Photo taken before the cougar encounter
Last week, I wrote about the three different types of fun, giving various examples from outdoor adventures. I mentioned that I only ever had one experience in the outdoors that I consider to have been a "type 3 fun" experience. It happened when I was car camping a few years ago. I'll share that experience now.

Two Women at Weaver Lake

My friend Melissa and I occasionally go out car camping just the two of us in the summer. Melissa is a teacher and I work in film so we're sometimes able to squeeze in a last minute camping get-away and take advantage of the quieter atmosphere that campgrounds have midweek.

For one such trip, Melissa and I decided to check out a new campground, Weaver Lake Recreational Site, in the West Harrison area. We drove out together with her Yorkshire terrier Louie and found it mostly deserted. The campsites closer to the lake were all taken it there was another beautifully forested area that separate from the lake and completely uninhabited.

We decided to take one of those sites and enjoy the peace and quiet with no kids running around, screaming, something Melissa preferred to avoid being a teacher. We set up our camp, went for a long hike, cooked some awesome meals, played some board games, all typical stuff we do when we camp. On our hike, we noticed a sign warning of animals in the area, but we are always cautious with our food, so we just made sure we observed all our usual safety practices, putting all our food and cooking gear in the car when we weren't in the site or when we went to bed at night.

A Campfire Enigma

On our second night, we had our propane fire pit set up and were enjoying its warm and light in the darkness. We sat in our camp chairs with Louie harnessed and leashed but curled up and quietly resting on Melissa's lap... at least for the first while.

At one point, Louie sat up and started acting strangely. He started growling and lunging at the fire pit inexplicably. It was odd behaviour for the little guy that we had never seen from him before. It wasn't his first time being near the propane fire pit. At the time, it seemed like the hissing from the pit was aggravating him. Melissa tried to calm him down but every so often he would get worked up again. We didn't make anything more of it.

We should have.

A Growl in the Dark

After a while, we got tired and decided to turn in to our tent for the night. We turned off the propane fire pit, put all our food and kitchen gear in the car, bundled into our sleeping bags and slowly dozed off with Louie cuddle in between us.

Just as I started to fall into the slow, rhythmic patterns of deeper sleep, I heard a growl. In my haziness at being awoken, I thought it must have been Louie so I felt for him. He was still beside me head lifted from being woken up. It was at that moment I realized; Louie was on my left. The growl, not the high pitched growl of a small dog, but the low, rumbling growl of a much larger animal had come from my right side, from outside the tent door. I listened for any noise in the dark, hearing nothing. It was unnaturally quiet. No crickets, no birds, no small animals, nothing. It was the unearthly quiet that falls into the night at the presence of an apex predator.

I whispered to Melissa, "Are you awake? Did you hear that?"

She answered back in a harried whisper, "Yes. What WAS that?"

This video has the sound of the growl we heard:

We agreed that there was a strong chance that it was the cougar that the sign had warned about, the cougar that was apparently roaming the area. We quickly tried to devise an emergency plan, discussing our options. All of the training weapons we had brought were in the car, along with our pocket knives. We didn't have any bear spray or noise makers. We realized that our decision to be in the more remote area of the campground to avoid hearing the noise of other campers also meant that they wouldn't hear us scream if the animal came back and attacked us.

We then realized we still had the keys to the car and that was our best weapon. We kept the keys right between us at our heads and we agreed that if whatever made that growl came back and growled again or made any sort of acts of aggression, we would set off the panic alarm for the car and hopefully scare it off.

Worst. Night's. Sleep. Ever

We tried our best to get some sleep, but it seemed like every time we started to nod off, a leaf would fall from a tree onto the tent and the sound would wake us both bolt upright. That went on for what seemed like the longest night of my life. Some time, much, much later into the night, closer to dawn, I finally fell asleep. We both slept in late the next morning. Bleary-eyed, we emerged from the tent and drank copious amounts of coffee.

Enter the Air Horn

Before we left the next day, we stopped by the camp host's site to let him know about the animal encounter. We then asked was the best way to deal with an aggressive cougar. He told us that air horns were one of the best ways to deal with them and were, in his opinion, one of the most reliable ways to prevent a cougar attack. The next opportunity I had, I picked up a small canister air horn, which because my primary tool for animal defense, that is until my solo trip on the Howe Sound Crest Trail, but that incident is another story. Bear sprays are also recommended for use against cougars but they can be harder to use effectively as they only work in one direction and if there's a wind, they're too far away, or you're just nervous, it can be easy to miss your target. Here are more tips on what to do if you encounter a cougar.

The Liability of Louie

After doing some reading, I found out that cougars are generally not likely to attack adult humans, especially when they're in groups of two or more. They may, however, try to test their luck if there is a smaller animal present that might be easy pickings. The instinct to target the smaller dog can be enough for them to take their chances with the humans. And since we were asleep, it might have made the cougar in our situation tempted to see if it could somehow flush Louie out from the cover of our tent and the protection of its humans. After that experience, I decided that if we were ever going to go camping again with Louie and we didn't have a bigger group of people with us, we would definitely be choosing a campsite closer to other campers.

Type 3 Fun

It was a long time before I could even think about that cougar encounter without raising my the tiny hairs on the back of my neck. Neither me nor Melissa ever want to go back to Weaver Lake again. It wasn't exactly the nicest campground we ever stayed at anyway, but even if it was, I don't think it would have changed that feeling. If you asked me soon after it happened, months, even maybe a couple of years after, I don't think I would have said that that experience had been fun, but now, after many years have passed and I've since learned more about animal safety and have generally become more comfortable with wilderness survival and emergency preparedness, I can look back on that experience as having been type 3 fun. It was a crazy night and we both learned a lot about ourselves and how we handle pressure. We also got a great story out of the experience that we'll tell and retell for years to come.

Now over to you. What has been your scariest animal encounter in the wilderness? How did you handle it? What did you learn from the experience? Please share in the comments as these stories serve to help educate and inspire.