Cougar in the Olympics

A dangerous encounter with a snarling, screeching mountain lion left this trout fisherman in a precarious situation.

by Doug Rose

My backpacking trip into Royal Lake involved a singular agenda of catching brook trout. What wasn't part of my plan was the cougar I encountered on my way out of the mountains on that July morning.

Located in the northeastern corner of Washington's Olympic National Park, Royal Basin is considered by many veteran hikers to be the park's most beautiful high-elevation destination. The basin is a glacial cirque and is rimmed on three sides by looming 6,000-foot mountains. Royal Creek drains Royal Lake, and it drops through cascades and inaccessible canyons on its journey to the upper Dungeness River, near the trailhead. For most of its length, the trail parallels the creek but remains high above on the ridge.

I only had two days off for the trip. I planned to hike the seven miles into the basin on the first day, fly-fish Royal Lake in the afternoon and evening, and then hike back down to my truck in the morning. With its mile-high elevation and northern aspect, Royal Basin is one of the last places in the Olympic Mountains to lose its winter snow. When I called the park information number, though, I learned that the trail was snow free into the lake, but there was still patchy snow in the upper basin.

Although the climb from the trailhead into the basin is one of the more moderate pitches in the steep northeast Olympics, it was my first backpacking trip of the year, and I could feel it after a couple of miles. It was a perfect day for hiking, though - clear, in the low 70s, with a nice breeze issuing from the upper valley. I stopped at an area about halfway in, where the trail breaks out of forest into the first meadows, and ate half of my lunch. There were lush carpets of red Indian paintbrush and blue lupine on the side hills.

It was late afternoon by the time I made it to the lake. The warming air had generated thermals, as so often is the case in the mountains, and the surface of the lake was riffled by a breeze. The brookies were working a heavy midge hatch. I didn't have any chironomid patterns in my small backpacking fly box, so I clipped the wings off a size 16 Adams. It worked perfectly, and I caught a half-dozen trout in about 20 minutes. I cooked a couple of trout for dinner and then sat outside my tent to watch the daylight fade and be replaced by a shimmering show of stars.

The soft patter of rain woke me the next morning. When I stepped outside, the sky was low, below the top of the ridge to the east, and it was cold. I had thought about trying to fish the creek in the morning, but I figured I might as well break camp and begin the long hike back to the car. After I had taken the tent down and stored everything in my pack, I ate a couple of handfuls of granola and half a bagel. I snuggled into my old wool rag sweater, shouldered the pack, and hit the trail.

Photo by Jeffrey Rich

A half-mile or so downstream of the lake, the trail begins to rise sharply, climbing a rocky spur. It felt good to be hiking against the cold. As I neared the top, I came to an old avalanche chute, where a torrent of snow had taken out the trees years before. The blowdown had rotted over time, and now the chute was covered with grass and wildflowers. I stopped to catch my breath. The flowers were especially vivid in the gray light of the cloudy morning. The drizzle had stopped.

I was aware of a nearby screeching sound; I was vaguely conscious of it didn't pay it much attention. I remember thinking absently that it must be coming from a marmot. Marmots are common in the Olympic Mountain's high country, and they emit a shrill whistle when alarmed.

Then the sound grew louder, more insistent. Turning back toward the trail, I saw a full-grown cougar. It was sitting on its haunches, and when our eyes locked, the lion tilted its head to the side and screeched. Then it swiped the air with its right paw, like a tiger in a circus act.

"Geez," I said, half out loud.

This occurred more than a decade ago - that is, before cougar encounters had become more commonplace in Washington. It was also before trailheads were routinely posted with flyers on how to behave in cougar country and what to do in case you were confronted. But I had years of backcountry experience and plenty of encounters with other kinds of animals. Also, having grown up on outdoor magazines, I also knew that the best thing to do was to stand my ground.

So I faced the cougar. I could see its black-tipped muzzle and whiskers. I kept my eyes locked on it and stood as tall I could. Fortunately, my Kelty pack and tent on top of it made me appear even larger.

"Get out of here," I said, waving my rod tube at the cat.

The cougar shook its paw at me again.

"Go on. Git!" I said.

To tell you the truth, by now I was beginning to be alarmed. Neither the cat nor I seemed about to move. For the first time, it crossed my mind that it might attack me.

I waved the rod tip at it again. I yelled louder, "Get out of here!" The cougar stared at me for a moment longer. Then, suddenly, it whirled and disappeared around the corner. It was gone in one fluid motion. The last thing I saw was its long, black-tipped tail.

It's funny, but the first thing that crossed my mind after it left was: Did that really happen? I've had that notion before when something unusual happened. I think it is your mind trying to wrap itself around an experience that is, well, extraordinary.

Then I had a more sober thought: The cat just ran down the trail - the same way I have to walk out of here.

I reached into my pocket for my knife. My hands were trembling violently, the way they do when adrenaline is surging through your body. I realized that the little Buck pocketknife was a ludicrous weapon against a cougar, but it was all I had, and for some reason it made me feel a little better.

I stood still for a few moments, trying to figure out what to do. For the next half-mile or so, the trail wound around the rocky spur. There were rocky outcrops above the trail in a number of places, as well as steep dropoffs on the downhill side. It all seemed very exposed.

It occurred to me that I could hike back to the flat below the lake and wait for the cougar to get farther away. But I didn't want to backtrack. I also figured that if it were going to do anything

, it would probably have done it already.

I ended up proceeding. I carried my little knife in front of me. I walked sideways and backwards, facing any place the cougar could hide.

"You go away now, cougar," I would say, and "I'm just passing by. I'll be out of here soon."

All of this made me feel a little silly. But I was also acutely aware that the cougar might very well be watching me. I was quite aware of that fact with every step, especially when I walked beneath rocky overheads and around corners.

I finally cleared the spur and came out into the open of a hillside meadow. That made me feel a lot better. I took a drink of water and dropped the pack for a minute. Even then, I kept my eyes peeled back at the rocks.

I ran into three other hikers on the way out. I told them about the cougar, adding, "You'll probably be fine." But they weren't having any of it. They all turned around and left. I felt bad about wrecking their trips, but I felt that I had a responsibility to tell them.

Later, I talked to a wildlife biologist, and he speculated that I had probably inadvertently come too close to a cached kill or a litter of kittens. He also suggested that it might have been a younger cat, unsure of itself and trying to establish a territory.

Since then, cougar encounters have become more common on the Olympic Peninsula. A few years ago, a cougar actually attacked a child in Heather Basin, the next major tributary upstream of Royal Creek in the upper Dungeness Valley. A cougar also menaced fly-fishers in the Quinault Valley a few summers ago, and there have been sightings in Olympic Peninsula communities.

I haven't seen another cougar, only tracks along sandbars. Considering how many veteran backcountry hikers have never seen a cougar, I don't expect anything like that day in Royal Basin to happen again. And while my experience on that July day is one of the signal experiences of a life in the outdoors, I hope never to repeat it.

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