Living in Cougar Country

Local author delves into the relationship between humans and cougars in her new book

“The story is in the wood.  Every guitar has a story, <a href=

heart and the wood tells the story, mind ” says Reuben Forsland, at work in his studio. Photo by Lisa Graham” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> “The story is in the wood. Every guitar has a story, and the wood tells the story,” says Reuben Forsland, at work in his studio. Photo by Lisa Graham

Joan Jett once said “My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am.”

These words denote a belief system that Reuben Forsland understands completely. He’s not a musician though, he’s a luthier—and a luthier, in case you didn’t already know, is a person who makes stringed instruments.

Forsland doesn’t just make acoustic guitars, though, he makes one-of-a-kind works of art that any musician would be proud to own.

“An instrument is so much more than just an instrument,” says Forsland. “Musicians are storytellers, explaining their thoughts and emotions through song. A good instrument is how they do this—so the guitar is really an extension of the musician.”

Forsland, 40, hasn’t always built guitars, but it seems like he’s always been building something.

“I’ve built a lot of things over the years,” he says. “I’ve built bridges, high rises, concrete forms, log homes and fine homes too. My dad was a stonemason, so I grew up on construction sites. As soon as I graduated from high school at 16, I got a job working in construction. So I guess I’ve been building things for at least 24 years.”
Forsland has always admired people who can play an instrument well. “I’m an avid kiteboarder so I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach,” he says. “I’d see these guys sitting on the beach strumming on their guitars by the fire. I wanted to be able to do that too.”

So eventually Forsland went to a shop to see about buying a guitar. While he was there he saw a business card for a luthier named Brian Hart. “When I saw Brian’s business card I realized that I could make my own instrument instead of buying one of the guitars in the store,” Forsland says. “I called Brian and, under his tutelage, I built my first six string guitar.”

That was during the spring of 2008. Later in the summer of the same year, Forsland relocated to the Comox Valley from Alberta. After the move, Forsland continued to build guitars, learning more with each instrument—but he didn’t do it alone. “I’ve had a few amazing mentors these past few years. I know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them—luthiers like Brian Hart of Alberta, Scott McKee from Cumberland, and Al Hosokawa from Courtenay, have all generously offered their time and expertise to share their craft with me. I owe them so much. They’ve been very good to me.”

Over the years Forsland continued honing his craft during his free time, mainly on evenings and weekends. “Making the guitars during my free time was a great way to learn,” Forsland says. “Eventually, though, I realized I wanted more from life. I realized I wanted to make guitars as my profession.”

So early this year, Forsland began working full time out of his shop, creating his custom guitars. It’s a leap of faith, but it’s what he believes he should be doing.
And it’s a good thing Forsland has decided to make his guitars full-time, as it’s an extremely long process to transform sheets of wood and guitar strings into a beautiful and functional work of art.

“This is not something you can rush,” he says. “Building these guitars is a complicated process, one that can take months or years tracking down the perfect products for a specific guitar.”

To Forsland, the wood is the heart of the instrument. In fact, the first thing Forsland considers when he makes a guitar is the wood. “The story is in the wood. Every guitar has a story, and the wood tells the story.”

For example, it took Forsland three years to find the right piece of Brazilian tulipwood for his guitar called Spring.

“Brazilian tulipwood, considered by many luthiers and guitarists as one of the finest tone woods on the planet, is a stunningly beautiful hardwood which is in short supply. The tree itself is only found in a narrow geographical area, and it’s small enough to be considered a shrub, typically yielding very small and narrow boards,” explains Forsland. “This is why it took so long to find—it is so rare to find Brazilian tulipwood in sizes large enough for a guitar. But I would settle for no other wood to represent my guitar named Spring.”

Right now Forsland is waiting for a piece of wood from a tree up in Alaska that was carbon dated to be almost 3,000 years old. This wood will form part of a guitar Forsland will call the Ancient Earth Guitar. Forsland will also use wood from an I-beam from Mozart’s house for his guitar he plans to call Love, and an historical piece of wood from a tree that stood near a civil war hospital for the guitar which will be called War.

Forsland also tells the story of a large piece of quilted maple he found on the beach. “I knew it was a special piece of local wood, so I went up to the owners of the house adjacent to the beach and asked them if it would be okay for me to cut a piece from the log,” he says. “Quilting only occurs in one out every 1,000 maple trees, but it creates the most beautiful wood—it looks almost three dimensional when it’s been sanded and polished. It’s quite stunning.”

The wood can also determine the sound the guitar makes, as some woods have deeper tones, and others are crisp and bright sounding. “Sitka Spruce has a powerful direct tone that is capable of retaining its clarity when played forcefully,” Forsland says. “Brazilian tulipwood is heard in the base but it has a brighter sound, and Maple has a very tight and quick sound.”

Though each type of wood has its unique characteristics, each specific piece of wood needs to be considered too. “I’ll tap the slice of wood to hear the tone that comes back to me,” explains Forsland. “I’m listening for what I call sustain—the note should hold for a good length of time.”

A work in progress.  Photo by Lisa Graham

A work in progress. Photo by Lisa Graham

According to Forsland, the amount of wood grain is what can change the sound. “Grain is like an I-beam in the wood,” he says. It’s like little structural pieces that give strength to the wood. Lots of grain lends a brighter sound to a particular piece of wood.”

The thickness of the wood changes the sound too. “As I’m building the piece I can manipulate it to get the exact sound I’m looking for. The thinner the wood, the more it can vibrate. But I have to be careful—if I sand it too much, the sound will become sloppy. It’s a fine balance. You want the sound board to dance around as much as possible.”

Since each wood lends a unique tone, Forsland will work with the musician to create an instrument that complements their unique sound and personality. “I’ll work with the musician to find the wood that works with their voice,” he says. “For example, a singer with a lower range will tend to prefer a warm tone wood like mahogany with a Sitka spruce top.”

In addition to the wood, Forsland finds other ways to make guitars that are truly unique. “I put items in my guitars that are very interesting, like fragments from the Hawaiian ram’s horn, a walrus tusk or even a narwhal tusk,” he says.

“For example, in the Winter guitar, I put parts of the skull of a polar bear for the nut and saddle pieces. A friend of mine had visited the Arctic and found this skull while he was there. I like to hunt down unusual stuff like that. It makes my guitars something interesting to see, as well as something interesting to talk about. Then the musician can say, ‘Man, I have a piece of polar bear in my guitar.’”

After the body of the guitar is constructed, but before he strings the guitar, Forsland hand buffs each guitar with genuine shellac. Shellac is the excrement of the lac bug, and using it to shine the guitars is time consuming, to say the least. “I have to soak and strain the shellac pieces a couple times before I can use it for the wood. After that it’s just a matter of 30 or 40 hours of gentle circular movements to get the perfect sheen.”

Forsland also makes each guitar a story onto itself. “Every guitar has a name,” he says. “And each guitar suits its name in every way—from how it looks to how it sounds.” For example, the guitar called Winter is made from grey wood and it has a cold, crisp sound.

Forsland also adorns his guitars with designs that match the theme of each guitar. For example, the top of the guitar named Water has an inlaid design that looks like waves. Forsland uses precious stones and local materials such as crushed oyster shells to create these designs.

In the future, Forsland hopes to form connections with aspiring musicians. “I can make a guitar that matches their voice and playing style,” he says. “I also want to be able to see them grow as musicians. It’s pretty special to see someone play an instrument I built. I’ll think to myself, ‘I wish I could sound that good,’ but then I think, ‘That’s okay, because but I can build a guitar really well.’ It’s very satisfying.”

One local musician Forsland has worked with is Des Larson. “I saw him play one night and I thought, ‘This guy is amazing—his playing style and stage presence… wow! I need that guy to play one of my guitars.’ Eventually, we hooked up and Des became the owner of one of my guitars. It’s called Wind and it’s perfect for him because he’s always blowing around from place to place,” he says, laughing.

After a musician has purchased a guitar from Forsland, the relationship is not over. “I like to take care of musicians,” he adds. “After a musician has purchased a guitar from me, I make sure they’re taken care of string wise.” Forsland goes on to explain that guitar strings should be replaced at least once a month, so his ongoing commitment to his clients is no small thing.

In addition to building custom guitars, Forsland also rebuilds and repairs existing guitars. He will also make custom guitars for customers who have special objects or stories they would like within the guitar.

“An instrument is an emotional purchase—almost a family member for some,” he says. “The guitar never really stops, and the enjoyment never stops. I think it’s great that a guitar can just keep spreading the sound.”

It’s obvious Forsland has found his true passion, and that passion is illustrated by the beauty of his guitars. “I get so much out of making these instruments,” he says. “That’s why my guitars are called Joi—I really love this and I love doing this every day. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

To Forsland, his guitars are more than just a way to make a living—they are works of art.

“As a luthier, I look at the guitar as a canvas, writing stories and sharing emotions with choice of wood, stones, etcetera. Auditory and visual works of art that a player connects with acoustically and emotionally is my goal with each instrument I build.”

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Paula Wild’s latest book, <a href=

‘The Cougar: Beautiful, global burden of disease
Wild and Dangerous’, explores the relationship between humans and cougars in North America, and presents up-to-date information on cougar awareness and defense tactics. “Coexisting with cougars isn’t about fear, it’s about knowledge.” says Wild. Photo by Lisa Graham” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> Paula Wild’s latest book, ‘The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous’, explores the relationship between humans and cougars in North America, and presents up-to-date information on cougar awareness and defense tactics. “Coexisting with cougars isn’t about fear, it’s about knowledge,” says Wild. Photo by Lisa Graham

You are out for a pleasant stroll in one of our neighboring forests here on Vancouver Island and you are set upon by a cougar.

And it might be noted that a cougar encounter is more likely on this lovely island than it is anyplace else in North America.

It might also be noted that if you think you can outrun this huge feline (the largest species on the continent) then perhaps think again. Cougars can charge at a rate of more than 70 kilometres an hour.

These are just a few of the findings unearthed by Comox Valley author, Paula Wild in her latest book: The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous, which was published this month by Douglas & McIntyre.

The cougar is a magnificent beast found throughout North America and goes by many names such as mountain lion, puma, panther, catamount and has a place of honor at the top of our forest food chain.

So, why cougars as a subject for Wild? A couple of reasons, including their size and their beauty, but also because Vancouver Island is ‘Cougar Central’ for North America. Not only do we have the largest per capita population of the big cats, our home-grown are also the most aggressive of the species.

Most of our forest species, grizzlies included, are relatively benevolent if left alone. Not so with cougars. If a cougar decides he or she is going to get you it will, for reasons best known to the cougar. In the 1990s there were more than 50 cougar attacks in North America and if the cougar does happen to attack, the hapless victim stands in great jeopardy. That is a greater number than all the years prior to that date combined. In other words, cougars are growing increasingly dangerous and Wild wanted to know why.

Aside from the great speed of the animal when in attack mode, there is also its power.

“So, what makes this puma such a fearsome, lethal hunter?” says conservation biologist Dr. Reese Halter in a recent blog. “It is the awesome combination of sinewy muscles which enable it to spring 30 feet ahead and 18 feet in the air, sledgehammer front paws with retractable switchblade claws, a muzzle with an enormous grasp and teeth that slice and dice better than any butcher’s knife.”

It was those realities that drew Wild to the work of Dave Eyer. That and the night she heard a cougar scream in the forest one night near her home north of Courtenay. It was a distinctive and rather frightening sound, and she became determined to find out all she could about the beast. That was what led her to Eyer.

She contacted him after she’d read an article he had written on cougar safety. She asked if he had ever considered writing a book on cougars.

“He suggested that I, as professional writer should do the book, and that was how it all came about,” she says.

That launched an intense two-and-a-half year journey of interviewing scientists, wildlife officials, zookeepers, cougar hunters and people who have shared their homes with cougars. Wild also took Eyer’s two-day safety and awareness course that involved mock encounters with life-size cardboard cutouts of cougars charging at that aforementioned 72 kilometres per hour.

“You’d be amazed at how much adrenalin a cardboard cougar can generate,” Wild says. “It was really pretty frightening and put you in mind of what a real cougar attack would feel like.”

The cougar, with 90 per cent muscle, is the second largest cat in the Americas.  They can leap 14 metres across and are masters at blending in, their large padded paws allowing them to travel in near silence.  Photo courtesy Cougar Mountain Zoo

The cougar, with 90 per cent muscle, is the second largest cat in the Americas. They can leap 14 metres across and are masters at blending in, their large padded paws allowing them to travel in near silence. Photo courtesy Cougar Mountain Zoo

In the process of her research she found that cougars once existed from the Yukon to the tip of Patagonia. They are now predominantly in the western US and Canada, but in the past decade they have started to migrate eastward, and one has been found as far east as Connecticut.

She also learned that in 200 years there have been 255 attacks on humans, with 89 in BC—50 of those 89 attacks on Vancouver Island.

The big cats, she says, are attracted by motion, so it will do you no good to try to outrun a confronting cougar. She notes that it is widely believed that children are the most vulnerable but that’s not so. While children are often killed when they are attacked, it has been found that in surveyed incidents of attacks over a 200-year period—from 1812 to 2012—58 per cent of all cougar attacks have involved adults.

The standard rules in a cougar confrontation call for not running, but maintaining eye contact with the beast and making your eyes look as cold and as mean as possible under the circumstances. The cats respond to that. And, the old advice of making yourself appear larger is not a cliché, and it has actually worked in a number of cases.  “The cougar wants a quick kill and then to get out of the area,” Wild says. “The cats know it is risky to hang around. You have to think like a cougar.”

A couple of other protections Wild advises might be prudent to carry when venturing into the woods—including woods close at hand, not just in uncharted wilderness—would be bear spray and a shrill whistle. She always carries one on a toggle around her neck. The huge numbers of deer in the area attract cougars.

“And be prepared to blow that whistle long and hard—that can be very effective in making the cougar think twice about attacking,” she says.

Despite the proliferation of cougars on the Island, most people, including those who spend a lot of time in the forest—herself included—have never actually seen a cougar in the wild.

“But, because you haven’t seen one, it doesn’t mean one hasn’t seen you,” she says. “They often watch people quite undetected.

“A number of people contacted me with their cougar stories when I was researching the book, including seven from the Comox Valley,” she says. “That’s not surprising since the Island is a place of compact geography, which leaves it with the highest cougar density of anywhere.”

So, why is it that our cougars thrive and why are they so cranky and potentially dangerous. There are reasons, Wild says.

“We have a static cougar population here and they are extremely territorial and out to protect their domains,” she says. “As for the aggressiveness, that was an aspect I found increasingly interesting when I was researching. Sometimes the aggressiveness happens in pockets and it may indeed be a learned behavior. It’s possible, which is a bit chilling, that cougars are coming to see humans as prey. But again I emphasize that people should learn how to respond so they can defend themselves from attack. The majority of cougar attacks are predatory and humans are less dangerous to attack than are elk or deer, which can actually do a lot of damage to a cougar if they fight back, as they often do.”

But, Wild fully believes we need our cougar population to maintain a vital balance in nature. They keep the deer population under a certain amount of control and communities must also be aware that resident deer populations attract cougars.

“At the same time we need to be realistic,” she says. “People get upset when cougars are killed when they venture into populated areas. We may try to use the argument that they were here first. Fair enough. But, we’re here now and have to act accordingly when dealing with such a dangerous predator.

“The first thing people in our communities must do is stop feeding deer—I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. But if a cougar comes into the community and is seen near schools, public paths and so forth, then it earns a death warrant.”

She notes that cougars tagged by GPS collars have been spotted in public buildings and playgrounds, usually at night. “They are around us and we should be prepared for them.”

In that context Wild has included a chapter on cougar hunting and such old-fashioned cougar hunters as the legendary Cougar Smith of the Comox Valley and Cougar Annie.

“There’s a real art to cougar hunting in which the hunter has to be in tune with the cougar and also has to be in tune with his dogs,” she says. “And many cougars have been killed by dogs and many cougar dogs have been killed or maimed by the big cats. It’s in the nature of the process.”

US-born Wild, who immigrated to Canada at age 19, has been writing professionally since 1979. She is also the author of Sointula Island Utopia; One River Two Cultures and The Comox Valley. Sointula was awarded a BC Historical Federation Certificate of Merit for its “significant contribution to the history of BC.”

She says that although she kept journals all her life and had always harbored aspirations to be a writer, she didn’t activate that drive until she was in her late 20s.
“I was 29,” she says, “And I thought it was maybe time I got started if writing was a serious aspiration. And it was.”

In pursuit of that objective she attended North Island College, took numerous correspondence courses and attended a week long writing workshop at Strathcona Park Lodge.

Aside from her published books, Paula has also worked as a freelance writer for educational, corporate and government agencies. She is also a regular arts and culture feature writer and reviewer for the Comox Valley Record.

She loves being a writer and is accepting of the good and bad aspects of a challenging business.

“When the Sointula book was published in 1995 I was so excited,” she says. “I sent a few chapters to Harbour Publishing, being very unsure of the process at the time and wondering if that was the right thing to do. They were very positive about what I sent and told me to complete the manuscript, which I did. When it was finished and the box with the completed book arrived, I was afraid to open it. I just found it all intimidating.”

But, the intimidation did not last long. “Once you’ve written a book and had it published, you’re hooked,” she says. “Yes, sometimes it’s frustrating and other times it’s exhilarating.”

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