they will react when something happens that threatens your life. All you can do is arm yourself with the knowledge of how to avoid being attacked. In the meantime, I just avoid going to the woods where a cougar is continually being sighted this summer. I imagine one of my cats growing ten times larger and playing with me–no thanks, no siree!

Featured image is by Art G. – originally posted to Flickr as Those Eyes, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3937214.