The photo Emily took of her dog Maggie shortly before their encounter with a cougar (right).
The photo Emily took of her dog Maggie shortly before their encounter with a cougar (right).

An unlikely encounter

Emily-Lauren Simms found herself face-to-face with a cougar on a hike in B.C.

For most of us, summer vacation was spent with family and friends, or relaxing at the lake.

But for Emily-Lauren Simms, the decision to spend her time doing some travelling left her with a vacation story none of us would hope for.

“I did a placement through Making the Links for six weeks,” Simms starts. “So I was up in Dillon, Sask., and drove from Dillon all the way to Vancouver Island (because) I wanted to hike the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.”

Simms, who often hikes alone with her dog, Maggie, rarely worries about local wildlife on the trail, and instead says she’s often more worried about other hikers than any unfortunate encounters with animals – a statement she recalls making to another hiker she met on July 24 as she started her hike. Already a few hours behind her planned schedule, Simms started from the trailhead at 4 p.m. and ventured onto a trail leading to the coastline before it doubled-back to the main trail.

“I missed the entrance back onto the trail and wandered onto the rugged coastline - and it was all cliffs, jagged, and it was getting kind of foggy,” she continued. “So I’m hauling myself up, and pushing my dog with me, and I think to myself that there’s no way this is a moderate intensity trail.”

So she paused to have a drink of water, recalls taking a quick photo with Maggie, pulled her backpack back onto her shoulders and decided that her best option is to turn around and try to find her way back to the main trail before it got too dark. It was only 100 feet later that her routine hike took a very unexpected, and dangerous turn.

“My dog, a shepherd-husky cross, tenses and jumps in front of me, looks up and snarls,” Simms recalls. “I look up and there’s a cougar above me, staring at me - and I realize that I’m prey.”

Simms remembers pulling out her switchblade, and taking her metal CoM water bottle and using it to bang against the rocks surrounding her to make as much noise as possible in the hopes of scaring the predator off.

“My sympathetic drive – you know, fight or flight – kicked in, and I just started yelling at it and backing away with my dog,” she continued. “I didn’t want to turn my back to it, so I was jumping between cliffs sideways. But then unfortunately (we) jumped off a 2-metre cliff, and I felt my foot break under me.

“But all I can do is keep going.”

With thanks to the adrenaline keeping her moving in spite of the pain, she remembers sprinting back along the coastline to the trail, and another couple kilometers along the trail before flagging down a group of fellow hikers camped out for the night.

As luck would have it, the five campers were a firefighter, and four paramedics who helped by taping Simms’ foot with duct tape, and setting up her tent to wait out the night before hiking back to the trailhead with her the next morning where an ambulance was waiting for her.

Her escape was as much luck as her own quick thinking, Simms realized later - on the return hike they found the cougar’s tracks crossing her path a quarter kilometre before their encounter on the cliff face.

“I got lost,” she explained. “By wandering onto the coastline, away from the trees, I forced the cougar to expose itself. (And) if I hadn’t turned back it would have stalked me on the cliffs until it popped down on me from behind.”

Following her injury, Simms spent some time recovering with her godmother, Mali, a Coastal Salish elder and healer, and was given the name Shxwúwe – which is a literal translation of ‘Cougar’ into Squamish – in light of her experience with the cat.

And with her cast now removed, Simms is back into the swing of things as a second-year MD student. And while her experience on Vancouver Island was both terrifying and painful, she considers it an anomalous one that won’t have any lasting effects on her interest in hiking – or her intent on one day completing that trail.

“Juan de Fuca (is) a beautiful trail - you look out over the Juan de Fuca strait and see the Olympic Mountains in Washington towering over you…  Absolutely wonderful.”

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