Then it started down the mountainside, crossed a narrow highway, and loped toward the wide, rushing river. For days, the cougar had been edging closer to the small lumber village of Lillooet on the Fraser River, at the edge of the mountains of southern British Columbia in Canada. Now, after drinking the river’s cold water, the cougar bedded down again in a nest of tall grass.
On July 3, 1991, the five children in Larrane Leech’s day care group were outdoors early, painting bright tempera landscapes under the penetrating sun. By 10 a.m., it was time to find shade, so Larrane decided they would walk down to the river. “We’re going to pick berries now,” she announced.
At 44, she had made her dream come true when she turned her home into a day care center. It had taken hard work to get her certification. After completing her courses in early childhood education, Larrane had volunteered in a day care center while working at a lumber mill and raising three teen sons alone.
So far, the center was operating smoothly. But she always worried about keeping her clients satisfied, as well as being able to care for enough children to make the business pay off.
Larrane had known all five children in her care since they were infants. Three were siblings: playful Mikey, age two; three-and-a-half-year-old Alleshia, the tough little athlete; and Jessica Allen, five, the exuberant leader. Four-year-old Natani Leech was actually an aunt to the three siblings, and Larrane, in turn, was Natani’s aunt. Only the bubbly toddler Lisa O’Laney, a few months shy of two, was unrelated to them. All were members of Indigenous tribes clustered around Lillooet, around 150 miles northeast of Vancouver.
The children had fallen easily into Larrane’s daily routine. Everyone loved circle time, when they passed around a black-and-white eagle feather; the child who held it could talk about whatever he or she wanted. A nature lover, Larrane also insisted they spend as much time as possible outdoors.
After clearing away the painting supplies and handing each child an empty jar on that July morning, Larrane called for Pal, her one-year-old German shepherd mix. Giggling with anticipation, Jessica and Natani paired off in front. Larrane linked Mikey’s hand with Alleshia’s, took little Lisa’s in her own, and said, “Let’s go.”
Larrane’s house stood on a wooded slope not far up from the mighty Fraser River. The group made its way over the dusty gravel road and then onto a dirt trail through the trees. The two oldest girls broke into a run through the tall brown grass at the trail’s edge, Natani’s waist-length hair swaying back and forth. Larrane and the little ones hurried to keep up.
Stopping the children at the first berry bush, Larrane pointed to the clusters of plump, sweet, navy blue fruit. “Look, the berries are all over,” she said. She helped Lisa find some clusters on the lowest branches. Mikey watched and then tentatively bit into a berry. “Mmm, good,” he said, and got busy plucking more.
The cougar cocked an ear toward the birdlike chatter and reflexively sniffed the air. Cougars rarely attack people or show themselves, but as towns expanded into mountainous countryside, there had been more and more sightings, especially in southern British Columbia. At the time, the province was home to some 3,000 of them.
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