An Eastbournian Abroad with Ashley McMillan: Longest day, summer and cougars?

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So summer is officially here! It was signified by the passing of the summer solstice and surely it’s that simple isn’t it? We have the recognized longest day of the day and then we’re bathed in sun and heat for the next few months, no…? Isn’t that how it is written..?

This said and scepticism aside, I read facebook comments yesterday on people somehow managed to get sun burnt here in Whistler just a day ago (must have been very pale skinned!) and as I type this article, there are bluebird skies all around. Could be two nice days in a row = summer!

So, somewhat irrespective of what the weather gods have planned for us (perhaps we’re paying the price, or perhaps just bad karma, for being thoroughly spoiled throughout the winter by the great god Ullr) is the planned summer events. Many an activity and outdoor event is either planned or already taken place now that the snow has long since melted away down in the valley level. These planned events are a sure sign that a calendar never changes its dates, but that quite frankly, the weather and the seasons blatantly pays little or no attention to.

So, having just passed the longest day of the year, it’s all down hill from here! No, my glass isn’t ‘half empty’, but the nighttimes darkness will now begin to close on us and as someone wrote on my twitter account, somewhat pessimistic, that “winter is coming again!”. However, this coming weekend sees the celebration of continuous events to pass through our calendar here. We have those crazy individuals on their long boards hurling themselves down the roads alongside our Olympic sliding centre at speeds of up to 100kph – Described as “snowboarder cross meets Formula 1”. This is a two day event and in my books will be a war of attrition.

This weekend also sees the return of the infamous trail running race – Comfortably Numb. Very aptly titled! Some 25k (ish) of highly technical, extremely challenging yet stunning trail terrain. Weather conditions greatly affect this race and I for one will be praying that it stays dry around here for a day of two prior. The terrain is very changeable throughout the course, but it is littered with tree roots at almost very turn, rock – loose and also the immoveable, scaling uphill runs (read walking & climbing in parts), slick rock in parts no doubt especially when descending, etc, etc. Needless to say I’m chomping at the bit to get at this course!

On a personal note, with some of this year’s road running under my belt for a good few months until my preparation for the New York marathon begins in earnest in late August, I am now turning my attention to as many off road trail races as I can. Already planned for the next month or so is a 50km race, followed by a 50 mile (80km) run for charity – ‘Sears Great Canadian Run’ to raise money for kids cancer http://bit.ly/k7pu2l. These will be my first two ultra marathons and I for one am stoked about running them and having the opportunity to run the latter for a great, great cause.

Now, as far as training for these goes, there’s nothing like running trails to improve your trail running. Very specific training for undulating, unpredictable terrain that changes at almost every step. As decent a road runner as I am, this is a different kind of running altogether and certainly engages a lot of other muscles and focus not necessarily required pounding along a smooth, buff road surface (less likely to trip and body / face plant into rocks, trees, roots, etc). Also on the roads, you are unlikely to come across much wildlife such as bears or cougars… thank god! Bears are quite the common sighting around our valley trails and by and large, they are quite safe to spot. However, the same cannot be said for the cougars.

Apparently, whilst training for a biking trail marathon a couple of weeks back, a mountain biker was knocked off his bike by a cougar whilst riding down in Squamish (A town midway between Whistler and Vancouver). Now, he was OK and managed to ‘scare’ the animal off by waving his bike at it, but was also quite fortunate. These guys don’t mess around and like to prowl and scope their ‘prey’ out. This said, it is rare to spot any in this area, but it does happen. Even rarer, is to spot one in Whistler. So it was with a tinge of shock that we read that only last week, someone felt quite certain they spotted one around the very popular ‘Lost Lake’ area, a mere 10-15 minutes from the main village. Now I don’t suspect for a single minute to see one in the actual village as this is far from their natural and comfortable habitat, but it is a tad concerning to see or hear of one in this spot which is a very popular walking, biking and trail running Mecca in this area.

Perhaps even more concerning was the fact that the individual who claimed to spot one, decided not to tell the authorities as he did not want to alarm anyone in the vicinity or stop people from enjoying the beautiful area available to everyone. Idiot!!

Now, perhaps being a little hypocritical, I frequently spot bears just outside of the main village in the surrounding valley roads and trails. What I should do is notify the authorities, so that they can ensure these guys don’t come into contact with anyone and don’t get scared where their actions may become a little unpredictable. Trouble is, unless they appear to be posing any immediate harm, most of us would rather leave them be and admire from afar. So it is perhaps karma that I got a little bit of a shock today coming back from the grocery store. Walking along a paved valley trail on a popular route near to some hotels on the outskirts of the main village I heard a ruffle or two in the bushes beside me. Thinking this sounded too noisy to simply be a bird or chipmunk (of which there are literally hundreds), I turned to see if I could make out any bears in the growth. No sooner had I turned to look that I catch this big brown shape in the corner of my eye as it starts growling at me. Next thing I knew this mother bear starts to bound toward me and very obviously telling me to stay away – believe me, I had every intention to do so!

Let me say that to witness this behaviour, especially firsthand is particularly rare. They will nearly always spot or smell you, but carry on as if you weren’t there. However, this mother was displaying all the usual defensive and typical traits as she was protecting her cubs. She wasn’t going to attack me as she quickly pulled up after a few bounds and only a few feet away, but it was enough to let me know to keep my distance and that she obviously had cubs nearby. Lesson here being that whenever you see a cute little cub around, chances are that mommy bear is not too far away, so be careful! Did I report it…of course not as they were causing no harm to anyone and wouldn’t so long as no-one tried anything stupid and this is the problem with us inhabiting their territory. It’s their land, but if we can’t behave in a ‘bear smart’ way around them, then all too often its these guys who suffer as ultimately they get put down because of the trouble we cause them!

Always a great sight though, fascinating to most and a lot more accepting of us than any random hungry cougar! Roll on the race in the wilds at the weekend!