November 9, 2015
It started off as any day would. Taking off before light to hike to the best place you had seen sign. Early November in Alberta, with unseasonably warm temperatures, there was no snow on the ground.
Mike was after elk, nothing spectacular, just a legal bull to fill our freezer. His family has lease land just west of Sundre Alberta, and it has proven year after year for many people in the family, and family friends, a good place to harvest not only elk, but nice white tailed deer as well. I chose to stay home that afternoon, I had harvested my white tail a week earlier and was not up to the hike.
Mike returned after dark with news he had seen a legal bull, taken a shot, but was unsure if it was a hit. If it had been he was afraid he had hit the bull high not leaving an immediately lethal shot. He had inspected the area where the bull was standing, and found no blood, and no indication the bull was down. The darker it got the harder it would be to find him, so he pulled out to give the bull a chance to bed down and pass on (if by some twist from lack of evidence he had indeed hit him), and give us an opportunity to track in the daylight. So we agreed to go out the next morning to take a look.
We were late to rise. Both of us had missed the alarm clock and slept in a lot longer than we had since we were teenagers! It was 9am as we got our boots on and hurried out to the property.
The property itself is home to many bogs, spruce/swamp combos, and awesome open poplar ridges. It has grazing allotments for cattle so it has a few nice open grass areas. With many quad trails, and old truck trails cutting through. It is fenced, and cross fenced, so it is a network of trails. We headed east across the south side of the fence line as we heard crows making a racket close to a large swamp near the old truck trail that headed through the property. With this being the only real sign of a potential animal down we headed up the cut line that ran along the fence that would take us right to the swamp.Mike had seen an awesome ridge that overlooked a swamp and a poplar hill with many signs of a mature whitetail buck. So the plan was to carry the ground blind to the far west side of the property near where he had taken a shot at the elk, and make our way through looking for sign of an injured bull, or the sign of carrion birds like magpies and crows feasting on a fresh carcass.
The birds got louder and as we reached the end of our cut line, it met up with the old truck road that swept to the west around the swamp. We picked a good spot to walk across the bog grass, straight east of the truck road. As we moved into the short spruce, that was littered with old man beard and had an eerie Halloween feel, We kept our eyes peeled to where the magpies and crows had been flying. Mike would catch a glimpse of movement in the spruce and stop to scan, Tan body movement, and it would be gone, so we made our way through the dense short spruce, looping through to try and catch signs of blood, or body color again. Changing our direction to the south we moved around the swamp and tried to take higher ground on a cut line that ran on the east fence line just east of the swamp.
We had a good view of the spruce trees about 6 feet below the small ridge, and we slowly made our way along to top. Both of us chatting as we walked. We were in recovery mode, not stealth, so we felt no need to be super quiet. About a hundred yards on this trail, the ridge broke off to the west with a well-used game trail. The cut-line ran straight north along the fence so it provided a large pie shaped area of swamp spruce, and tall Lodgepole pine. We agreed to take the small game trail to the west to keep our better vantage point to see into the swamp where we had seen the birds from the other side.
As we stepped onto the game trail we heard the sound of labored breathing. Right on! We caught up to the elk!
Moving slowly down the game trail we stopped about 10 feet in, The trail made a slight right turn about 20 yards ahead, and dropped down into a little flat that was level with the swamp. We looked through the trees to see if we could see antlers moving in the spaces, then the sound of breathing again. The fence about 40 yards to the right of us tinged as something moved over it. I thought for sure that the elk was making an escape just over the ridge to the east into an adjoining property. We backtracked an stepped off of the game trail and took a few steps around an alder bush to the right that provided another good line of sight into the spruce on the flat below. Then we heard the breathing again down towards the swamp in front of us. Mike lowered down to get a glimpse through the trees to again try and catch sight of an antler, or animal body in the spruce below the ridge about 20 yards away. We saw nothing.
As we were deciding to try and catch the elk moving in the trees over the fence to the east, the breathing got closer, and mike, as he looked to the ridge in front of us, watched as a cougar stepped out from behind a large spruce tree less than ten yards away.
At first she slunk out from behind her cover broadside, She was slowly scanning in front of her. Her ears were forward and her movements were slow. Whatever she was looking for she felt had gone towards the cutline to the right of the swamp. Mike says to me “Its a cougar” and raises his gun to aim in her direction. It was at this moment she realized where we had gone. She shot her attention to our direction, and as she focused on the two of us standing there she flattened her ears onto the back of her head, and started to bare her teeth, but not in a full out snarl, more of a half opened grin.
Turning slowly without moving her head an inch as she was locked on to our position, we watched as she twisted her body in our direction. We could see the ripples as the muscles along her shoulders moved her silently to strike mode and her tail twisted at the end for balance for a leap. It was unbelievable, so slow and serene. Mike had brought his 300 Remington ultra mag up, and didn’t have time to turn the scope down to give him sight at such close range, and at least give her good lethal shot. Within seconds, and a quick conversation of “should I take it” “Yes mike, it is coming right at us” “Should I take it?!” “Yes mike it is coming right at us!” and wham. The shot went off.
The realization kicked in to the severity of the situation when the cat jumped ten feet into the air in an acrobat display that would put professionals to shame. It landed on its feet and ran straight northwest away from where we were standing. Now the terror. Where was the shot? Where is the cat? She ran towards the road we have to walk on to get out!
There was crashing in the dead fall in the swamp directly to the left of us. Was she circling to come around from a different angle? From my vantage point behind the buck brush I had the better view of the left side into the swamp. So I stood, with my gun in position, and waited for her to make a move from the trees and swamp. But nothing came.
We waited about a minute, guns up, rounds chambered, and waited for a sound, or a sign, to give us a direction to go to get out of the area safely. We chose to move to the east away from where the cat had ran, and meet up with the cut line that followed the fence. As we made our slow and steady, terrified, way out to the cut line, then to the north towards the truck, about 50 yards down was the ugliest swampiest wetland. There was no way we could cross!
We doubled back. We would have to go south up the cut line, past the area where we shot the cougar, and meet up with another cut line that would take us west, and meet up with the road on the west side of the swamp. Slowly, and shakily, we walked. The forest makes sounds that you never hear when you are calm cool and collected. Every twig, every leaf, we heard it. As we turned onto the grassy cut line that ran west through the swamp we were on high alert. Surrounded now by gnarly spruce trees infested with old man’s beard.
She could be anywhere.
10 yards on our slow journey up the grass cut line a quick motion on our right caught both of our eyes. It took only a few seconds to register that the commotion was a ruffed grouse making a dramatic escape from our movement on the cut line. But it was enough to get our adrenaline up again. We both stopped and surveyed the spruce. Only 60 yards to go to get to the open road.
Once we hit the open road that had a small poplar ridge on the left, and the open grasses that lead to the swamp to the right the tension started to wane. We had a chance if it came back. We could see a little further if the cat was waiting, potentially wounded, for another strike if the opportunity came up for it.
We both kept our guns loaded, and ready for anything that presented a threat on our hike out. We stood with our shoulders nearly touching, and walked slowly down the road to the north to get us out to our truck. The road started to come down from the poplar hill to a pinch point on the northwest side of the famous swamp where this had all taken place. The spruce met each side of the road for about 20 yards. This was the place the cat had ran when the shot was taken. Both of us slowed pace, and took a side of the road. As we watched for signs of blood, or eyes watching us from any one of the dark hidden nooks in the dense underbrush. The road made a slight curve to the left, and since I was on the left side mike had a better view of the trail ahead on the road.
“There it is” he says in the same motion as he brings the gun up to take aim. We stepped slowly around the corner and sure enough about 20 yards ahead on the right side of the road a cougar lay with its face pointed directly away from us. Mike made his way slowly towards the cat laying on the road, aimed and ready, and when he reached the back end he gave it a good poke with the barrel, waited, poked it again, waited. Then he slowly made his way around the animal giving a wide berth while aiming at its head. He poked the eye with the barrel. The cougar was down.
The overwhelming sense of relief, and the sadness for this majestic cat, took over for both of us when we realized it was over. Our hearts were aching that we had to make the decision to shoot it. But it really gave us no choice. We looked it over and determined it was a female.
We still had a hike back to the truck. But now it was a little less terrifying in the sense of imminent danger, but the uneasiness set in when the realization came that we had just harvested a cougar, out of season. The legal and ethical thing to do was report the incident to Fish and Wildlife, and face whatever repercussions might be handed down to us for the decision we had to make. We would go into the fish and wildlife office to report the cougar encounter, and our need to shoot her. We wanted an officer to come to the location and investigate to ensure we had made the proper choices, and did not want to tamper at all with the situation by removing the cat.
The officer met us at the office about an hour after the incident – and about a pack of cigarettes, and two coffees, in the parking lot reliving the situation over and over through conversations between the two of us-, and followed us out to the location where the cat was. The officer inspected the body and saw the entrance wound which entered the cat on the right front shoulder, and exited the cat through the left hip which confirmed in her investigation that the cat was indeed coming for us.
The unfortunate part was that the female was lactating, and three teats had been damp from nursing…. She was a mother….
The officer then requested that mike take them to the swamp where the stalk started. So reliving the situation he explained to the officer exactly what took place, where the cat approached, the wind direction which was taking our scent right to her, the fact we were openly talking when it all happened. When we had first reported to the officer, we had said that the shot was 15 yards. What we had felt was 15 yards. When Mike had shown the officer the shell casing on the ground from where he took the shot, to the scuffed dirt where the cougar was hit, the officer was stunned to see that the shot was only at 4.5 yards. She commended mike for his quick reaction time, and commented on the fact we were damn lucky we saw her when we did. Mike shot true in a time of peril, and that in itself was luck.
The officer determined 100% that this was a self-defense shot. The shot placement on the animal from front to back, and the location where it took place left absolutely no room for a warning shot. At 4.5 yards a cat can make an easy attack, and the officer agreed that there was no other option. She took no time in issuing us a permit to keep the cat, asking if we wanted to have her preserved. And registered the cat on the spot by extracting a premolar.
Then it was over. We all went our separate ways. No sign of the elk, cougar in our truck, and both reliving the entire situation on our drive home. The flashes of tan in the trees, the cat moving uphill towards our scent. The ting of the fence as one of her large kittens made their way to the right of us, and the rustle of the branches as a second kitten made its way to the left of us before mom stalked out for the hunt.
It all fit together. She winded us through the swamp, and stalked us with her kittens, she waited on the game trail behind the spruce, but we altered our path so she had to present herself to make the stalk. The way she slinked out from behind the tree. Her breathy chatter to the kittens before the trap was set. It sent chills. She had ample opportunity to remove her kittens from danger…. But this was not danger… this was dinner.
She was a true hunter, built for stealth and power. Cunning, clever, and unbelievably serene in movements. Her legacy will live on, her memory in our minds will be forever, the twist of her muscles, the pupils growing from small dots to almost encompassing the entire iris as she locked our position, the setting back of her ears as she turned to stalk, and the twitch of her whiskers as she bared her teeth ever so slightly and took her calculated steps towards us.
We measured her at just over 7ft from nose to tail tip, and weighed her on the scale at close to 110lbs. Our goal is to mount her in the exact way she presented herself to us, sleek and ready for action.
We have named her Athena, goddess of war.
This will be an encounter we will never forget.
We hear a lot of people arguing over the natural predatory instincts of carnivores. We hold a very healthy respect for them in their world, and we know that we are no match for their power, stealth, or speed. It had never been a thought of ours to actively hunt cougars. We do not disagree with it, but it was not something we had ever wanted to partake in personally.
It has taken me a few years to openly tell the story of our encounter with Athena, without getting uneasy, or goosebumps.