Motorcycle vs. Cougar

by Craig Wheeler

I've been riding motorcycles off and on since 1994 and I'd never had an accident until this beautiful October afternoon in 2004. I had just traded in my Honda Magna 750 for a new 2004 Yamaha Midnight Star back in April and was using it as my main commuting vehicle, rain or shine. This summer, I had saved enough money to purchase either an Aerostitch Roadcrafter suit, or a set of saddlebags, both of which would make my commute more comfortable. I already owned some rain gear, but the ease of use of the Roadcrafter suit, along with the integrated safety features, was enough to move me to order one.

I received the suit only 2 weeks before it was put to the test in a most unusual manner.

This is my bike after it was picked up. The damage is on the right-hand side.

October 12, 2004 was a beautiful day in the Seattle area, slightly cloudy in the morning, but clear skies come afternoon. It was Tuesday, which meant my wife and I were hosting choir at our home for the small Lutheran Church we attend. I needed to leave work at 5 PM in order to make it home in time to eat and get the house ready before choir began at 7. Pulling on my riding gear, I was out the door of my office and on the road by 5:05 PM. Normally, my commute takes between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on traffic conditions, stop lights, and construction. My route home would take me along Novelty Hill Road, which is a main east-west route over one of the many hills that make up the eastside Seattle suburbs. Over the past few years, many development projects up on Novelty Hill had converted it from a rural area to a more suburban one.

Some minor lip damage on a still-dazed motorcyclist.

The speed limit on Novelty Hill Road is 45 MPH, with normal traffic speeds between 45 and 50. As I was coming up the hill behind a line of cars, I noticed the light up ahead was red. This was one section of the road that split into 2 lanes going eastbound before merging back into one lane after the traffic signal. I took this opportunity to move into the right lane and pass many of the slowing cars before merging back into the left lane after passing the now green traffic light. At this point, I was in between 2 cars traveling roughly 45 - 50 MPH (even though I didn't check my speedometer at this point, the gear I was in and the sound of the engine told me about how fast I was going).

It was at this point that this beautiful fall afternoon turned, well, interesting.

Walking back from looking at the cougar. I had an ice pack on my lower right calf.

The first I saw of the cougar was a pale yellow flash as it darted directly in front of my motorcycle. Since I was wearing my half helmet that day, my peripheral vision was unobstructed, but I didn't see the big cat until it was directly in front of my front wheel. I had no time to swerve, brake, or even create a conscious thought. My brain was able to register that a large cat was directly in front of me before I hit it with a sickening thud that told me I was going down. While I don't have a clear recollection of how I got off the bike, the woman driving in the car behind me later told my wife that as the bike went down, I rolled off to the right. I don't know how many times I rolled, but as I did, my face glanced off the pavement, scraping up both lips and bloodying my nose. My first clear memory of seconds after I fell is sliding feet first down the street on my right hip with my right hand behind me, steadying me in a half-lounging position. I could see and hear my beautiful bike sliding about 10 feet in front of me and my thoughts immediately went to how much damage it must be taking.

Two pictures showing off the damage to the Aerostitch suit.

As I slowed, I was able to flip over to my stomach to scan the road behind me to ensure I wasn't about to be hit by any cars. Fortunately, the woman in the car behind me also rides motorcycles with her husband and was giving me the proper cushion. When I hit the cougar, she was able to safely stop the eastbound traffic. Westbound traffic was light enough that the oncoming cars saw the accident and stopped short of hitting my bike, which had come to rest in the middle of the westbound lane.

Close-up of the damage caused by the slide. There was a dime-sized hole in the lining of the suit, but no damage to my jeans.

By the time I stopped, I was lying between the two lanes and out of any immediate danger. I could feel the blood oozing from my mouth and nose and took some time on hands and knees before standing and walking unassisted to the side of the road. The people who saw the whole thing and stopped to help were incredibly nice and very helpful. Emergency services were called, although I knew that I was not seriously injured, and two men got my bike up and to the side of the road for me. One woman had even taken it upon herself to direct traffic until the EMTs arrived.

My father (right), a fellow rider (middle) and I survey the damage to the bike.

As I sat in the grass at the edge of the road, I was startled by a sharp report from up the street, which was identified by one of the men as someone shooting the cougar. After I hit the big cat (which I later discovered was a 100 lb female), it was struck by a car traveling the opposite direction. Seriously injured by those two collisions, it was trying to crawl into the woods on the far side of the road when someone put it out of it's misery. I never saw the shooter, who (wisely, in my opinion) left before the medics and cops showed up. Ironically, the woman who hit the cat after me was training to work with big cats, and spent the next hour weeping over the dead animal and cursing at people trying to take pictures of it. While I do feel bad that the cat was killed, I certainly don't shed any tears for it and I'm glad the mystery shooter performed the only humane act toward the poor animal. I joked later with my wife that I was relieved that I wasn't in worse shape as to prompt the shooter to put me out of my misery, too.

The 100 lb. cougar. The slice on it's shoulder is from my front fender.

The EMTs were the first to arrive and proceeded to give me a thorough head, neck, spine and limb evaluation, marveling at the circumstances surrounding the call. During this, one EMT walked over and handed me a Polaroid picture of the dead cougar as a souvenir. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to have. I did have the presence of mind to pull my cell phone from my Aerostitch suit call my wife to let her know that I was in an accident, but was OK. She took the news remarkably well, and since my parent's were coming for dinner, she was able to leave our 3 kids with them to come see me at the scene. She arrived just as the medics were finishing up their exams and paperwork, so I was able to greet her with a much needed hug. She then pulled out the digital camera and snapped all the great accident scene pictures on this page. She also talked to many of the witnesses there, including getting great information from the woman rider who was driving the car behind me.

Possibly one of the saddest sights I've ever seen...

After I was checked out and declared fit to go home instead of to the E.R., the EMT filling out the paperwork asked me to get up and walk around a bit to make sure everything felt OK. As soon as I stood, I felt a shooting pain in my right calf/ankle that I hadn't noticed before, probably due to adrenaline. I sat back down to allow one of the other EMTs to apply an ice pack to my leg. While he was working on me, he quietly mentioned that, even though it would probably offend some people, I should really go over and get my picture taken with the cougar. Great idea, but I didn't have a chance to actually do it. I have to say that I was very impressed with the emergency personnel and the King County deputies that responded to the call. They were all great to talk to and kept saying how amazing this situation was. If any of you guys are reading this, Thank you.

Commiserating with a bike riding King County deputy.

We finally left the scene over an hour after the accident occurred (which is when the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife officer arrived) and went home to enjoy dinner with my family, my parents, and my wife's parents. As I sat at the head of the table that night, I was overwhelmed at how God had watched over me during the crash. I had hit the pavement at 45 MPH and walked away. I was wearing a half helmet and only my nose and lips got bloodied. I was traveling between 2 cars when the accident occurred and didn't get hit by the car following me. I am truly blessed.

Two reasons why I wear an Aerostitch suit.

For you riders who are reading this who don't wear full protective gear, consider this: I was riding straight and level on a sunny, 67 degree afternoon when this happened. It was an accident that was quite literally unavoidable. The ONLY reason I didn't go to the hospital that day was my Aerostitch suit. Not even my leather chaps would've protected me in this accident. Go order one. They are expensive, but they could mean the difference between life and death someday.

All text and images Copyright Craig J. Wheeler 2004 and cannot be reused without written permission.
Used with Permission. Original link can be found at http://craig-kamrin.home.comcast.net/Cougar/cougar.htm