Two of the most important hours of Michael Handley’s life were spent face to face and alone with a cougar in a Kootenay forest.
In September 2016, Handley was attending a fair in Harrop when he was told about a dead cougar that had been found at a nearby property. The body, he found out, was being guarded by another cougar.
Handley, a wildlife photographer, decided to find the pair. He was given permission by the landowner and handed a map drawn on a Post-it note. Then, with only a camera and some bear spray for protection, he set out.
The pictures he returned with changed his life.
“It was an amazing encounter with just a wonderful animal,” says Handley, “and gracious. Oh boy was she gracious.”
Two of those pictures are in the May-June issue of Canadian Geographic, one of which is on the cover after Handley’s shot of the cougar won an online reader vote.
But five years ago, Handley wasn’t thinking about prestige as he walked into the forest.
When he approached the location, ravens circling above flew away and he heard a rustling over his right shoulder. Behind him, approximately 12 metres away, was a young cougar watching him.
Handley leaned against a tree and kept his eyes on the cat. It struck him that its body language wasn’t threatening.
“It’s always on the animals,” he says. “If I don’t get approval from the animal to take photos it doesn’t happen. But she was cool with me hanging out with her for a considerable amount of time.”
The cougar appeared mostly indifferent to Handley. It sometimes changed positions and even took a few brief naps.
Handley had worked with grizzlies and coyotes in the past but had never been in a close encounter with cougars. He stayed alert, but relaxed, as the pair watched birds and squirrels and rested in the quiet of the forest while Handley took pictures.
“When you spend as much time out alone in the woods as I do you pick up the voice of the forest. Little noises, everything. It will tell you what’s going on. And I just experienced it with her.”
When it was over, the cougar got up and quietly padded out of Handley’s view into the forest. It had felt, he says, as though two minutes had passed, not two hours.
Handley returned home, emotional, and with pictures of an encounter he’ll cherish forever.
“It was,” he says now, “a very uplifting experience.”
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