My friend Clarence needed to go to ‘The Lake’, and by Lake we Bella Coola-ites mean Williams Lake–a 458 kilometer trip east of here, one way. Williams Lake has an approximate population of 14,000, and is the home of our nearest stoplight as well as all sorts of goodies that you otherwise cannot get in Bella Coola, like Tim Horton’s doughnuts. So for us, a trip to Williams Lake is a big deal. I asked Clarence if I could go with him. I wanted to buy myself a bigger gun, one that is suitable for deer and moose hunting and, if necessary (but God forbid it be necessary), for bear defense.
Another reason I wanted to join him was for hunting. With a near 1000 kilometer round trip through the best hunting territory in the province, I thought it would provide us with ample chance to hunt on the way back home. When I relayed my thoughts to Clarence, he corrected me in no uncertain terms. “What do you mean ‘on the way back’? My dear, we’ll hunt both ways,” and his thumb motioned away from the center of his chest towards the middle distance and then back again for emphasis, solidifying the plan right there in my driveway.
As it happened, we didn’t get away as early as intended, so the hunting on the way out was limited to looking for animals from the comfort of the vehicle. As we wended our way up ‘The Hill’, our eyes were fixed on the snow on either side of the road, searching for tracks. There were none to be seen, and this disturbed Clarence to no end. “I don’t like what I’m not seeing,” Clarence muttered over and over, speaking more to the goddesses of the ungulates than to me.
We drove along slowly, more intent on spotting some game and/or its tracks than actually getting to Williams Lake. Clarence repeated how he was puzzled by ‘what he wasn’t seeing’. There was nary a deer nor moose track to be seen. We did, however, manage to spot all sorts of predator tracks: wolf, coyote, fox, but no big game. Nor did we see anything ‘legal’, as he put it. That is not to say we didn’t see any animals at all. Before leaving the valley, we met a big boar grizzly bear at the usual ‘pee stop’ at the bottom of the hill–the precise place that I had seen a mother sow and two cubs several weeks before. While peeing, I watched the boar and wondered if he might be the father of the cubs of previous relief. Suffice to say, you learn to pee fast around here.
As we drove on, we spotted a couple of foxes along the roadside, making their way into the forest. There were numerous snow geese and other water-fowl, even a few beavers. The most exciting moment, however, came as we were approaching Riske Creek village. As a big cat came up the left hand side of the roadside incline, I saw him first and called out, “Cougar, cougar, cougar!” and watched it leap from one side of the highway to the other, touching down only once. It was a beautiful sight and only the second cougar I’ve seen in my life, the first being in my driveway early one summer morn.
I was anxious to see what the tracks looked like so we stopped the truck, got out and asked the earth to reveal the missing parts of the story. The cougar had crossed the road from left to right; the prints from his take-off position were clearly marked, and I had seen him touch down only once, almost perfectly, on the centre-line of the road. His landing spot tracks were just as clear, at the other side of the pavement on the right hand side of the road. “Why that cougar was moving!” Clarence exclaimed, pointing at another set of tracks in the sand, “Look here! He was in hot pursuit of a deer.”
There were lots and lots of deer tracks on either side of the cougar prints, going both ways across the highway and back, and fresh ones right in front of his. As he made sense of the story, something palpable took hold of Clarence; he wanted to track the cougar. Next thing I knew, he was talking about getting his son and their dogs, about how the dogs would be on that cougar in a flash, about how cougars don’t have the wind to run very far, about how it would likely tree very quickly in this country, about where he would place a shot if given the chance, about how he’d placed other shots of cougars past, about how exciting it would be for him to see me ‘get my first cougar’–Oh. My. God!
The more excitedly he talked, the more worried I became. It sounded like I was going to be hunting a cougar any minute and I wasn’t prepared, emotionally or otherwise. I wasn’t comfortable with the picture of myself running behind Clarence in pursuit of this cougar, struggling to keep up and maintain composure. I didn’t want to be walking deep into these rapidly darkening woods in the paw-prints of the cougar, knowing I may never seen Williams Lake again… let alone my husband… or my farm.
In the middle of my near panic-stricken reverie, Clarence finally worked his way around to sound reason: it was, after all, getting dark, his son was preparing for a moose hunt, he didn’t have his dogs, and he was on his way to Williams Lake to go shopping with a newbie, inexperienced greenhorn. “I might have to come back with my son,” he concluded finally. Thank goodness for small mercies.
While I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of spending the evening rummaging around the plateaus of the Chilcotin hoping to tree the cougar, it was, nonetheless, interesting to have the earth give up the cougar’s secrets even if only for a short distance.
As we approached Williams Lake, safely nestled back in the truck, we finally did see some deer–all does. We stopped counting at fifteen.They were beautiful, but not legal. Nevertheless, where there are does, there are also stags, as I was reminded by my hunting partner!
The next day was spent shopping. We had planned to head back to Bella Coola that day. However, over coffee and a Tim Horton’s doughnut, Clarence decided we should spend another night in Williams Lake. No sense in leaving late. No sense in traveling rushed. That will just cramp our ‘hunting’ style. That would be no good, no good at all.
We got away early the following morning and enjoyed meandering our way home, again in search of game. We covered a lot of ground that Clarence was very familiar with and then a bunch of ground he wasn’t. Once again, and even though we were well and truly off the beaten path, we found no sign of deer or moose. We spotted nearly everything but: fox, coyote, beaver, martin, muskrat, geese, squirrel, and more cougar prints in the snow. It was a great experience to find different tracks, try to identify them and have my guesses confirmed or corrected by Clarence.
While the whole experience was fascinating to me, Clarence didn’t really get excited until we came upon fresh wolf tracks. Suddenly, the raison d’etre of the hunt shifted–we were now focused on getting ourselves a wolf. He immediately stopped talking and reverted to sign language. “But I don’t want to shoot a wolf,” I whispered, and looked into the face of utter bewilderment itself.
Why not a wolf? proved to be too difficult to explain in sign language, let alone in a hushed, ‘we’re hunting now’ sound-byte. At that moment, I decided it would be easier to simply go along with the man and hope we didn’t catch up with the wolf–and in the end we didn’t. But we did see enough of the story to be intrigued: we tracked one set of tracks alongside the road to where it peed on a sapling (three footprints around it), but close by we found another set coming towards us. There was clearly a reunion. We tracked both pairs for a while longer, until Clarence observed the dwindling daylight. I was more than content to stop tracking and take these photos, relieved it was not photos of an ex-wolf in my hands, instead of just my hand and the evidence of his. I only wished I’d taken them when we first came across them, as they were then very fresh and much crisper than is revealed in the photos.
Clarence is an old-time, true-blue hunter. He has hunted everything on legs and probably on wings as well. He is the consummate bushman, and a wonderful person to be with while learning new skills. He is experienced, and his ease with the natural world shines through. He has been our ‘cougar man’ for more than forty years. Whenever a cougar was spotted where it shouldn’t be (too close to a home, looking at children on a swing-set, found in a yard having killed a dog, and so on), it was Clarence that our community turned to.
He has a moose tag that is good for the next two weeks. He had taken the day off to bring his great-grand-son back to go to school tomorrow and stopped in on his way back up to camp. He asked if I wanted to come up and see the country they are hunting in. Many of his family members will be there–several also have moose tags. It’s a family thing, an inter-generational thing, a way of life for them–and I am privileged to be included.