Broken Silence

Here I sit, dilapidated, duct-taped knee brace strapped to my chronic left knee, recuperating from a flare-up that required my first drainage and cortisone-shot remedy since injuring the joint on a bad 1976 landing while stealing second base at East Longmeadow’s Veterans Field. Cortisone had been suggested once in the past but I settled instead for high doses of ibuprofen, a long-shot that worked like a charm in a day or two, surprising even the orthopedic surgeon. Problem is, anti-inflammatory medicine is temporarily off-limits to me, so I was forced to find an alternative pain-management tool, one that’s more invasive but seems to be doing the job. Question is: How many cortisone shots can the human body endure? Anyway, enough personal stuff, back to cougars, that subject that just won’t go away.

It surprised me how many local folks visit the MSNBC website, which ran a national New England cougar story last week featuring me as a scribe who’s reported several sightings and formed an opinion that’s unpopular among some state and federal wildlife officials. The cyberspace story drew emails and phone calls before I had even finished my coffee or run the dogs Friday morning, and the shout-outs continued pouring in through the weekend, from as faraway as Afghanistan. Included among the correspondents was a Connecticut naturalist, whose book, “The Quest for the Eastern Cougar: Extinction or Survival?” has apparently drawn wide acclaim. Also, the MSNBC scribe and my Afghanistan connection both mentioned the name of William Betty, a Rhode Island writer/lecturer who apparently shares my opinion that cougars are migrating back to the Northeast due to reforestation and other favorable factors.

When MSNBC writer Jim Gold, a Springfield native who now lives outside Seattle, asked me what spurred my interest in cougars, I told him I was hunting one day nearly 10 years ago along the banks of the Deerfield River in Conway when a buddy led me 150 yards out of our way to show me a fresh set of tracks he had crossed in perfect tracking snow. They were obviously cat tracks, also clearly way too big for a bobcat. This, my buddy, a longtime trapper, knew from experience. And get this: The guy was a total non-believer in local cougar sightings, and told me so, saying he even questioned his own dad’s 1960s sighting on Colrain’s Franklin Hill. But still, those riverside tracks he had happened upon had him scratching his head and potentially reassessing a longtime opinion. He wasn’t willing to say the tracks were absolutely those of a cougar, but he didn’t know what else could have left them.

My friend’s curiosity got my wheels spinning, and they continued to sing a shrill, gnawing tune for weeks before I finally published a story recounting that day. Figured I’d just throw it out there and see what happened. Well, that column drew an avalanche of responses from local people who had seen cougars on Franklin County’s highways and byways yet were hesitant to admit it for fear of being called loony. And still to this day, many years  later, I can count on unleashing that email torrent every time I revisit the subject as I have the past three weeks.

Take the case of a man from an old Bernardston tribe I won’t identify but natives of that town and many surrounding towns would recognize the family as hunters familiar with the wilds. Finally, after reading about 50 columns I have devoted to cougars over the past eight or 10 years, this man decided to chime in, responding to a New Year’s Day North Leyden sighting by Edward Caron, a man with Leyden roots likely deeper than the oldest sugar maple in town. Apparently, the fact that a rock-ribbed source like Caron would go public was enough to smoke out this man’s cougar tale, which occurred while deer hunting in southern Vermont many years ago. He credited the many Recorder stories he had read for drawing out his first disclosure of that old sighting; and now, after reading of Caron’s sighting, he was ready to share it with me in writing. So here it is, a sighting that occurring while hunting with his brother 20 or 25 years ago in “the West Brattleboro area:”

The brothers employed a traditional deer-hunting routine of entering the woods at first light and sitting in their stands for a few hours before regrouping at the truck for a 10 a.m. coffee break and strategy session. Well, because my source was experiencing a quiet day in his stand, he got restless and walked down the hill toward the truck a little earlier than planned, deciding to change his location to a site looking down at a stonewall 35 feet in front of him. He sat down and hadn’t totally settled in when he noticed movement coming his way from the other side of the wall. Thinking it was a deer, he got ready and waited for the animal to cross the wall, “but instead it jumped up on the wall and walked it. There was no mistaking what it was. I could see every muscle in its body and its long tail.”

The cat finally left the wall to the hunter’s left and sauntered up the hill away from him and out of sight. “After rubbing my eyes a dozen times, I still couldn’t believe what I had just seen,” he wrote, “and when I returned to the truck where my brother was, I never told him about it because he wouldn’t have believed me. In fact, I never told anyone about it until you started writing about it. I can still picture that cat in my mind. It was amazing. … You can believe that report from Caron. I know the gang.”

Enough said … for now … in a continuing saga with bold muscular legs.

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