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Mountain biker encounters cougar on Whistler's Sea to Sky Trail

Here's what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation
A cougar photographed on Blackcomb Mountain in May 2016.

Evan Oder was out for a Monday afternoon bike ride on the Sea to Sky Trail, heading north towards his home in Whistler from Brandywine Falls, when he saw what he thought was a dog about 30 metres ahead. 

"I was just zooming along, and I had my AirPods in as I was riding, listening to some music, and then all of a sudden, I see something, like, galloping on the trail ... I quickly realized, that's not a dog. That's a cougar," he said.

The encounter occurred on the Cheakamus River Access Road section of the trail, shortly before 5 p.m. on May 29.

"By the time I recognized it, it was already running and it was in front of me, so I was basically chasing it down on the trail," Oder added. He brought his bike to a halt, as the cougar moved off the trail a few metres into the forest. The animal stopped, keeping its eyes trained on the mountain biker. "That was when I really started to feel like I was in trouble," Oder said.

He grabbed a handful of rocks and lifted his bike onto its rear wheel to make it look bigger. Oder said he considered backtracking, but decided to continue on since he was only a couple-hundred metres from the Cheakamus suspension bridge.

As he made his way past the cougar, "we kind of saw each other, but it didn't move, so I just kept moving, then put my bike down, got on and just started pedalling as fast towards the bridge as possible, while keeping eyes in the back of my head," he said. "Thankfully it was a simple section of trail."

Oder figured he was in the clear after the bridge, but said his nerves only eased up as he approached the Train Wreck area. "Until I started seeing other people, I was just paranoid," he recalled. Reflecting on the run-in afterwards, "it was actually really crazy, pretty magical—I didn't really get to admire it in the moment, but I can replay it right now in my head," Oder said.

It was his second time spotting a cougar in the wild, after a previous sighting a few years ago near the entrance to a Whistler Mountain Bike Park trail. But in that case, "there were, like, 10 other people, so I never felt like I was in danger ... [this time,] I was riding solo, so for me, it was like, 'Oh man, I feel like I'm really in a vulnerable spot here.'" 

Whistler-based conservation officer Brittany Mueller said the BC Conservation Officer Service (COS) has not seen any recent upticks in reported cougar sightings. She said the COS typically hears about one or two cougars spotted in the corridor each month, but the most recent cougar sighting was reported in February.

Particularly in wilderness settings like those surrounding Whistler, "It's not uncommon to have a cougar sighting," she said. "Nothing has been reported to us that's been concerning or out of the [ordinary]."

Following sightings, wild cats tend to "move off," Mueller added. "Sometimes [cougars] can be curious—they're very similar to domesticated cats and their behaviours that way ... but usually, they're quite wary of people."

How common are cougar sightings in B.C.?

While sightings like Oder's are fairly common, attacks are exceptionally rare. 

A then-64-year-old Whistler man survived a cougar attack at his rural Soo Valley property in January 2021, but suffered "major injuries" to his face and hands when he was mauled by what conservation officers described as a "young, emaciated" cat. The cougar, which was reportedly still on the grounds when first responders arrived, was shot and killed by RCMP officers.

A cougar was also euthanized in Whistler's Alpine Meadows neighbourhood in July 2019, after it was frequently observed travelling through high-use residential areas between Lost Lake, Emerald and Alpine. Officials said the animal had killed several family pets, and displayed an unusual level of habituation for its normally elusive species. The cat's behaviour was deemed a public safety risk when it did not respond to hazing efforts. 

Six people—five children and one adult—have died in cougar attacks in B.C. in the last century. A 1996 "Safety Guide to Cougars" published by the B.C. government cited just 29 non-fatal cougar attacks during the previous 100 years, with two thirds of those occurring on Vancouver Island.

According to WildSafeBC, cougars—also known as mountain lions, pumas and panthers—account for about 2,500 calls to the BC COS every year, but many of those reported sightings turn out to be other animals, not cougars.

What should you do if you see a cougar out on the trails?

An arm of the British Columbia Conservation Foundation, WildSafeBC programs aim to prevent human-wildlife conflict across the province. Its website offers a few tips to keep in mind if you encounter a cougar, like keeping calm and never running.

When it comes to cougars, "Concerning behaviours would be ears back, the cougar looking like it's going to pounce or in a stalking position," said Mueller. "That's when you'd want to arm yourself with your bike, by putting it above your head or grabbing a stick or backpack, anything that you have to make yourself look big. You want to maintain eye contact with the cougar, so you don't want to turn and run—that would be the worst thing you could do."

Instead, back away slowly while making yourself look as large as possible, keeping the cougar in view the entire time while speaking to the animal in a loud, firm voice. Avoid sudden movements, as they could provoke an attack, and make sure to allow a clear exit for the cougar.

If a cougar starts following you, respond aggressively. "Without crouching down, pick up nearby sticks, rocks, or whatever you have at hand to quickly to use as a weapon if necessary," WildSafeBC recommends. If the cat attacks, fight back and never "play dead"—the key is convincing the cougar you are a threat rather than prey. 

Small children are most at risk of being targeted in an attack, so pick them up immediately if you spot a cougar in the vicinity. Make sure to keep pets on-leash at all times, and pick up smaller pets in the event of an encounter.

Though cougars are most active at dusk and dawn, they will roam and hunt at any time of day or year. 

"Anytime anyone's out recreating, they should always obviously be carrying bear spray, because we know that we can have encounters with any of our large predators, especially in mountain areas and places like Whistler," Mueller added.

Cougars and other wildlife displaying unusual or aggressive behaviour can be reported to the COS RAPP line at 1-877-952-7277.

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