This is the story of the greatest wildlife sighting of my life.
Jasper National Park is one of the best, most accessible wilderness areas in Canada. I first visited the park with my family when I was seven and have returned almost every year since. And the summer of 2011 was no different.
We got up early on our first morning in the park to look for black bears on Maligne Lake Road and having struck out, we re-grouped in the townsite to determine what ground we could cover before meeting-up with my parents, who were arriving later in the afternoon.
I noticed on the map that there were two roads to the east of the town that I had never driven: Celestine Lake Road and the road to Miette Hot Springs. Shocked, I successfully petitioned Jill to explore them with me.
First we drove toward Celestine, but quickly discovered it to be a rough gravel road. For me, this only ups my excitement level, as I always associate gravel roads with good luck for animal photography. But Jill hates gravel. With a passion. And as our car was ill-equipped for this kind of adventure, she probably had a good reason for her gravel hatred.
If we had pressed on toward the lake, we would have missed the sighting of a lifetime. But by attempting a few miles of the road and turning around exactly when we did, we had luck on our side.
Back on Highway 16, we made our way toward Miette Hot Springs. Just past Jasper Lake – below the towering Roche Miette – a few cars were pulled over on the side of the highway.
No one was moving with excitement.
Beside the highway there is a small pond and on the far shore’s hillside, we could see a herd of bighorn sheep – a very common sight on this stretch of road. We were about to move on, but a couple of people started pointing to the right of the herd. I couldn’t see anything and, as everyone was calm, I assumed it was just a stray sheep.
Again, we almost left.
Just as we got ready to pull out – for the second time – a lady from the group of pointers, noticing my telephoto lens and clearly puzzled expression, ran to the car and asked the sweetest words I’ve ever heard spoken.
“Can you see the cougar?”
I can’t totally recall what happened next, but I’m sure it included numerous expletives, me stumbling out of the car, an immediate case of the sweats/shakes, and a stuttering, bumbling request for help with seeing the cougar.
The kind lady – still not realizing what a big deal this was – directed my lens to the right spot and there, looking back at me, was a sight straight out of the shining.
The cougar, sitting on a still twitching bighorn sheep, was looking at the people with a face covered in blood.
I pressed down on my trigger and never let up until my buffer was full.
Jill was begging for guidance as to where the cougar was. I just kept yelling helpful instructions like: “cougar, cougar, cougar!!”
Calm in the face of pressure, I wasn’t.
The kind lady who helped me, now helped Jill and when she picked it out, she marvelled at the fact it was only about 200 yards away. How did we both have such trouble spotting it? Well, cougars, clearly, blend into their surroundings and do so better than either of us could have imagined.
As we took photo after photo, I looked around to thank the lady again for her help, but saw her car pulling out. And with that, almost everyone had left. Why? Because the bighorn herd had disappeared. That is when it dawned on me that of the two dozen cars pulled over, only three – including ours – saw the cougar.
The one gentleman who remained did understand this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. He explained that he had been photographing the one sheep that was closest to the road, when, without warning, a cougar jumped over the ledge above, onto the sheep, and severed its head.
It was about 11am and this cougar, defying all the norms, was out hunting in the middle of the day, next to a busy highway, yet did so without many people noticing. But it wasn’t like the cougar enjoyed being this exposed.
Rarely taking its eyes off of us – which, I can assure you, was spooky, even with the pond between us – it began dragging the large sheep up a wall used by locals for climbing.
Think about that. With relative ease, this cat dragged a full grown bighorn up a rock face people use pick and ropes to ascend.
And looking at its muscles define themselves with each move, it made you appreciate the strength of cougars.
(On an aside, after we reported the sighting to rangers, it became critical information that helped them make their decision to close the area to people rather than develop an extensive trail and climbing system. Score one for photographers helping animals.)
All too quickly, the cat moved over the top of the ridge, but not before one last glance back our way. I told Jill to soak it in – I know photographers who have spent their lives in the field and have never seen a cat. This awesome moment could very well be the only cat sighting we’ll ever have.
The one part of this day that makes me incredibly sad is the fact the cougar disappeared about two hours before my parents arrived in Jasper. As two nature lovers who installed in me a love for the wild and have always dreamed of seeing a cougar, I wish I could have shared this sighting with them as well. It was heartbreaking to know they missed it by mere hours.
Of course, it would have been nice to have had a better camera than my old D300 and a 70-200mm lens with me to capture the sequence. But the reality is, for once, it wasn’t about great photography. I know these photos are far from perfect, but I could care less.
Just having a photo, no matter the quality, to help me remember this day is an incredible gift.