They say that if you see a cougar it is the last thing you see. As I sit here now in the comfort of my house, sheltered from the elements and the roaming wild, I wonder just how close we actually came to danger on that eventful day.
There are days in Tofino where it seems as though there is a strangeness in the air, as though the whole town wakes up that day feeling a little odd. It may be the constantly changing weather, or perhaps the connection with nature that living here provokes, but often if you ask someone else if they feel that strangeness, they will eerily concur, awed by the realization that the feeling is not solely their own. It was one of those days when we decided to hike what is known as the Bomber trail.
We had surfed that morning, before the fog had burned off, and I knew that it would be a special day when I reached the outside before the others and saw two Porpoises splashing around a few yards away from me. Surfing has always put me in close proximity with ocean life, from giant turtles to curious otters to wave riding manta rays. When I surf in warmer waters there is always the thought at the back of my head that a shark could be close by, and that it could mistake me for food. Here in Canada, it is not the creatures of the water that one needs to worry about, but rather the predators of the land. Where a shark might mistake you for a seal and take a bite, a cougar will stalk you knowing exactly what you are, and kill you, likely from behind by a single strike to the neck, if it so desires.
As the sun finally escaped through the grey sky and the air began to warm, we walked along the shoulder of the highway to find the entrance to the Bomber trail. It is an unmarked trail, outside the jurisdiction of the park rangers, and it begins with an ominous sign telling would be hikers to continue at their own risk.
The sun quickly became strong, heating the backs of our necks, but we were kept cooled by the perfect ocean breeze that made its way through the forest as we moved deeper along the trail. The Bomber trail is not like others, it is not as lush and green as the other rainforest paths, it lacks the thick foliage and giant trees that are soothing and inviting. Rather, it is sparse and muddy, the forest seeming dry and near death.
After about 25 minutes of walking we came to a clearing. With short shrubs and sporadic dry trees jutting from the yellowed space and a small round pond surrounded by thin bare-branched trees, the clearing had the feel of an African savannah with the sun shining brightly. Beyond the clearing, about half a click across, rose a steep hill where laid the treasure of the Bomber trail. You could see it from where we stood, a huge metal tail piece jutting out from the tree line, the wings resting evenly upon heavy broken trees that were downed decades earlier by the Bomber plane as it crashed there during the Second World War.
We moved across the clearing with haste, eager to experience this untouched piece of history, this giant anachronism lying in the middle of the B.C. wilderness. As we got closer we realized just how big it actually was, the wings spreading at least forty feet across, the thick metal dug deep into the side of the hill. It hadn’t rusted at all, but it was almost a skeleton nevertheless, with many parts and panels removed by scavengers over the years. We traversed a heavy log leaning against the point where the wing meets the fuselage, and clambered onto the heavy wing. There, atop the giant plane, looking across the clearing that we just passed we decided to sit and eat our sandwiches in the sun.
We had finished eating and were basking in silence when Tyler jumped to his feet, declaring that he saw something moving in the clearing. He thought it was a deer, but when Tasha told him that there were no deer around there, he came to realize what he actually saw. I stood up to investigate myself, eager to see something interesting. I walked to the far tip of the wing; there was a natural silence as we all scanned the clearing intently, the only sound coming from the wind blowing through the trees. I had almost given up when I suddenly saw a little glint of light from a spot on the ground that my eyes had just passed moments before, it was the eyes of the cougar, and they were staring right at me. It was crouched low, perfectly camouflaged, looking at me with a hunter’s intensity. As my eyes met the creatures’ I instinctively pointed at him to show the others, and only then when he knew that he had been spotted and that his hunt had been compromised, did he rise from his crouch and saunter off without a seeming worry at all. I was more thrilled than I was scared at the time, excited that I had seen what so few get to see. No chains, no bars, no trainers, just a wild cougar in its natural habitat – we were the exhibit. Only now, when I think back to that moment when the cougar was crouched low staring at me, I realize that before he was spotted I was his prey, and I wonder how long that cougar was stalking the three of us before we reached the bomber plane.
Although the cougar seemed to have walked away, really we had no idea where it was. It could have been circling around in the hill behind us, or it could have been waiting patiently in the brush below – in the one clearing that we had to pass to get back to the trail. We considered waiting a while to see if it reappeared, but I thought our best course of action was to show the beast no fear, and to walk upright and loudly back along the path without delay. I found myself a heavy stick with a pointed end, and the others found weapons for themselves. There is something comforting about brandishing a weapon in the wilderness, it eases ones sense of vulnerability and brings out that primitive hunter instinct within us. But armed or not, that cougar would have had its way with any one of us if it was really determined.
I want to tell you that we encountered that cougar along the path back, if only to avoid an anticlimactic ending, but I think if that happened I wouldn’t even be writing this right now. We made it back to the beginning of the Bomber trail leaving our weapons at the entrance for the next intrepid adventurers to pick up. As we emerged onto the sunny highway we all felt a sense of relief. It was like coming out of a dark tunnel, out of a savage world unfitting to modern day humans like ourselves. We had reached the asphalt and the speeding cars; we had reached civilization and left the domain of the cougar. Yet, as I sit here writing this, all that I can think about is heading back to that crashed bomber plane, and meeting that cougar again.