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Face to Face
Cougar confrontation

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Babette Joslin's routine walk to her sister's house was turned into an adventure by this confrontational cat.

I live on a ranch in Winthrop, Washington, a rural community about 80 miles south of the Canadian border in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. Cougars! We’ve got them. You don’t see them much. Rarely catch a glimpse as they dart across the road in your headlights. Usually it’s the wintertime when the snow forces the deer down into the valleys and the cougars follow, that you see evidence of their passing: tracks and deer kills become apparent.

I’ve lived here 20 years and have only caught those glimpses. My daughters, however, have been more fortunate or maybe unfortunate to have had a much better look. In the winter of 2002-3 my daughter KC was out snowshoeing around the ranch on a beautiful sunny winter day with our two dogs. She had been out a couple of hours tromping around and decided to head home. Passing under a solitary pine tree for the second or third time. She happened to glance up to see a cougar stretched out in the sun watching her and the two dogs. She hurried home, spread the word and headed back with her camera. She was able to photograph the cougar up the tree.

My youngest daughter, Caitlin, went out to the barn one winter morning in 2001-2 to feed our horses. She walked into two snarling young cougars inside the barn on the stacks of hay whose mother, we later learned, had been shot by a local hunter. Where was I? I don’t remember, but on neither occasion was I around. A little part of me was always jealous of not being in on the excitement. Not any more. You know what they say, “Be careful what you wish for!”

On January 6th, 2012 I was hiking up to my sister’s house with my blue heeler cow-dog, Ty. We do this almost every afternoon when I get home from work. It was about 4:30 p.m. Still daylight, but getting gray. She lives three fourths of a mile up the road from me on the other side of a ridge. We were two thirds of the way there where the road goes through an old apple orchard and you can see her house up ahead. These trees still produce small apples that attract deer, birds, coyotes and other wild animals throughout the winter. Ty had started barking madly and looking up the hillside about the middle of the orchard. I wondered what he was so concerned about. He barks like that on a regular basis at deer and coyotes that stare him down and won’t run so he can chase them. He moved on up the road.

Two nights previously, we had walked home after dark from my sister, Cathy’s house. Ty with his keychain lantern light hanging from his collar so I can tell where this black dog is in the pitch-black night and me with my headlamp. He had also barked then at about this spot. No way was I going to check out whatever it was that alarmed him. I’m brave, but not that brave. I prefer daylight.

Today, however, it was daylight. Getting dark, but daylight. So I thought as I got closer to where he had stopped to bark, I’d take a look around. I called him back and crossed to the left side of the road. These apple trees are ancient. Gnarly, with lots of broken limbs dangling down to the ground so you can’t see very well around the base. I took one step up on the snowplowed berm looking up the hillside into the stand of trees.

I don’t know where he came from, but suddenly there was this snarling, hissing, paw swinging cougar in my face. Ty got out of there. With eyes the size of gold pieces (the kind they put on the eyes of the dead being ferried across the River Styx), I stepped back and threw up my trekking poles (thank God I had my poles! A whole 38 inches long.) in the cat’s face. I swung them wildly back and forth, whacking them together trying to keep him at a distance. Mind racing, I thought: stab him in the eye with the pole. Hurt him a little and maybe he’d back off. With a half-hearted attempt, I lunged forward slightly to try and poke him in the eye. He easily avoided me. I really wasn’t sure this was a good idea. So I continued backing up, swinging the poles madly, never taking my eyes off of him as he continued advancing, swatting at me with his huge, clawed paws and hissing menacingly through enormous teeth. I remember thinking how red his gums and tongue were, how white his teeth and how black his eyes. The colors were intense.

Babette was able to grab this fuzzy image of the cougar that confronted her and her cow dog Ty from the safety of her car after it was all over.

Heart pounding, I continued my retreat. At some point Ty had passed behind me and was ferociously barking off to my left. By now I was on the other side of the road against the snow berm. I don’t remember exactly when but at some point the cougar slunk down into more of a crouch. “Oh, s***. This is it. I’m toast! He’s going to leap.” ‘Make yourself look big’ flashed across my mind; all four feet eleven inches of me. So I quickly raised the poles above my head, waving and clacking them together for a few moments before returning them to the space between the cougar and me. I began yelling at Ty, “Sic him! Get him Ty! Come on Ty. Get him!” The cat lunged forward, I back peddled and Ty darted in behind the cougar. Hallelujah!!! A moment suspended in time: I continued my rapid back peddling down the road, the cat turned on Ty, with my heart in my throat I watched Ty stumble up the loose, chunky snow berm to get out of the cat’s reach and manage to run on by. The cat looked back at me and then back to Ty. I guess he decided we were sufficiently away from his space as he turned and, in slow motion, walked back up the hill stopping repeatedly to glare at us and snarl.

I continued my retreat, eventually calling Ty to my side when it appeared the cat was far enough off the road for Ty to run by. Finally, I deemed it safe enough to turn around and march home with numerous over-the-shoulder-looks to make sure we weren’t being pursued. I kept pondering: “Did that really happen? Did I just get attacked by a cougar? I can’t believe it. He must have had a deer kill hidden under one of the trees.”

In writing this I realize that there are a lot of clich├ęs, but I actually thought them at the time. I was sure at one point I was toast. Here’s another one: Guess I can cross “getting a good sighting of a cougar” off my bucket list. Don’t know if the trekking poles made any difference to the cougar, but they made a lot to me!

1/13/2012

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Comments

Great, gripping story; fear and humor, perfect! Your mother would be proud.

Rick Rozell
Twisp


Another Amazing story on the Methow Grist. Featured this on this mornings' Events Calendar. Thanks Grist and a big "Way To Handle Yourself Out There" Babs. Gonna make sure to have my walking stick with me, Don Ashford

Don Ashford

Winthrop


Babette, thrilling courage and great story. Can't believe you had the fortitude to drive back and take a picture.

Dave Thomsen

Winthrop


You had my husband and me on the edge of our seats. Scary story; glad you are safe.

John and Karla Crawford

Silverdale, WA


Babette, thank you for sharing your cougar experience. As we spend more time in the Cub Creek area, we are now forewarned. A big pat for Ty.... what a dog!

Dorothy Hudson

Tacoma/Winthrop