Michael Handley spent two hours taking pictures of this cougar, who didn’t mind his company. Photo: Michael Handley

Michael Handley spent two hours taking pictures of this cougar, who didn’t mind his company. Photo: Michael Handley

‘An amazing encounter’: Kootenay photographer’s intimate hours with a cougar

Michael Handley’s picture is on the cover of Canadian Geographic

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.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

 

Michael Handley and his field assistant Alice take a look at the new issue of Canadian Geographic. Handley’s picture of a cougar won a reader vote to be on the cover. Photo: Submitted

Michael Handley and his field assistant Alice take a look at the new issue of Canadian Geographic. Handley’s picture of a cougar won a reader vote to be on the cover. Photo: Submitted

Just Posted

People take part in the Father’s Day Walk Run for Prostate Cancer Foundation BC in Chilliwack on June 21, 2015. This year’s event will still go ahead, but will not be an organized due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Progress file)
Awareness, funds for prostate cancer still needed in pandemic, says Chilliwack man

People to walk/run their own route for Father’s Day fundraiser event for prostate cancer

Jonathan Prest had to climb way up to the top of a dead red cedar tree to rescue a terrified cat, but he made it up and down successfully. (Facebook photos)
Rosedale tree cutter rescues cat stuck 100 feet up a dead and dried-out cedar

Jonathan Prest put himself in extreme peril to get a terrified cat out of a dangerous situation

RCMP Supt. Bryon Massie, officer in charge UFVRD, and Sgt. Mike Sargent of Agassiz Community Policing holding awards from the recent ‘Recognizing Excellence’ ceremony. (RCMP)
Salute to local officers during National Police Week in the Fraser Valley

Exceptional performances and selfless acts noted during the ‘Recognizing Excellence’ awards

Screenshot from the Chilliwack Board of Education meeting held via Zoom on May 11, 2021. (Zoom)
OPINION: Enough is enough with regressive Chilliwack school trustees

No more: Heather Maahs, Darrell Furgason, Barry Neufeld need to do what they’ve been ordered to do

A lumber planer has been installed at the former Metric Modular site as PowerWood works on moving from Surrey to Agassiz. Established in 1995, the red cedar product manufacturer will have plenty of room to grow in Agassiz, said co-owner Jake Power. (Adam Louis/Observer)
Surrey cedar processor PowerWood moving to Agassiz

The company ships red cedar projects all over the world

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

A COVID-19 patient receives oxygen outside a hospital in Jammu, India, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP/Channi Anand)
B.C. donates $500K to Red Cross COVID-19 relief efforts in India

The money will provide oxygen cylinders and ambulances for patients in communities grappling with the virus

Superintendent Aaron Paradis, community services officer with the Surrey RCMP, during a media availability about a recent drug bust in Port Coquitlam. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Police seize 13 million ‘potentially fatal doses’ of pure fentanyl at B.C. drug lab

The evidence was seized at large, illicit drug manufacturing site in Port Coquitlam

Police are asking the public for help identifying a suspect who allegedly hurled anti-Asian slurs at a family in a Richmond drive-through on May 1. (Benjamin Wong/Screen grab)
Suspect at large in racist tirade at Richmond drive-thru, says RCMP

The Caucasian man was recorded May 1 yelling anti-Asian slurs at a Richmond family in the lineup

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth debates the province’s latest measure to control crime, March 10, 2021. The legislation allows police to impound vehicles used to transport weapons and further restricts sale of vehicle and body armour. (B.C. legislature video)
B.C. seeking ways to ‘name and shame’ gangsters, minister says

Mike Farnworth appeals to family members to talk to police

The Greater Victoria School District continues to face backlash over its wording and approach to Indigenous learners in its 2021-2022 budget talks. (Black Press Media file photo)
School district’s approach to Indigenous learners leaves Victoria teachers ‘disgusted’

Backlash grows over ‘pattern of colonial thinking permeating the leadership’

Italian-Canadian prisoners at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (University of Calgary/Contributed)
Italian moved to Okanagan with hope; he ended up being sent to a WWII internment camp

Raymond Lenzi shares his grandfather’s story ahead of Canada’s planned formal apology to Italian-Canadians

Police and fire crews were in the 18500-block of 18 Avenue around 9 p.m. Thursday (May 13, 2021). (Curtis Kreklau photo)
PHOTOS: Police investigating South Surrey vehicle fire

Unclear if blaze in the 18500-block of 18 Avenue related to Burnaby shootings: RCMP

Most Read