“You Aren’t Supposed to See Cougars”

Story & photos © Elise Mallory
cougarThis is the first thing that people usually tell me every single time I tell this story. “A cougar could be stalking you as you hike in the bush and you will never even know!” - another very popular statement that seems to attach itself to tales of cougar encounters (or lack thereof). This animal seems to be a ghost on Vancouver Island. Everyone I talk to has never actually come across one while camping or hiking, but everyone knows the eerie feeling of wondering if something is watching you in the dense environment of BC’s wilderness.

Now, though cougars are one of the more prevalent big animals on Vancouver Island (the other being the black bear), cougar attacks on humans are very rare (there are about 400-600 cougars on the island). In recent years, however, more cougars have ventured into populated areas in search of food and have been known, unfortunately, to snatch small house pets or livestock. As humans move further and further into the native territory for these animals, resurrecting high-end condos, hotels and homes in areas normally reserved for supporting the livelihood of BC’s wildlife, these encounters might not stop any time soon and often lead to heartbreak on one side or the other.

I don’t know if my encounter with a cougar is a one of many end-results of overzealous development, but I do know that the cougar that was stalking my group was malnourished, mangy and looking for food – very similar to the reasons why a cougar would venture into a populated area.

On this particular trip we set up camp about 15 km down a logging road towards Kennedy Lake just outside Tofino, BC. I was on a surfing camp trip with my boyfriend and 2 of his friends and our camp simply consisted of 2 tents, a hammock and a fire pit. Kennedy Lake is the largest body of fresh water on Vancouver Island (totalling 6475 hectares) and has 2 provincial day-use parks along Highway 4 (about 8 km east of the Pacific Rim Hwy/Hwy 4 junction). It is impossible to miss Kennedy Lake on the drive towards Tofino; the body of water seems so expansive that you begin to question if you are actually seeing an inlet of the ocean. I once shared a fire with a spirited mushroom picker while camping in the backcountry of Tofino and she was convinced that Kennedy Lake is so big that it has a tide (apparently she was abruptly woken up one night as her tent began to float away after being pitched a little too close to the water’s edge). I’m not too confident on her theory, but Kennedy Lake definitely fools you into having that ocean feeling – like you are viewing something that dwarfs your existence in so many levels. Unfortunately, there is no camping permitted at the Lake’s day-use areas, so camping at Kennedy Lake is a little trickier and may require a bit of exploration at your own digression.

We had arrived late Friday afternoon to step up camp while we still had a couple of hours of light left. Our plan was to enjoy the quiet serenity of Kennedy Lake that evening then venture into Tofino for a day of surf on Saturday. Besides one other group we had passed on the drive in, we were the only ones camping in this particular area of Kennedy Lake. We had found our own little grotto up against the pebbly shoreline of the lake, a private scoop of beach surrounded on all sides by trees and growth – except for our flawless view of the lake and the mountains that protected it. My little car, with 3 surfboards strapped to its Canadian Tire roof racks, had braved the rough, pothole infested drive into the spot (everyone didn’t seem to mind being sardined around packs, wetsuits, and water for the 3.5 hour drive – gas mileage is key!) and now rested behind our camp up a 10ft embankment to the road.

We all awoke the next morning to an early sunrise and birdsong and after a chilly, but refreshing, dip in the lake, we were off to Tofino to enjoy the surf for the day. We arrived back at our camp that night around 6pm to make dinner and settle in for the night. The night before we had all enjoyed a traditional camping dinner of cheddar and jalapeño smokies over the fire, but this night we were spoiling ourselves with homemade buffalo burgers and marinated steak – both of which we were all looking forward to after the strenuous day of surfing.

At one point when we were cooking the food, I questioned where I should safely depose of the marinade that the steaks had been in for a couple of days. The response back was to pour it into the fire. “Should I really marinade the fire?” I joked back to the group who assured me that my silly concern for the marinade would burn away quite quickly. We all greatly enjoyed our dinner.

Now being the one of the only groups camping in this area, we were quite aware when other groups would drive in. We were all sitting around the fire, I was picking at an overly large hamburger on my lap, when we heard another vehicle approaching our area. We couldn’t see the vehicle but we knew that it had pulled up behind my car (which was up on the bank behind our campsite, practically out of view) and stopped. We were all curious as to what the new arrivals were doing but then we heard the vehicle begin to back up and we assumed were leaving to find their own area for the night. We all continued to listen as we began to realize that the vehicle was actually attempting to drive down to our campsite. All of a sudden we heard a “Hello? Anyone here?” as a women began to walk around the corner into our area. We responded with a friendly ‘hello’, assuming that they might need some help or something without even a consideration that the strangers were actually there to help us.

“I don’t want to scare you, but there is a cougar right above you guys at your car and it wouldn’t move when we tried to scare it away.” I practically launched my hamburger off of my lap. Our backs had been facing the embankment where my car was. We had heard nothing, suspected nothing, and were oblivious to the animal that would have had an excellent view down to us. We all scrambled away from the misguided comfort of our camping chairs and hastily walked up to road (axe in hand), and ensured that we left plenty of distance between us and my car/cougar. Questions were running through my head at a mad pace: how long was the cougar there before these strangers arrived? Would it have attacked us? Would it have attacked me because I’m the smallest? What if one of us had randomly gone up to my car to get something?

Sure enough when we careful got closer to my car (there were 6 of us at this point so the likelihood of an attack is extremely rare) we saw the animal. It was sitting just beyond my car on the other side of several large boulders that had been place on the road to prevent people from driving over a bridge. It was just sitting there - looking back at us with an unimpressed, sour scowl. Its body looked sharp and angled from skin stretched over its bones. When standing on all fours it was maybe 3 feet high, but its back end was skinny and narrow. We started yelling, clapping our hands, doing anything to create noise to scare it away and it did not care in the least. It was hungry and our dinner must have smelt amazing. We began throwing rocks at it and after a few bounced around the determined animal to receive only looks of annoyance, the cougar began to slowly wander across the bridge. A couple guys from our group continued to follow the cougar and throw rocks to ensure that it retreated back as far as possible.

As you can imagine, the camp was on complete food lockdown the rest of the night. We even put the trail mix in my car. And we thanked our random saviour strangers endlessly – who knows how that night could have turned out.

If a hungry cougar thinks it could have gotten some food from 4 adults gathered together around a fire, then what will happen when more and more of their hunting grounds turn into condos, and rabbits and game become trashcans and family pets? I will never forget my encounter with this animal and I hope that there will always be plenty of wilderness to satisfy their needs so I never have one again.