That Time I Tangled with a Cougar
On Thursday, Oct. 23, 2020, while pedaling my mountain bike up a long logging road in the North Cascades, I was assaulted by a mountain lion. I prefer the word ‘sparred’ because we did a kind of dance checking each other out. A better phrase could also be ‘aggressive encounter’ since I was never physically touched by it.
I am telling this story in this detailed way not to gain attention except to help increase human understanding on how to interact with wild animals with humility, respect, reverence, and skill. This would be opposed to the raw fear approach, one so often promulgated via mainstream media. Here is the preview:
Almost everyone I have spoken to in the last month has heard of the recent encounter in Utah filmed by Kyle Burgess. This experience obviously has wide interest. If you missed it, his story is covered by a UK media outlet here:
This was a different experience than mine, mainly because a mom protecting her cubs (or kittens) is an entirely different scenario. As we all know, nothing inspires courage like protecting your loved ones! The cat also has a different age, size, and level of confidence. Most of the aggressive motions highlighted are threat maneuvers (the majority of the six minutes were just walking him down the road). If the cat wanted to jump on him for a fight or a meal, she likely would have.
Keep in mind, most people who spend time in cougar habitat never realize they are nearby. They are elusive and, for their size, one of the most stealth creatures in the wild. While attacks are sensationalized, the peaceful encounters fly under the radar. In 2014 in nearby Bellingham, with a population of over 90,000 people, a 110 lb. male cougar was found dead on the ocean shore with no signs of physical trauma. How this approx. 8 year old animal died has never been reported (I suspect post-industrial toxins), nor have many discussed this aspect of the story:
Valentine said it speaks to the intelligence of cougars that no one reported having issues with the animal even though it was within a suburban area.
The animals are also very adaptable. With a Latin name of Puma concolor and common names cougar, mountain lion, puma, and panther, this incredible animal shares wild spaces throughout the Western Hemisphere. According to Wikipedia:
The cougar has the largest range of any wild land animal in the Americas. Its range spans 110 degrees of latitude, from northern Yukon in Canada to the southern Andes.
I live alone in a cabin in the woods near Maple Falls, WA and am surrounded by hundreds of acres of open, heavily logged forest. As an avid cross-country skier, mountain biker, and general explorer, I have been out in the forest at night many times. After a freshly fallen snow, tracks are very easy to spot and identify. I have seen very fresh cougar tracks near my house (less than one hour old).
Does this give me pause? Yes. Do I stay indoors? No. On that particular night, I selected a ski pole used in ski mountaineering called a whippet that is basically an ice axe blade attached to the grip of the pole. My thinking was, “I’m going to walk in the other direction, but if I get jumped, I’m going to stab it in the jugular and wrestle it to death.” Probably never a necessity in my entire lifetime, but a good attitude for remaining calm & confident.
When I was packing up gear for this particular ride, I had a lot to consider. A 50 mile ride from my house with about 5,000 feet of climbing high into the mountains where snow recently had fallen, I need tons of layers to keep me warm on the descent. Extra leggings, a down jacket, hats, gloves, food, water, tools… somehow in my packing regimen — which overflowed from a summer of backpacking — I remembered to bring a knife. It’s a dive knife with a blunt tip and a solid grip, like the one at left.
I wasn’t thinking about mountain lion encounters when I packed for the afternoon ride based from my house. Knives are a generally useful tool to have in the wild. I was likely thinking about cutting straps if I had to affix something to my bicycle, say if (or when) something broke. I put the medium sized blade in a convenient location in my new bike frame bag (custom made from LOAM Equipment in Bellingham, WA) so I could just open a zipper and grab it. It also has a holster with a clip, which I later utilized to keep the blade extra handy on my belt. I have even practiced deploying it quickly.
The meat of the story starts 3 hours and 22 miles into my 5 hour ride, around 2,500' elevation and 10 miles up the 15 mile segment of Canyon Creek Rd. that reaches the Damfino Lake trailhead. I was getting tired and unsure about having enough daylight or energy to reach the end of the road. I had seen few cars since turning off the Mt Baker Highway, but suddenly a GMC Yukon rumbled down the rough dirt road, stopped, and rolled down the driver’s side window.
Driver: “I saw two cougars in the road up there, about a half mile up. They went into the woods on the uphill side of the road.”
Me: “How big are they? Are they adults?”
Driver: “They were big. Get your camera ready.”
Me: “Okay. Thanks.”
I didn’t really hesitate to continue onward. Not only was I determined to reach my objective before turning back, I had recently been thinking about Kyle’s encounter (along with many others I’d heard stories about). In discussions with others curious about the topic, I emphasized how I think one deals with an encounter like this. The expectation is the animal won’t view an adult human as prey and won’t be so foolish as to attack someone over twice their weight and size. However, I do not know how cougars act in pairs. They are typically solitary or with the mother. Were these two young adults and perhaps siblings? I was curious enough to venture forward and try to find out.
I fetched my knife from the frame bag and placed it in my right hand, gripping it next to the handlebar on the right side. I took my phone out, fired up the camera app, and held it on top of the handlebar on the left side. I pedaled like this for what felt like a half mile, continuously looking uphill into the trees for any shapes or movements relating to a mountain lion. I assumed an animal would attack from uphill like any sensible aggressor, so only occasionally glanced down towards the roaring Canyon Creek. It seemed feasible they could come from above or below, or I might even split them on either side which could trigger some sort of defensive behavior. Nevertheless, I saw nothing except a flatbed truck descending slowly hauling a brush cutter after a day’s work trimming the road edge. I thought a noise like that would scare anything wild off.
About a half mile along, another truck was stopped with a man standing in front by the grill dressed in a blend of hunter’s camouflage and an orange safety vest. He was staring uphill, and I thought for sure he had seen the cougars. I stopped and asked.
Me: “What are you looking at?”
Hunter: “Mushrooms. There’s a big batch of them up there. My buddy is up there checking them out.”
Me: “Did you see some cougars?”
We discussed Kyle’s video, how alarming the charging behavior was, and why it took him six minutes to grab a rock. I argued you don’t want to stoop when an animal is ready to leap on you. He said he’d be looking for my video. I returned my knife to the bike bag saying, “I’m going to put this away before I hurt myself.”
I continued another 100 yards with a touch less attention on the woods and more on where I was pedaling, as the road is full of potholes. I assumed the animals had moved on, deterred from lurking on the road by all this human activity. Movement caught my attention just 30 yards ahead, and I saw a cougar slip into the woods. It was an adult of moderate size.
The knife went back into my hand and I dismounted the bicycle. Typically, I walk on the left side of my bike, opposite the drive train, but to remain shielded by the bike, I walked on the right side very slowly. My phone went into my left pocket, less of a priority given I had two hands on the bike (left hand on the seat, right on the handlebar) and also a knife ready to wield in my defense.
As soon as I reached the point in the road where the cougar was crouched in the trees just beyond the ditch, it came out at me swiftly. I moved my bike into a strong tripod stance to block its advance, swinging the rear end to remain perpendicular to its line of attack. When it stopped about 3 feet away, I held my knife up in my left hand and yelled, “NO! BACK OFF! BACK OFF!” This took almost no thought — it was an immediate reaction.
The cat appeared aggressive as it left the woods, but as I stood my ground and looked into its eyes, it appeared scared — more so than I was. It was perfectly described by Patrick Swayze’s character Bodhi in the 1991 film Point Break:
You see, it’s basic dog psychology. If you scare them and get them peeing down their leg, they submit. If you project weakness, you draw aggression. That’s how people get hurt. You see, fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true. So it’s simple — you project strength to avoid conflict.
I do not carry a gun when I’m in the North Cascades, nor even when backpacking or riding in my hometown region of North Idaho and NW Montana where the far more intimidating grizzly bears roam. I figure shooting a bear twice my size will just piss it off and I’ll still wind up a mangled mess. This cat was likely sizing me up and reaching the same conclusion — her claws and teeth against my arsenal of a large steel bike frame, a knife, thick clothing, and 100 lb. advantage could leave her severely injured and likely to die. Thinking better of this attempt, he or she retreated into the woods and crouched down looking at me. That’s when I filmed the video footage shown above.
My theory, not being trained as a wildlife biologist, is that this animal was young and facing its first winter without the assistance of its mother. It was relatively small (the size of a medium-to-large dog), skinny and appeared scared, perhaps in a bit over its head tackling a 170 lb. human (I have since the learned the term is ‘dispersing sub-adult’). Winter had set in early and forced it down to lower elevation, desperately searching for food to fatten up, but unskilled in all the nuanced skills of hunting. Since I did not kill it prematurely with an overreaction (one that seems to often accompany untrained owners of firearms), this animal learned a valuable lesson. I hope it makes it through the winter.
After reviewing the video footage later with the luxury of zooming in, I can see the second cougar moving in the trees next to the first one. It appears they do not hunt in groups, or I certainly could have been overtaken.
I walked away without taking my eyes off the animal. I continued to drag my bicycle in a protective angle between me and her. After I turned a corner, I remounted my steed and pedaled away, occasionally glancing back to make sure I was not being stalked up the road. After another half mile, once reaching a viewpoint of Bearpaw Mountain, I filmed the self interview shown above.
I was feeling victorious, but also afraid. I would have to turn back soon and face the same situation again. I considered descending fast — I could easily blow by at 20mph — but would that trigger a hunting instinct? The young lion could latch onto my leg, or — if feeling especially agile — leap onto my back. My original plan was to descend in the dark which sets in about 6:30pm. It was now 5:30. As cats are known to be nocturnal hunters, I thought this would put me at a disadvantage. I reached a nice viewpoint around 6pm, put on all my extra layers, clipped the knife sheath to my pants, said a little prayer, and descended.
When I approached the area where I had seen the cats before, I dismounted my bike and walked with knife in hand. I started to yell out to let the cats know I was coming. I had my bike headlamp shining brightly so I would look like a spaceship — any behavior that appeared intimidating and not a surprise.
I never saw them again. When I was well past the area where we had our little dance, I climbed on my bike seat and descended quickly in the cold night air. I was still facing a long ride home with hypothermia as real of a threat in the mountains as wildcats, if not more so.
When looking for a news article covering the 2014 death of a male cougar in Bellingham, I discovered this more recent article with images of another sizeable wildcat prowling in a person’s backyard within city limits. It has two key quotes, as well as a link to practical WDFW advice on how to adjust to living with these animals in our midst. The first:
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, there have been only 19 reported attacks on humans in the last 100 years.
Is an attack only when someone gets hurt? I prefer to call my story an “invigorating encounter.” The other choice quote is (along with excellent commentary) is from the homeowner and photographer:
I hope the article can appreciate that we’ve invaded their space and so long as we keep our distance, they’re really not a danger to us.
I agree with this citizen. I encroached on their space, and I accept the consequences. I also studied how to handle myself appropriately in their presence, and that preparation paid off.
I will repeat the WDFW recommendations here for your convenience.
- Stop, pick up small children immediately, and don’t run. Running and rapid movements may trigger an attack. Remember, at close range, a cougar’s instinct is to chase.
- Face the cougar. Talk to it firmly while slowly backing away. Always leave the animal an escape route.
- Try to appear larger than the cougar. Get above it (e.g., step up onto a rock or stump). If wearing a jacket, hold it open to further increase your apparent size. If you are in a group, stand shoulder-to-shoulder to appear intimidating.
- Do not take your eyes off the cougar or turn your back. Do not crouch down or try to hide.
- Never approach the cougar, especially if it is near a kill or with kittens, and never offer it food.
- If the cougar does not flee, be more assertive. If it shows signs of aggression (crouches with ears back, teeth bared, hissing, tail twitching, and hind feet pumping in preparation to jump), shout, wave your arms and throw anything you have available (water bottle, book, backpack). The idea is to convince the cougar that you are not prey, but a potential danger.
- If the cougar attacks, fight back. Be aggressive and try to stay on your feet. Cougars have been driven away by people who have fought back using anything within reach, including sticks, rocks, shovels, backpacks, and clothing — even bare hands. If you are aggressive enough, a cougar will flee, realizing it has made a mistake. Pepper spray in the cougar’s face is also effective in the extreme unlikelihood of a close encounter with a cougar.
If you wonder why it took Kyle in Utah so long to fetch a rock to throw at the cougar in his video (which finally made it flee), refer to the bold print above.
Lastly, my humble request for those who have made it this far: please enjoy our wild places with consideration for all the other inhabitants out there and attempt to leave no trace. Walk with respect and humility, with an eye for learning something new, and increasing your connection with all of creation.
As Tyson Yunkporta says in his mindbending book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, humans are but a custodian species on this land, and wild animals require our ultimate care right now.