Cougars: and now for the facts

As I mentioned earlier, when I first moved to Monkey Valley I did some research Beautiful cougar in the wildto find out about cougars, consulting my handy Mammals of British Columbia. But recently I came across a great pamphlet put out by the BC Ministry of Environment, Land and Parks and the BC Ministry of Forests, called Safety Guide to Cougars. This has information that finally put my fears to rest, once and for all. (That is, in combination with my own direct experience of the paucity of cougar encounters, detailed earlier in this thread.)

Safety Guide to Cougars

The pamphlet begins, “British Columbians are fortunate to share their province with cougars, one of the most mysterious and elusive of all creatures. The cougar’s secretive habits and astounding predatory abilities—a cougar is capable of killing a 600 lb moose—have resulted in a wealth of misconceptions and irrational fears.”

According to this government publication, in the past 100 years, only five people have been killed by cougars in BC. To put this in perspective, at least three people are killed by bees in Canada every year! The tiny bee is much more of a threat than the wild, magnificent cougar. Of those five who were killed, four deaths occurred on Vancouver Island.

There have also been 29 non-fatal cougar attacks in BC in the past 100 years, with 20 of them occurring on Vancouver Island. And the vast majority of cougar attacks were on children under 16 years of age.

While I might be suspicious of some things the government tells the populace, in this case I believe they would err on the side of caution. These facts are intended to reassure, and I find that they do. I am not running on Vancouver Island. I am not a child. The chances of having an encounter with a cougar are miniscule, and the chances of being attacked even lower. Given that I’ve already seen one from my car, that may be the only encounter I have with a cougar in my entire lifetime.

This has set my mind at ease. I hope hearing my story has soothed your fears as well, dear reader and potential visitor to Monkey Valley. In the next posting I will tell you some more facts about how to handle a cougar encounter if you ever have one… (to be continued)

Cougars and cattle prods

Bull stands his groundI’m not sure now where the idea of a cattle prod came from. It probably came to me when I was out on a run, dodging Douglas Lake cows and hoping the bull wouldn’t charge me. I looked at how big the cattle are, and thought they are actually much bigger than a cougar. So maybe if the cattle prod moves them around, it might have a deterring effect on a cougar as well.

I went to a farm supply store in Chilliwack, and learned there are different types of cattle prods—short ones and long ones! What kind should I get? This decision required some thought about being attacked, and from what angle would the attack likely come. I imagined a cougar leaping on me from where it was perched on a tree above. I imagined it attacking from the front and side. I imagined it leaping out of nowhere and biting my neck. In the end I decided I needed a short one and a long one. The long one I could use if I saw the cougar coming from the front or side. The short one, worn in a belt holster, I could use to zap the cougar if it was biting my neck from the rear.

Cattle prod--the long versionAre you getting an impression of how ridiculous this is? Well, it took me a few more years to reach that point. I bought both sizes of cattle prod, and for about a year I ran with them both. The small one I wore in a belt holster, around my waist. And the long one I carried in my hand. I did this for at least a year, until I realized that no cougars have ever attacked me, and I’ve never even seen one while out on a run, and it seems unlikely that any cougar ever will attack me. And although I’d never seen any cougar since that one I saw from my car, I’d seen plenty of deer. And I know that the deer are the cougar’s favourite food.

So I finally reached the conclusion that given the cougar has plenty of deer to eat, and given that I am in the middle of a large area of relative wilderness (not encroaching on cougar territory like the houses in North Vancouver), it is very unlikely that the cougar would want me for dinner. So I stopped carrying the cattle prod, and enjoyed the freedom of running without weapons! As you can see, it took a number of years for my direct experience to outweigh the strength of my fearful fantasies… (to be continued)

Cougars: pistol-packing mama!

TargetPrior to moving to Monkey Valley I had little exposure to guns. My dad taught me and my sister Kim to shoot a rifle one summer at the family cabin on Knouff Lake. It was fun, shooting at cans on a log. Learning to watch for the kick. But since then I’d never used a gun, and probably never even seen one.

I believed people when they said I needed a gun at Monkey Valley. Being there all alone, and especially when out running by myself, it seemed I needed a gun for protection. So my mom lent me a rifle, and I enrolled in a course to learn how to handle guns safely. This course also was a prerequisite for obtaining a PAL license, which is required by anyone who owns, buys, or possesses a gun. I got the license, and I practiced shooting the rifle at a target that I nailed to a tree by the woodpile at Monkey Valley. This was kind of fun. I practiced cleaning and oiling it. I kept it hidden in my bedroom closet, easily accessible if anyone broke into the house during the night. I went over in my mind the steps involved in getting and loading the gun in the dark. It seemed that having the gun there made me more afraid of intruders, not less!

Pistol-packing mamaI went to a gun store on Renfrew Street in Vancouver to look at guns and get prices. I went to the outdoor sporting goods store in Merritt (the Powderkeg, now out of business due to Walmart and Canadian Tire big box stores being invited to take over from the local businesses), to see if prices were cheaper. I found out about the local shooting club in Merritt. My final piece of research was to go shooting at a range out in Chilliwack with my course instructor. This was a chance to try different types of guns and see how they felt. I had been leaning towards a pistol of some kind, which I would be able to wear in a holster while running. I found that running with the rifle was a little cumbersome!

I was excited about going to a real range to practice. In the class we never shot a loaded gun. I’d driven past the Pacific Shooter’s range many times on my way to go trail running by the Seymour River. My instructor lived in Langley though, so I drove out there and we drove to the range in Chilliwack. The day we went to the shooting range was overcast and chilly—a dreary winter day. No one else was at the range. My instructor showed me the protocols, like where to put our stuff, how to put up the targets, and what flag to raise to indicate the range was active. Then he showed me how to turn and shoot. He reinforced some of the principles I’d learned in class, about holding the gun and positioning my body. I tried shooting with his pistol. It was very black (energetically black, though actually a steely colour of metal), very heavy, very loud. And very powerful. I could see how using a gun makes someone feel powerful.

And I knew after trying it a few times that I could never shoot this gun at a cougar or any other wild animal. I felt that I would prefer to be killed than to inflict this shocking violence on a living creature. So that was the end of the gun episode. I returned the rifle to my mom. I resumed running with a hatchet. And I still kept imagining the cougar attacking me while I was running… (to be continued)

Cougars: a man, a truck, a dog, and a gun

A dog like ShaulaWhen I told people I was moving to Monkey Valley, they inevitably thought I needed a man, a truck, a dog, and a gun. In fact, when I first bought the place, I had the man, Hugh McMillan, and we were getting along pretty good. I bought a pickup truck—a beige Ford Ranger that needed some work but was priced well below market value. And my mom gave me a beautiful Siberian husky-malamute cross puppy, with white and grey fur and startling blue eyes, and the cutest curly tail, whom I named Shaula, after the star in the tail of the constellation Scorpio.

But I was still living in the lower mainland, and I found that having a puppy, training her, walking her twice a day, and cleaning up her poop, was not for me. Maybe having a dog in the country would be great, but I wasn’t ready to move yet—in fact, it took Hugh and me two years to install the solar power, pump, and hot water heater. Plus that’s how long it took for two-way satellite internet to be available in Canada—an important component for me in being able to work from Monkey Valley. Shaula and I parted ways long before then. First I took her to the SPCA, but felt so sad at abandoning her, I cried buckets and went to retrieve her. A few weeks later, at the end of my rope again, I sent her by airplane to Williams Lake, where my mom retrieved her and eventually passed her on to a tree planter from Ontario. As far as I know, she lives there now, happily I hope.

A truck like mineJust as having a dog wasn’t for me, the truck didn’t work out that great either. The first winter Hugh and I went up there after snow fall, we found that with only six inches of snow the truck got bogged down, fishtailed around, and refused to go very far up the unplowed logging road. And in the city, driving a stick-shift in stop-and-go traffic drove me nuts. Not to mention trying to park it! I still have nightmares about a certain parking garage on Granville Island! So the truck had to go. I bought a four-wheel drive Geo Tracker instead. Hugh said it was a chick car. But it handled way better in the snow than the pickup, was easy to park, and great on gas.

And, sadly, to my regret and many subsequent wonderings if I made the right decision, when it came time to move to Monkey Valley in 2002, Hugh and I had a parting of the ways. So, long story short, I moved to the wilderness with no man, no truck, and no dog. All that was left was the gun… (to be continued)

Cougars: fears in the dusk

When I first moved to Monkey Valley, my biggest fears were attack by cougars, bears, and humans. I’ve already documented some of the encounters with humans. Pretty innocuous, and nothing like my late-night imaginings of a Charles Manson-like gang bent on my murder.

So it is with cougars. Due to my enjoyment of running in the wilderness, fear of Beautiful cougar of my dreamscougar attack has seemed to be the biggest danger I would realistically face at Monkey Valley. Especially since I usually run at dusk, which is when I imagine the cougar is most active! I remember hearing a few years ago (or was it six years ago now?) that a jogger was attacked on Vancouver Island. The writer of the news story made a joke about joggers persisting in wearing lycra leggings and behaving like deer, as if we are practically begging cougars to attack!

Soon after moving to Monkey Valley, I was driving along a logging road about 10 KM from my home when I was graced with the very rare sight of a cougar in the distance. It crossed the road in front of me, several hundred yards ahead, and leaped up an embankment and disappeared into the woods.

Its grace and power was amazing to behold. It sprang up a bank that was eight feet high or more, compressing its haunches and making the leap in a single bound. It was a beautiful tawny burnished goldy-red colour. Gigantic! I would guess at least six feet long. So incredibly, obviously powerful and alive. The encounter was such a brief flash, but its memory has stayed with me all these years. My impression was that there was no way I was a physical match for this creature that was bigger, stronger, faster, and way wilder than me!

Previously I had imagined the cougar as little bigger than a coyote, and nothing to really be afraid of. But now that I’d seen with my own eyes its size and physical power, I knew that it could kill me with ease, if it chose to. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the size of the deer, the cougar’s favourite prey, versus the size of me. Only a few pounds difference, most likely. And the deer run a lot faster than I do!

One of the ways to deal with fear is to find out the truth. I did some research on cougars, reading up on them in Mammals of British Columbia, and learned that their territory can be as big as 100 square miles. I hoped that this meant the chance of my being in the exact spot as the cougar at the same time was very slight. But this didn’t really help assuage my fear. And one spring, Bob Ross of Merritt’s Tri-Ross Construction, who with his son Brent has done a lot of construction work for me at Monkey Valley, found cougar tracks in the mud by the barn. I examined their large size, and was struck with fear again. Clearly I was living in the cougar’s territory. There was no denying the potential for an encounter… (to be continued)

Holy cow, a visiting vole!

The other night I was wakened from a peaceful sleep by a crinkling sound. It’s not the first time this has ever happened, but it’s been a while. I replayed the sound in my head, and figured it wasn’t a human intruder—the sound was too small. It could be a pack rat, I thought, remembering that there is an unwanted pack rat living under the house at the moment. It might have come in the cat door…

But the sound seemed even smaller than that. Maybe it’s a little mouse that found its way in through a tiny hole, I thought. Donald was on the bed beside me, also listening. But he didn’t seem inclined to get up and go investigate. I decided I didn’t want to either, and hoped that maybe Donald would go catch it later. Then I promptly fell back asleep.

The next morning I went to investigate the little package of poisoned bait that I keep behind a bin in the loft. That seemed to be where the sound was coming from. There were a few loose kibbles around the package. Sweeping the floor downstairs I found some more clues: a kibble on the living room floor, and  a few tiny droppings near the bait behind the stereo. Hmm…Western heather vole

Then I heard Donald playing in the bathroom. That can only mean one thing. He has found a playmate. Sometimes he finds them outside and brings them into the bathroom to play with. Other times, as in this case (I do believe) he found one inside the house. The downstairs bathroom is black, because all the bathrooms and showers in the house are painted the colours of the medicine wheel: red shower, yellow shower, black bathroom, white bathroom. Donald likes the black bathroom as the place to play with his prey. And there he was, grabbing something in his mouth and flopping it around and letting it drop. He did that a few times, but the poor creature seemed dead, so I left him to it.

When I went back later to investigage, I found the corpse of a tiny little vole in the bathroom. Thinking I was being somewhat morbid, I brought Mammals of British Columbia into the bathroom and made an identification—definitely a vole, with its tiny size and short tail, and the shape of its nose. But what kind of vole? I went to get my tape measure, and measured the tiny creature. It was about 11.5 cm long, including a tail about 2.5 cm long. It looked like a lot of the voles in the book, brown with lighter underside, but the only vole whose size can be under 12 cm in length is the Western Heather Vole. I learned it feeds on green vegetation, grasses, lichens, berries, seeds, and fungi. Lots of those things around here. And it likes the inner bark of various shrubs from the heather family.

White mountain-heatherThat led, of course, to a consultation with Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia. Is there really heather around here? I learned that there are two kinds, white mountain-heather and pink mountain-heather. They are tiny shrubs, only 30 cm and 10-40 cm tall, respectively. They have blue-bell shaped flowers, and the pink ones do look familiar to me. But I am not certain if I’ve seen them. Clark, quoted in the guide, wrote “These cheerful bells ring an invitation to high places above the timber line, to those serene and lofty slopes where peace and quiet enter our Pink mountain heathersouls.”

And so the cycle is complete, from crinkling in the night to peace and quiet entering our souls. I took the dear little vole and put her body under a young fir tree that grows near the house, and wished that her spirit may be at peace.

If you are interested in reading about other visitors to Monkey Valley, see these posts:

Thanksgiving and appreciation

Appreciation can feel like a soft pink cloud insideMy Diamond Approach group met in September and we explored the topic of appreciation. Have you ever felt an upwelling in your heart as you think about a person, appreciating him or her, or perhaps appreciating something they’ve done? Appreciation can cause an open warm feeling in the heart. It can be tender and sweet, light and delicate, or deeply yummy like a baby whose cheek or arm you’d like to bite.

At the DA weekend I was mostly resistant to feeling this kind of sensation. My heart was pretty closed, well-protected, and I felt like keeping it that way. As it happened, there were moments working with others where the vulnerability of the exploration we were doing just naturally caused my heart to open. In some case to myself, and in other cases to the other. But at the close of the weekend something happened that irritated me and that I allowed to close and harden my heart again. This is just the nature of the work! At the point in my inner journey that I’ve been occupying this year, I’ve been letting myself be hard, closed, irritated, or whatever is there, with a little bit of clear space around the experience that’s big enough to hold it. There is a gentleness about accepting my experience rather than rejecting it and trying to change it. There might be some self-indulgence too. But no one can force their heart to open.

Perhaps the recent DA weekend was still working in me the other morning when I read a 2006 article in the Globe and Mail, part of a stack of papers my friend Geoff Blake saved for me a few years ago, for use in starting fires in the wood stove. The article was about parents who send their kids to summer camp. It was somewhat sentimental and also humourous, about how parents enjoy having the time to themselves while the kids are gone, but worry about them until they know they’re having a good time. It made me remember that my parents sent me to summer camp one year. And suddenly, for the very first time in my life, I understood and appreciated how much my parents had made the focus of their lives caring for my sister and me (and later for two more sisters and a brother).

I’ve heard the Christian crap about honour thRainbow gardeny parents, and due to various childhood events that hurt me I never bought it. I thought my parents did not deserve to be honoured. That they had failed me so utterly I would never forgive them. I’ve done a lot of work to get through this. Therapy, spiritual work, and wilderness work including vision quests and other nature retreats. I’ve made conscious choices to heal, and done a lot of that. But suddenly, this Sunday morning before Thanksgiving, I was able to understand and appreciate my parents in a new way. To open my heart and feel the love and caring they showed in their choices and actions as parents. I cried for a while, and moved by this experience, cried many times throughout the day.

Wow, so this is what it feels like to be a normal person who feels her parents cared for her! I feel moved by so many aspects of the parent-child relationship and bond. With this comes a feeling of fragility, though. A poignancy about knowing these relations all come to an end. My dad died in 2000, long before this understanding blossomed in me. I shared my appreciation with my mom though (on Thanksgiving Day), and, due to a friend’s mother dying recently, feel the tug of fear and loss that will come with my own mother’s death. (Unless I die first, of course.)

We are so fucking vulnerable as humans. I don’t know how we manage to stand it. I think closing down the heart a little is probably a pretty popular defense.

Anyway, in closing this musing about thanksgiving and appreciation, I want to mention a few other things I am thankful for.

  • The black ghetto-blaster my sister Kim gave me in my early 20s. It has been working for several decades now! Lately I’ve been using it to listen to DA teacher Karen Johnson’s tapes on relationships while I do crunches. I feel grateful to Karen for the tapes, too.
  • Our dear earth mother, for nourishing me from her body with the food and water I enjoy every day. And all the people who raise, transport, and sell the food. And myself for preparing it.
  • My sister Katherine, for offering to come to Monkey Valley to spend my birthday with me.
  • My cat Donald, for his companionship, purring, and never being fake with me. If he doesn’t want me to pick him up he growls. If he doesn’t want to come home, he stays out!

I could go on… I spent a lot of the day on Monday thinking about things I am grateful for. Probably the warm humanness that keeps us all struggling on, doing our best, is what moves me the most in this moment.

Thanks to you, too, for reading and having your own response to what I’ve written.

Is that a spotted owl?

Juvenile red-tailed hawkOn Thanksgiving Day, which is also the US Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day, I looked out the bathroom window and saw a large white blob on the top of a tree. Was it snow? But no, none of the other trees had white blobs on them.

So I went across the hall to my office loft to get the upstairs binoculars, and grabbed a note pad. If this was a bird, I was going to do it right and note all the pertinent details! Luckily the bird, it was, was still there when I got back. It was a very large puffy-looking brown bird, with a big white bib. That was the white blob I’d seen with my naked eye.

I noted that it had a pale beak and yellow feet. It had a white spotted pattern all over, chest and sides and possibly back, in a fairly regular pattern. It seemed to have white on the crown, and I noticed brown streaks on its neck, in the white. Wow, I felt like I was getting good at this! And I felt so happy to have this visitation on Monday morning, Thanksgiving Day.

The bird stretched its wings out a little and I noticed it had fat feathered thighs. Then it spread out its wings and tipped off the tree top, slowly soaring down into the valley below. I watched a few minutes to see if it would reappear with some prey in its beak, but it disappeared from view and I didn’t see it again.

So I went with my notes to check the Sibley guide. The owl section quickly showed me that this bird Another red-tailed hawkwas not an owl. Its head was too small, and it didn’t have disc-like eye areas. So turning to the next likely suspect, I discovered my old friend the red-tailed hawk. I made a positive identification. This one was a juvenile, which is why it had the white bib. Aha!

I look forward to seeing it age and change colours! I had a peek in the Audubon guide too, just to see the pix there, and noticed they describe the call as a “high-pitched scream with a hoarse quality, keeeeer.” Whereas the Sibley guide describes the voice as “a rasping whistled scream cheeeeeew falling in pitch and intensity.” I favour the keeeeeer myself, and this is the noise I attempt when talking to the hawk as I run by.

Red-tailed hawk has long been a resident in my valley, and now it is clear that the hawks are carrying on. Fooling around with each other, too! Their presence here is something I am very grateful for. In the early evenings of winter, sometimes the hawk circles above and calls out to me when I go for a run. They have been a faithful companion over the years, when it is quiet and lonely here.

I am thankful.

Why Amazon?

Complete Beading for BeginnersYou might have noticed that when I refer to a book in my blog I usually include a link to the book on or An exception to this is when the book is available from Lost Borders Press. I want to support Meredith Little, who operates Lost Borders Press and who with her husband, Steven Foster, co-founded The School of Lost Borders.

I do this because of the value I find in looking up books on Amazon. It’s often possible to look inside the book, get reference info, and read people’s reviews of the book. When I want to buy a book that I can’t find at my local bookstore I look to first, then I prefer to buy from a Canadian site, in Canadian funds, with Canadian shipping. But if neither of them have it, I try, and then online used book sellers.

If it happens that you are interested in the book I mention, the link gives you the information you will need to find the book, such as the name of the publisher and the year it was published. Whether you want to get it from the library, buy it at your local bookstore, or buy it online.

Another reason I like Amazon is they sell my book! Complete Beading for Beginners. Or if you’re American, Complete Beading for Beginners! Of course, you can also pick it up at Country Beads on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver! Or at Beadworks on Granville Island. Not that I am trying to get you to buy my book!

In general I am opposed to having advertising on this web site. I hope that the links are subtle and don’t make you feel like I’m trying to sell something to you, because I’m not. Though if you decide you want to buy my book, that’s great! 🙂

However, I do want to let you know that I participate in Amazon’s associates program, at the urging of my friend and blog consultant, John Harper. What this means is that if you happen to click on a link to Amazon from my site, and buy anything on your visit to the Amazon site, I get 4% of the sale. But don’t worry, I’m not counting on this to fund my retirement! It is fine with me if you never click any of the links in this site.

Roads, signs, and what the heck is Mercury retrograde?

Starshine signWhat the heck is Mercury retrograde? On this blog I have been talking about the Four Directions model of noticing how humans are part of nature’s cycles. Being in rhythm with these cycles can help us flow through our lives more smoothly. It doesn’t make sense to plant a seed in the frozen ground—knowing how the cycles work tells us that the spring is the best time to plant most kinds of seeds, and this knowledge can guide us in knowing when to start new projects too.

Just as we are affected by the changing seasons, the cycles of the stars and planets can affect us too. And once every three months, the planet Mercury appears to move backwards in its orbit (retrograde) in relation to the earth. Of course it doesn’t actually turn around and move backwards, but it looks like it does, and for many of us, this period has a noticeable impact.

In astrology, the planet Mercury rules communications, travel, electronics, and equipment with moving parts. During the period of Mercury retrograde, any of these things can go awry! If a piece of equipment is about to break down, it will most likely occur during MR. Travel plans can have kinks and delays. It is a terrible time to sign contracts, because some key piece of information will be missing. It will sure enough come to light after Mercury turns direct, and make you rue the day you bought that new laptop!

Some examples from the current MR period for me: I ordered the new road sign for Starshine Way, and a month later I learned that Fun-Key hasn’t started working on the sign—they haven’t even ordered the plate to put the letters on, and can’t order it until they get enough sign orders to make a bulk purchase worthwhile. As another example, I’ve been waiting since September 12 for a quote from VSA for the snow plowing, and finally I heard from them that they can’t give me a service contract for my road. It will be third-priority, and if I can get them to do it at all I will pay an hourly rate based on the type of equipment they use. Neither of these things is a big deal, but it is a stalling of forward movement. What I wanted to resolve is still unresolved. I have to find someone else to make the sign, and some other way of getting my road plowed. (And BTW, in a previous MR period, when my laptop died, I did make the mistake of buying a new one. Great price. What I didn’t realize was that it had Windows Vista, and I would have to buy all new software to run on it!)

So what is the positive here? What is MR good for? As the “re” in retrograde hints at, it is a good time for re-doing things. Re-writing. Repairing. Rewiring. It is also a good time for researching. It is a great time for reconnecting with people from the past. Revisiting a favourite place. You might be surprised if you start paying attention to MR periods and notice how a relative or old friend pops up out of the blue during this period. Or perhaps you have a sudden interest in making contact with a friend from the past. 

And what about rest? That begins with “re” too. And resting fits with the season of the West. The fall is the time when the black bear goes into her den, earthing herself for a time of hibernation and turning inwards. After the busy outward activity of the summer, it is good to take a rest! Can you give yourself the space for a retreat this October? Some time and space for yourself? Sometimes that’s the best thing to do during Mercury retrograde.

One good place for a retreat, near Merritt, is Dhamma Surabhi, the Vipassana Meditation Centre of BC. Ten days of silent meditation!