Some days are simply crammed with enough experience to last a lifetime. Even before breakfast.
The bedroom was dark in the early morning hours but I awoke gasping for air. As usual, my companion cat, Crawford, was snuggled into the valley of bedding by my arm; but instead of the smell of fresh fur, he was reeking of skunk. The bedroom atmosphere was suffocating and with this four-legged cuddlier, the whole house would soon be unbearable. Gasping, I threw off the covers and stumbled into the kitchen. Quickly, pouring tomato juice into the laundry tub, I grasped the offending fur ball and firmly placed him in the basin. There was a yellow patch on his right shoulder which appeared to be a direct hit. With a vice-like grip on the scruff of his neck, I energetically sloshed the tomato juice into the fur. His black-and-white coat changed to black-and-pink. He was not a happy cat but, strangely, he seemed to appreciate my efforts. As he was placed out the door, the musky smell was still noticeable but bearable.
Outside, the mares were happy to see signs of their breakfast. Two piles of sweet green hay, placed two horse-lengths apart in the field, elicited a frisky romp from the barn to the pasture. But when I lifted the water hydrant handle to fill the tub only a discouraging dribble came out. Our clean, fresh water comes from high up the mountain, down Hillsong Creek through pipes to a series of settling boxes and reservoir. Low water pressure is an ominous sign: it means a problem somewhere in the system so an investigative hike up the waterline becomes necessary. Breakfast would have to wait. I strapped on my tool pouch and set off through the pasture and followed the deer path up the mountain.
The first stop was at the reservoir. Not even a gurgle echoed in the empty tank. So on up the mountain I went, following the creek bed to the collecting pond and waterfall. Scented cedar, hemlock and fir canopied the path. Lacy patterns of morning sun were embroidered on the thick soft mosses and fragile forest plants along the sides of the creek. After the second portion of step and strenuous climbing, using hands and feet to search out footholds and cling, I stopped for a breather. The morning forest was quiet.
Clambering over the last log, the sound of splashing gurgling water greeted my entrance into a small ravine headed by a waterfall which contained the pond shaped by nature and dammed with sandbags. The backed-up water was low and silt on the bottom had clogged the intake pipe so lifting the end of the pipe, I started scooping silt out of the pond with an old coffee can. As air in the can was replaced by thick sloppy silt, bubbles burped to the surface followed by a loud slosh as I flung the sludge into the forest beyond the pond. Dip and slosh, dip and slosh. Kneeling on the sandbag dam, I began to sense I was not alone. Perhaps my neighbour who shares the creek water? I hadn’t heard anyone approaching but then, I was being rather noisy. Straightening, I looked around to where the steep trail tipped over to enter the clearing. Standing across the centre of the trail, watching me, were TWO COUGARS like a visual echo. They were beautiful. I was stunned with admiration. Young, but fully grown, their coats looked soft and perfect. Such dignity. Such promise of power and confidence of instinct. Time stopped.
There was no aggression in their eyes, the second one even looked a bit wary. The splashing had attracted their attention and the strange antics of this human animal held their curiosity. As we watched each other, the realization of my vulnerability stole into my mind. I was in a ravine with a waterfall behind, steep sides and the fastest way out was down the trail where the two cougars were standing. They were less than 20 feet away. As an adult, I would be tough to eat but might be fun to play with. I reviewed what I knew about dealing with cougars and spoke to them, softly, to assess their reactions. The second one, more cautious, moved off as if released from a hypnotic spell. The closer cougar moved a few steps, and then paused.
We couldn’t just stand there staring at each other now could we? By rushing back down the trail I would create a challenging situation she couldn’t back out of. So I returned to my task. Taking off boots and socks, I stepped into the shallow pond with the silt can. The can gurgled and swooshed and the water thickened with stirred up silt. From the bottom I dug out rocks and old sandbags while considering my next move. Rather than becoming bored, the cougar appeared to be entertained.
Normally, humans are fearful creatures or predators and shoot cougars so, from the cougar’s point of view, it wasn’t good for her to become comfortable being near people. Stepping out of the pond, I placed my hands on my hips and gave her a loud and firm lecture about how BA..A..AD people are to cougars, putting growls into the words and assertiveness into the body language. She listened, and then leapt away into the deadfalls and brush. To give her the opportunity of a dignified retreat I went back to work, finishing the pond cleaning.
Still not feeling alone, I looked along the ridge above. There she was, lying down relaxed and enjoying the show. Time to get tough. I built up a steam of anger, looking big, yelling and waving my arms about, slapping a tree with a rotting stick lying beside the pond. That did it. She disappeared behind the ridge. Giving her time to leave, I cleaned up the last of the silt and watched the pond level rise, then replaced the intake pipe. My gaze searched the ridge on both sides, and then replaced the intake pipe. My gaze searched the ridge on both sides, wondering if she had found a more discreet spot from which to watch. No sign of her, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t there. Remaining alert but not rushing, and putting deliberate confidence into my actions, I found another stick and made my way back down the creek bed to a filling water reservoir and to home.
Once home, I was overwhelmed with joy. The cougars confirmed that respect was a positive reaction. Unless the animal is trapped or starving, fear begets aggression. Fear is sensationalized by the media. So many stories of cougars attacking people but, according to Canadian Wildlife authorities, in the past 100 years in Canada, only 17 people have been killed by cougars. There are more deaths caused by man’s vehicles each year. Even so, two days later when I had to check the pond again, I let the neighbour know where I was going and I called her when I got back. Climbing into the forest may be safer than driving to town but it still makes sense not to be foolish
Canyon, British Columbia