Vancouver Island has one of the highest density’s of cougars in the world – especially around here, Port Alberni,in the centre of the Island. But that doesn’t mean that we see them much. For all the time I’ve spent in the bush (and I’ve seen LOTS of wild bears and wolves) I’ve never seen a cougar. But the great thing about snow is that you can see animals’tracks. You can tell if they are around, even if you don’t see the creature itself.
On Monday, it was pretty wet and slushy out. I had been hoping to go for a slow 3 hour jog (training for a 50k ultramarathon in May), but it was pretty hard to get inspired to do that in those slippery conditions. So I went out for a forest hike instead, with the dogs.
I headed out from the house, to go on nearby trails that Dave and I go on all the time: first up the extension of the Log Train Trail to the top of Argyle St., then up a new trail the mountain bikes created last year called Fur Baby, then looping around, doing an out-and-back on a logging road at the back of the loop, then coming back down another trail past the quarry and back home.
As I climbed up Fur Baby, a beautiful meandering trail that ascends gently through the forest, the slush turned more into snow. The dogs were behaving a little strangely, peering out at something to the left as we climbed. It was not a deer (they would have chased it), and it was not a squirrel (they watched it for too much distance along the trail for it to be something small). I actually wondered if it could be a cougar walking parallel to us – they chase most animals that they see (including bears), but they were just watching this one and staying close to me.
Probably nothing, right? Well when I hit the top of Fur Baby and turned left to start my loop, a kilometre or so along I found fresh cougar tracks in the snow, crossing my trail from left to right! Cool! They are very distinctive from dog (or wolf) tracks, because they are much broader, and for the most part the claws don’t show. On the only track that showed claws, the claws were little pin-pricks in the snow, way ahead of the pads – more like the way grizzly claws are – rather than the pointy claw-marks close to the pads you see from dog tracks. (Unfortunately the dogs ran over that print before I could photograph it). The sharpness of those pin-prick claw prints told me that these tracks were very fresh.
So we continued on our loop… but now, I found myself watching over my shoulder frequently, wondering if that cougar might have looped back to follow us, perhaps behind or perhaps slinking along beside us in the forest. (Wouldn’t look good if my last words were a text to Dave saying “Cougar tracks!)” I was also very conscious of when I had to crouch down to pull dog treats or warmer clothing out of my pack – if the cougar was following us, that’s when he would strike, when I am small and not paying attention. I also did my best to keep little Tank close to me… Dave and I have always known that, if we ever do encounter a cougar, Tank will probably be its target.
Anyway, we did our out-and-back section in the snow. I was curious to see whether we would see any new cougar tracks on our way back, but no – no sign he had been following us. By now it was getting dark, and for some reason that made me more nervous. I could see the trail fine in the snow – but the woods on either side seemed very dark! I finally put my headlamp on – and quickly realized how much more secure I felt with it, because a cougar’s eyes woul reflect the light so well. Now,with a quick sweep of my headlamp every so often, I could confirm that there was no cougar lurking in the woods nearby.
We rejoined the loop section, and headed back via the quarry trail. Just past the quarry, I was most surprised to come across the cougar tracks again! He had been travelling in the opposite direction to me, and I could see where he cut off the trail and headed into the bush, to my left (his right). So that’s where he’d gone in, cutting across the loop that I did to where I had first seen his tracks. I followed his tracks along that trail for a long way, half a kilometre or so. The only other tracks from that whole day were from a lone mountain biker, who had come by after the cougar. Eventually I came to where the tracks split – the mountain biker had come up the trail I was heading down, and the cougar had come in from my right.
Which means that the big cat had come up parallel to Fur Baby! He would have been at least several hundred metres away from it – I’m not sure if the dogs could have sensed or smelled him from that distance or not. But he’d come up from the main trail that we’d accessed Fur Baby from (near the top of Argyle), which is where this whole trail system backs on to houses and a primary school.
It’s pretty cool, knowing that these animals are out there, so close to us. Yet there are so few interactions. I wonder how often I get that close to a cougar at other times of the year, when there is no snow to reveal the story to me.