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What began as a scenic hike on a peaceful vacation with family quickly turned to near tragedy for a hiker and her dog earlier this month on an Upper County trail, but a crisis was averted due to some basic training on how to handle emergencies while hiking.

Alison Dempsey-Hall, her sister Melissa and Alison's faithful hiking companion Blue, a Labrador retriever found themselves face-to-face with a juvenile cougar on the Cooper River trail Nov. 9. The group was over from the West Side on a family vacation and staying in Upper County when they picked the trail for its natural beauty.

Dempsey-Hall, an experienced mountaineer had traveled to Upper County to recreate many times over the years but was new to the Cooper River trail.

“It wasn’t far from where we were staying,” she said. “It seemed like a great destination.”

Dempsey-Hall, her sister and Blue arrived at the trailhead around lunchtime that day and noticed there were only a few cars in the parking lot. Knowing that multiple trails branch off from that particular trailhead, she deduced that they wouldn’t see many hikers on their trail that day.

“On the way there, we passed two other couples,” she said. “Each couple had a dog, and I assume they were headed back from Cooper Lake.”

The group continued along their way towards the lake, and as they rounded a bend approximately one mile from their destination, they encountered the cougar walking on the trail. Dempsey-Hall was hiking approximately 20 feet in front of her sister and had Blue on leash when they crossed trails with the cat.

“The cougar literally was coming towards us on the trail,” she said. “It didn’t approach from the side or from the brush. As soon as it saw it, it didn’t stop. It kept proceeding toward me and the dog.”

At that point, Dempsey-Hall said the cougar crouched down and pinpointed on Blue. She said she’s not convinced the cougar even noticed her or her sister, but instead was completely focused on the dog.

“Once it saw Blue, it was all eyes on him,” she said. “Within maybe 10 seconds, it attacked Blue, latching onto his head. After latching on, it let go and used its claws to pin Blue to the ground.”

EMERGENCY ACTIONS

Once the cougar attacked Blue, Dempsey-Hall said she used her knowledge of what to do in an encounter with a wild animal, which is to project a large profile and be as loud as possible.

“You get loud and you get big,” she said. “You back away, but you never run. My training kicked in and I just started yelling because I didn’t have any other means of being loud.”

After pinning Blue to the ground for approximately 20 seconds, Dempsey-Hall said the cougar attempted to drag the dog into the brush. At this time, his leash was attached to her, thwarting the cougar’s plan. She continued to yell at the cougar while her sister located a large branch to throw at the cat.

“My sister threw the branch at the cat and the cat released Blue and ran away,” she said. “This whole encounter maybe took less than a minute.”

During the encounter, Dempsey-Hall said she never made eye contact with the cat, despite being only four feet away from it. She said she remains convinced the cat didn’t even notice humans were there, because it was so fixated on the dog.

“My perception after witnessing this right in front of us was that this wasn’t a cat that was tracking us intent on a kill,” she said. “I think it was a juvenile cat that was curious and probably tracking the scent of the other hikers and their dogs that were headed back down the trail towards the trailhead. We had the dumb luck of running into it on the trail, and it had this opportunistic situation to have dinner right in front of it.”

GETTING BLUE TO SAFETY

After the cougar ran off, Dempsey-Hall said they inspected Blue’s head. Although she said she expected it to be rather mangled, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

“It was very bloody, but his eyes didn’t look affected and he clearly could see,” she said. “He seemed to be walking fine. Being a mountaineer and outdoors person, I know when you’re in a rescue situation, if that human or dog in this case can walk themselves out, you want to get moving.”

Dempsey-Hall, her sister and Blue quickly began walking back towards the trailhead, constantly scanning the brush around them to watch out in case the cougar came back around. Blue’s survival instincts kicked in and together, the group hiked the two miles back to the trailhead.

After researching emergency veterinarians in both Kittitas and Yakima counties, Dempsey-Hall found that the only available option that day was to take Blue back over Snoqualmie Pass to receive help on the West Side. Once he was seen, Blue was found to have nine separate puncture wounds around his skull from the cougar’s teeth. He also had multiple lacerations on his abdomen from the cougar’s claw and a ruptured tendon on his leg. Despite the extensive damage, Dempsey-Hall said Blue is making a spectacular recovery.

“Dogs heal much faster than humans is what the vet told me,” she said. “He is expected to make a full recovery. His demeanor has never wavered. The resiliency of dogs is amazing. Even on the trail after the attack, he was ready to go and walk himself out, exhibiting his normal personality. It’s amazing.”

Looking back on the situation, Dempsey-Hall said it could have been markedly worse if she hadn’t used her knowledge of what to do in an encounter with a wild animal. As others get out on trails where they have a chance of finding themselves in a similar situation, she said it is imperative to know how protect yourself and your pets.

“We are lucky it ended the way it did,” she said. “We were part of this outcome because we knew what to do. If we didn’t, it could have been a very different result.”

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