By Laura Swanson
On the afternoon of October 29th, Duane Stephens was deer hunting in the God’s Valley Area, north of Nehalem, when his life changed forever. Stephens is one of the few people that can tell the story of surviving a cougar attack. There isn’t good data on cougar attacks, though there have been several recent fatalities and attacks which have attracted attention. In the last 100 years, there have only been 125 documented attacks, and 27 were fatal.
If it feels like there’s more mountain lion (cougar) attacks now than ever before … it’s a combination of factors – more people recreating in more remote areas, recovery of the species and social media.
“If you’ve been outdoors in a place where cougars live, then you’ve been close to a cougar,” says Lynn Cullens, executive director for the Mountain Lion Foundation. “They saw you, but you didn’t see them.” You survived that encounter, and you’ll likely be unaware of the next.*
Duane Stephens reached out to me for several reasons … in the Pioneer’s first report about the cougar attack, we did not identify Duane per his request, but then other local media and law enforcement reports included his name on social media. This unleashed a flurry of “experts” with their comments about “what they woulda done …”
As Duane exclaimed, “I want you to help tell my story, and I want those idiots to know that they don’t have a clue about what happened.”
A reminder for sure that we are not the “apex” predator that we envision ourselves, even when armed out in the woods.
As told by Duane Stephens, November 3, 2020:
“When you find yourself on the ground, slipping in and out of consciousness – and the cougar is about 40-50 yards away.
The whole left side of your head feels like it’s been ripped off, slipping in and out … you are telling yourself one thing and one thing only: don’t lose consciousness.
You can’t stop it. You’ll never hear, you won’t see it.
And at that point in time, save yourself. I couldn’t find my rifle.
Those were my two main thoughts – don’t lose consciousness and find my rifle – it hit so hard – knocked my rifle out of view and out of reach. I finally hooked the sling with my foot and pulled it toward me.
The truth of it – on October 29 – by God’s grace, I won the lottery.
To all those people that are saying “Why didn’t he shoot it?” There’s nothing you can do.
The other point is – once it’s “over with” – you have to stop the bleeding.
No one is there to help you to the truck. Just YOU.
Really lucky that I got up and oriented, as soon as I stood up, the young cougar … figured it had enough and ran off.
I carry a couple of shop rags with me – for wiping off my glasses, scope. I stuffed one on top of my head and put another over my ear.
At this point, I don’t know how bad it is. I pulled the rag off my ear – it’s blood-soaked, not good to know.
Then I call Debbie – (Duane chuckled here – he didn’t initially tell his wife what happened) – I asked her, how late do you think the clinic stays open? And, in her typical way, she said, “WHY?”
That’s when I tell her, “Well because I’ve just been attacked by a cougar.” She burst into tears. Then I said, Call Steve VanDyke. If anyone can find me, it’s Steve.
I was about three-quarters of a mile from the truck.
Here’s a funny part (yes, Duane has a very good sense of humor and he said this a couple times throughout sharing his story.) When I got to my truck. I’m going to look at the damage, then I decided maybe that’s not a good idea … as I could pass out.
I just keep thinking – I’m a really lucky person.
Any time out in the woods, there are two things to be thinking about: Defend yourself; stop the bleeding – and get yourself out.
I want to stress one point – really, really important – my survival instincts kicked in.
I drove to Fall Creek/Rector/God’s Valley – the three-way intersection.
When Steve got there with Debbie – I showed Steve my injuries and asked “Is my ear still on my head?” He said “Yep. Barely.”
Mainly puncture wounds on my nose and forehead – my glasses saved my eyes – the damage to my ear was a concern.
What really saved me was that it didn’t “bite”.
I was knocked from behind … it went for the head and neck.
I had 15 seconds max to make a decision. Live or die? I knew that I couldn’t lose consciousness … I could see the cougar at 30-40 yards.
Until it happens to you – you don’t know how fast it can happen.
I grew up out there – over 60 years of knocking around the woods …
It’s how people die in these situations, they just don’t have the strong survival instinct. I willed myself to not black out – I know that’s what saved me.
It was like getting hit by a Buick – the force – how hard it hit, and how much it hurt. Having the wind knocked out of you times ten. It was like a boxer that just got hit in the ring – are you getting up or giving up? I made my choice. Are you going to live or die?
I can’t put it into words, describe how hard it hit.
For some reason, the cougar just decided I was prey.
By God’s grace …
I couldn’t believe how many people “came to the rescue.”
Big shout out to Steve Van Dyke – you want him by your side for any fight.
I’m still sore mainly puncture wounds, nose, eye – middle claw – under glasses. Would have lost an eye.
Hit me so hard – knocked me down – and then rolled over top of me. I kept watching it as it ran away to make sure that it turn around to come back.
The awareness – I’m aware of that they are out there all the time. There are many more cougars and bears than we see.
You have to protect yourself – that doesn’t mean being armed. It’s that survival instinct.
I am prepared. I have pepper spray on my pack, it’s easier, quicker than a gun. It’s not the attack, it’s what you do after that that determines if you live or die. You’re not going to “prevent” it – you never know, never see it. It’s what happens afterward that saves your life.
Can’t panic. With all the blood.
(Duane went out hunting the next day after the attack.) It was important to get back out there right away – oh yes, I was very attentive to what was going on behind me, probably glancing behind me much more often, definitely a heightened awareness …
This was a real eye-opener – you realize that you’ve been blessed.
I decided that I was going to live. This ain’t the way I’m going to go. Don’t black out; find my rifle.
I forgot all about the pepper spray.
I kicked the rifle with my foot towards me. Stood up … 20-30 seconds. Back up on my feet … seconds.
I’m still “digesting” and as I replay it, I remember more and more about it.
I didn’t know how the cougar did it. One paw on top of head, the other came around front of my face.
The force of its chest on my back knocked me off my feet, then took it off it’s feet – rolled off the top.
The cougar gathered itself, faster than I could gather together, but once I did stand up, it suddenly changed it’s mind. Really lucky and by God’s grace …
For all those idiots that “know what they would do” – I’ve just got one thing to say good luck! It happens in seconds.”
There are many lessons here – about all the things Duane did right:
#1. Leaving information, a map for his wife about where he’d be – and a community member, Steve Van Dyke with knowledge about the area.
#2. Survival instincts and supplies
#3. Awareness in the woods.
#4. Luck and God’s grace … it wasn’t his time.
*From this article: https://www.outsideonline.com/2393683/are-mountain-lion-attacks-common