Sheilds Lake, March 5-6, 2016
Or: Gale force winds, poor gear choices, and the sh*t-scariest cougar encounter I’ve ever had!
Hey hey, I’m on the Island now, and I joined a meetup camping trip to Sheilds Lake in Sooke this weekend – it’s been about two years since I’ve backpacked, and this seemed like a nice, mellow way to bust out the gear. I’ve hiked with the organizers a couple of times and there was a large contingent of day hikers on a parallel hike (some of whom I’ve also met).
Well, the weather turned out worse than forecasted, and I miscalculated my shelter. The fly of my tent delaminated, so it was one of the items that didn’t survive the Great Purge of 2015. Instead, I’ve been throwing a siltarp over my tent, which kind of works, but isn’t storm-worthy. My saving grace was that it was pretty windy when we were setting up, so I took extra care pegging everything down really solidly.
The wind was still going strong at dinner time, and the idea of lighting a fire seemed futile. So everyone retired to their tents around 7pm. The wind howled! Maybe around 9pm? The first heavy rain fell. It was intermittent for the rest of the night. This was when I discovered that the tarp-over-tent doesn’t really keep heavy rain out. Ok for one night only, would be a real problem on a longer trip. I was glad I found out in time, on a gear-testing trip. I rearranged the stuff in the tent so that nothing would get ruined by water, and wiggled my sleeping bag into a position that would keep it relatively dry.
Next morning, the other campers wanted to pack up and leave quickly, but I wanted to have a more leisurely day. That’s not always an option for me, but this trail is somewhat transit-accessible so I could get myself home. I’d done the trail a couple of times, and soon there’d be day hikers showing up, so no problem, right?
I made coffee and a hot black sesame drink, ate a bun, slowly packed up. A small horde of animals (ravens, robins, a squirrel) invaded the camp, looking for scraps. Then the rain got heavy again, so I hid in my tent to wait it out. Once that passed, I hurriedly finished packing, put on my soggy pack and set off.
Well…after about an hour of hiking, I glanced to my left, where a trail to a lookout splits off. Walking towards me was a cougar! Maybe 15 feet away, it paused and looked at me. I gave it my standard wildlife greeting, “HEY, GET OUTTA HERE!!” Instead of bounding away, it just looked mildly annoyed. My inner voice swore, this wasn’t good! More yelling didn’t do anything. Despite the scariness of the situation, I wished I could somehow magically take a picture without taking my eyes off the beast. It was a very fine specimen, medium sized, quite healthy looking, nice eyes, and with a big, muscly tail, and the background nicely framed it in moss-covered stone. But even if I’d had my camera out, I wouldn’t break concentration on dealing with a cougar that wasn’t showing fear, even long enough to push the shutter button. So lament for the photo that never was!
I started whacking my hiking poles together, eyed a good stick by my foot, picked it up and threw it at the cat. At this point, it casually hopped away. The salal was so thick, I couldn’t really see where it went, and I wanted to hustle out of there as fast and as carefully as I could. I stopped fairly frequently and scanned all around me. My hypothesis is that if you act like a timid mouse, a cat will be more interested in you. So I didn’t look over my shoulder; I completely stopped, and turned my whole body, with much stamping and clashing of hiking poles. No sign of it, I kept going until I came across a tree on the trail that I didn’t remember the day before. I checked behind me and HOLY $@#% THE COUGAR WAS FOLLOWING ME. Still not displaying any aggression or anything to indicate it wanted to attack, just following me for the heck of it? Nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon? More yelling and swearing did nothing. So I belted out the loudest primal scream I could muster. That did the trick; the thing bolted and I didn’t see it again.
Turning back to the trail, I walked around a corner and arrived at…the Grassy Lake campsite. I wasn’t on the right trail. That meant I now had to turn around and walk back to where I’d last seen the cougar. I was not impressed. Where had the trail split? How far did I have to back track? I walked a little ways up the trail, thought “this can’t be right,” turned around again and ended up back at the campsite. There was a small footpath – I hoped it would rejoin the main trail further along – but it turned out to be a dead end. I was lost and dealing with a potentially dangerous animal I could no longer see, which is a pretty bad feeling. I decided to stop at the campsite and get my head together. With my back to the water, I could take my pack off and only have to scan ahead, ie, not worry about something coming up behind me.
I pulled out my cell phone, hoping that being beside a lake might get reception. What I wanted most right now was to tell another human what I was dealing with. No reception. I heard some branches breaking, but then I saw a raven so maybe it was the bird making a racket. Ok, next I pulled out my pocket knife. Not much use probably, but it was the best weapon I had so I wanted it more accessible. Ok, now back into the woods, hitting things with my hiking poles and yelling. I walked a little further and to my great relief, recognized the split in the trail. I’ve noticed before that it could be easy to miss, as you have to climb up a rock, whereas the other branch just goes downhill. In my distracted state, I’d missed the going-up-the-rock branch. Still a little nervous, I periodically yelled “Hallo!!” partly hoping to find people, and partly for something to say to remind the beast that I could yell a lot louder.
Adrenaline wearing off, it took some effort to keep up the aggressive act. I reminded myself that I’d been followed by cougars as a teen in East Sooke Park. Those had started off with a distinct feeling that I was being watched, and careful listening would indeed pick up soft, regular paw noises. But there is something quite terrifying about actually seeing the thing behind you. Maybe ten minutes later, I saw a couple of rain jackets ahead. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see people on this trail!” I told the two men my story, and they were good listeners responding with suitable “Wow!”s and asking plenty of questions. After explaining the circumstances and description, they suggested that it was a juvenile male setting out for his own territory and acting kind of cocky. I agreed; it sounded about right. They asked if I wanted to travel with them, but they were heading uphill and I wanted to go home. They were only going to the Grassy Lake campsite to check it out and reassured me that they would be the new targets :-P Feeling much better that there were other people around, I relaxed. I had to remind myself a couple of times that having a bad cougar encounter doesn’t provide some kind of karmic protection against also running into a bear, and I should still keep my wits about me.
I ran into one other pair of hikers and their dog. I told them about the cougar, relayed the story and location. They thanked me and pulled out their bear spray. At the bottom of the trail there is a hatchery; I looked to see if there was anyone around to help me make a sign, but it was closed. I walked back to the highway along the Galloping Goose Trail, looking down my nose at aggressive dogs and punk kids; they were nothin’ compared to that cat!
I quite enjoy hiking alone and appreciate these rare wildlife encounters, but I might hold off on solo adventures till I calm down from this one!