Thursday, May 23, 2024


A close encounter


I do love to hike and earlier this week I took off from a U.S. Forest Service trailhead to walk an old logging road that followed a creek and then went up a ridgeline along the eastern slopes of the Central Cascades.

There were no other vehicles parked at the trailhead and I was enjoying a peaceful late morning hike that took me 2 ½ miles to a nice viewpoint where I could look towards Tronsen and Mission Ridges. After soaking in the views and drinking some water I started heading back downhill along the trail. I’ll admit, my head was in the clouds when I first heard it; the loud crash of an animal entering the woods 30 yards ahead of me at a bend in the road. This was no squirrel or chipmunk like I had been seeing earlier scurrying into the brush, this was an animal of significant size.

The animal did not run away from me as deer and elk do when they are surprised and want to create a lot of distance from you in a hurry. No, this animal actually went uphill angling towards me and stopped moving in the brush about 20 to 25 yards away from me to my left. I figured I was dealing with a bear here. I unholstered the bear spray I had with me, took the safety off, and began repeating in a loud, calm voice, “Hey Bear!”  I scanned the brush as I did this and slowly walked down the trail as I did. The animal never moved from it’s perch above me or made a sound.

I turned a corner in the logging road where the animal first entered the brush and walked another 50 yards down the wide trail to a sandy spot in the road. That’s where I saw my foot prints going up the trail and a new set of prints that were not there 45 minutes ago. They weren’t bear prints; they were cougar tracks.

I have only had the opportunity to see one cougar before in the wild and based on the evidence of this encounter I’m virtually certain I just missed my second chance to see one, though it is clear this animal had definitely seen me which started off the surprise encounter. As you might imagine my head was on a swivel for the rest of the hike back to the trailhead.

Cougars have been in the news in recent years. In 2018 two mountain biking cyclists were attacked near North Bend by a mountain lion. One of the cyclists attempted to run away and was chased down and killed. Later that year, a female hiker in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest was also killed by a cougar and this year, a nine-year old girl playing on the outskirts of a church camp in Fruitland, Washington was attacked by a cougar and sustained serious injuries.

It is important to note cougar encounters, let alone attacks, are very rare. There have been less than two dozen documented attacks in Washington State since 1924 that have resulted in injury or death. Cougars are largely secretive animals that remain unseen by most of us in the wild. However, there are things you can do to stay safe in the unlikely event of an encounter.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends:

• 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.

The bottom-line is don’t let the chance of an encounter with a bear or cougar keep you away from the outdoors. Just be prepared and know what to do if you see one of these animals. More than likely, both you and the animal will part ways unharmed.

John Kruse – and



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