A local teacher had an up close and personal encounter with a cougar while out for a morning jog in Hagensborg four weeks ago. Amanda Racher was running the Hagensborg Loop Trail, a five-kilometer loop from SAMS School to Nookliklonnic Creek, at about seven a.m. when she heard a noise behind her.
“I was very aware of my surroundings because I know there’s always a possibility of encountering a predator,” Racher explains. “But it’s also so rare, I felt it was highly unlikely that it would actually happen.”
Racher initially thought the noise was a grouse, but as she turned to look she came face-to-face with a cougar, which was staring her down from about two or three body lengths away.
“I immediately stopped running and turned to face it,” she said. “I began to think of all the things you are supposed to do when you encounter a cougar, so I started to yell and scream as loud as I could.”
The cougar didn’t flinch. “It certainly did not look scared,” Racher said. “It made no indication that it was going to run off.” This was in sharp contrast to the bear encounters she’d had in the past, and quickly threw into another state of mind. As soon as she was able, she picked up a big stick and a rock, waving them around in front of her for protection. It didn’t seem to make a difference.
“I quickly realized that it was not giving up,” she said. “So I just maintained eye contact and kept backing up.” She had a lot of backing up to do. While the trail normally takes her 40 minutes at a run, she was now walking backwards and had met the cougar only 10 minutes in.
Heading west towards Nookliklonnic, she knew that she would come close to properties if she kept on in that direction. So she began to yell periodically in hopes that someone might hear her. Unfortunately, the yelling resulted in the cougar baring its teeth and hissing at her.
“It was maintaining a consistent behaviour of just following me at a distance of two or three body lengths,” she said.” The only difference was that it would bare its teeth and hiss when I yelled. I didn’t like seeing its teeth, but I needed to yell just in case someone heard me.”
Eyes locked, the stalking continued. “I had a lot of time to think about what I would do if the cougar did attack,” she said. “I just had to make up my mind that if it did attack, I would deal with it.”
Racher decided that the best thing to do was to try and maintain the status quo. “After a considerable time, I decided not to throw anything at it,” she said. “Its behaviour was so consistent, I didn’t want to antagonize it and provoke an attack.”
Still a long ways from coming out of the trail at Nookliklonnic Creek, she decided to take a chance and chose an offshoot of the trail that she knew would lead her closer to properties, and hopefully someone to help.
Racher estimates she spent about 30 to 35 minutes with the cougar, giving her lots of time to check it out. “I think it was a younger animal, maybe two years old,” she said. “It looked healthy, but not filled out. It did not look sick or old.”
After what seemed like an eternity, she came to a fork in the trail and she knew was close to the back of the Shop Easy. Unfortunately, she hadn’t taken the trail for a while and was uncertain of the logistics. Was there a fence? A gate? Racher decided to take a risk and get out of the woods as soon as she could.
Fortunately, she did come upon the edge of a property and began screaming loudly. A man came out. “He said, ‘Can I help you?,’” Racher recalls. “I just screamed, cougar! I think there were some profanities at that point.”
The man had come out of the house carrying a fish bonker, and as soon as he saw the cougar he threw the fish bonker, while Racher threw her rock and stick. The cougar immediately ran off.
Racher and the man talked for a bit, and she realized she had to get to work. So, off she went. “I was in such a state of shock and adrenaline, I couldn’t process the event, and I can’t even pinpoint where I came out of the woods,” she said. “I don’t even remember the man’s name, but I think it was Vincent.”
Racher returned to her car and went to work at Acwalscta School. “I wasn’t even late,” she laughs. However, at the end of the workday, she felt the effects. “I felt totally overwhelmed, and wondered if it really happened?”
Given the exceptional circumstances, Racher feels very fortunate that she escaped without incident. But, she also notes that, as far as cougar behaviour, this one appeared to be ‘by the book.’ It was certainly intent on pursuing her, but once it felt seriously threatened, it took off.
In addition, Racher did everything right. The Ministry of Environment notes that in the past 100 years, a total of five people have been killed by cougars in BC. Many people have avoided cougar attacks by behaving as Racher did (facing the cougar, not running, using something to appear bigger, and being assertive) and many have survived cougar attacks by fighting back, something Racher is grateful she didn’t have to do.
After this experience, Racher’s perspectives have certainly changed, but mainly she just feels really lucky nothing bad happened. “It was a good reminder to always be ready,” she said. “And I would really like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Vincent, and since we can’t figure out who he is, it would be great if he could contact the paper so we could reconnect!”