Toby Travelers?

The full Wolf Moon curls its lip, displays a stained ivory canine and snarls from high in the cold midnight sky. Uh-oh! Here we go again. Cougars.

Yeah, you know — tawny, four legs, long, thick tail, square-ish face with black features along the nose and ears. Everyone who sees one is spellbound in awe of the power and grace, the body length, the unmistakable cat-like gait and agility. But this local tale is different from scores of others you’ve read here, because this time the reports go from ordinary to totally bizarre, in fact, out there, Dude, once referred to as “far out.”

I suppose I should begin by identifying the location, which in a general sense I’d call Mt. Toby, located east of the Connecticut River across from Mt. Sugarloaf, in the towns of Sunderland and Leverett. This deep, dense mountain forest is about as close to wilderness as we get in Franklin County, and it holds many deer. So, yes indeed, a likely spot for predatory cougars.

Although most people are familiar with Toby, its lofty fire tower and Cranberry Pond below, how many really know its deepest woods, remote outcroppings of ledge and caves? Not many is my guess, and that’s coming from a man who has explored local wild lands for 50 years or more, and that includes parts of Toby back in the day, when we followed ancient discontinued roads, likely originally Native paths, to dilapidated sugar shacks perfect for teenage mischief. Since those days of the 60s and early 70s, I had ignored Toby until exploring it a few times just this past spring, poking around large stone formations containing interesting shelf caves. But like most Toby wanderers, I didn’t venture too far off the beaten trail. The Toby woods are big and intimidating and likely worth getting to know on a lot of levels, but the first thing you need is time, which I never seem to have enough of. Hopefully, my day is near.

Enough of that, though, let’s get to the crux of the matter: recent cougar sightings reported to me. And let’s review them in the order I received them, beginning during fall bird-hunting season, when longtime Pioneer Valley scribe and 10-year Recorder employee Ralph Gordon pointed out a sighting on the Sunderland police log. I called the station the next day and talked to the police chief, who said he knew nothing of the incident reported near Cliffside Apartments. When he asked for a code number identifying the investigating officer, he named the sergeant and said he’d have him call me. That call never came, which I can’t say surprised me, but I let it pass. I’ve chased so many cougar sightings over the years that they’ve gotten old. Plus, why keep chasing a story when, after years of calling me irresponsible for reporting regional sightings, state and federal wildlife officials are now admitting that mountain lions will likely repopulate the Northeast? Honestly, I preferred it when the authorities were calling me crazy and inappropriate as more and more credible sources came forward to report sightings and criticize the arrogant, insulting responses they were getting from authorities handling calls.

Before we proceed, allow me to remind you that I have reported many cougar sightings over the years in the general area we’re talking about. Let’s define it, starting from the south, as the territory between Mt. Warner in Hadley and Northeast Street in Amherst, then through Sunderland, Leverett and Montague all the way to Mineral Road between the airport and the mouth of the Millers River. Perhaps the one report that authenticated all others in that area was the long email sent by a railroad engineer who had read this column for years and chimed in to say he had encountered “several” cougars riding the rails between Cranberry Pond and Lake Pleasant. So, take that, wildlife officials. If that’s not convincing, what is?

But back to the present, the second report to reach me arrived the day before Christmas when a man from Easthampton called at 9:30 a.m. to describe what he had just seen. I hesitate to repeat it, but he claimed five long-tailed cougars crossed Route 116 in front of his F.W. Webb truck in North Amherst. Moving east across the road between the auction gallery and the northernmost entry onto the main drag through North Amherst, they were seen headed toward Cowls Building Supply. I called a South Deerfield pal, who hurried to the scene to hunt tracks in the mud, found none and called to report his findings. Then, when I called Kieras Oil in North Hadley and spoke to old friend Bobby Kieras, who had spoken to the witness moments after the sighting, the man we call The Sheik chuckled and said, “Yeah, the guy was all excited and definitely had seen something, but I don’t think cougars travel in packs, do they?”

I too doubted the pack scenario because I can’t recall ever reading about five cougars running together, thus I didn’t aggressively pursue the lead. And even if people occasionally do see a family unit traveling together in cougar country, could such a sighting be already occurring in the Happy Valley? Let’s just say I was reluctant to even shed light on the report but, hey, here it is. I report, you decide. Why not toss it out there, unlikely as it may seem.

But wait. There’s a complication. Six days earlier, on Dec. 18, Bob Gabry, Sunderland sewage-treatment-plant chief, was traveling to work before dawn on Falls Road in Sunderland and, yep, you guessed it, between Whitmore Falls and Char Pond, lo and behold, an unmistakable mountain lion standing broadside in the road, crossing from the Connecticut River toward Mt. Toby. Gabry was right on top of the large beast, got a good look with his high beams and estimated it weighed 150 or more pounds. The skittish critter crouched momentarily and leaped up the hill, disappearing like a powerful, muscular, agile ghost. Gabry called me at work to report the sighting, and a note awaited me on my desk when I returned from vacation. I followed up last week, and Gabry was still awestruck.

“I have never seen anything move so fast, graceful and powerful,” he marveled, “and I don’t care if you use my name. I know what I saw. It was a mountain lion, a big one with a long, thick tail. There was no mistaking it. It was a mountain lion, and, man, could it move. Incredible.”

So there you have it: a little something to spike your morning java. Don’t worry. No harm swishing it around in your mouth a little before swallowing it and letting your mind meander off to some deep, damp, dark depression in the Toby wilds.

 

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2 Responses to Toby Travelers?

  1. Yes, Judy, and don’t underestimate the impact of these western wildfires, which must be driving some animals like cougars east, accelerating what is referred to as “dispersal.”

  2. Judy Pierce

    Re: Cougars I was reading The Adirondack Almanack, Sun.1/4/15. “Will Cougars Return to The Adirondack’s” by Mike Lynch. They refer to the “Black Hills and 53 males and 31 female cougars killed in 2014 – out of a population of just a few hundred” You may have seen this article but my thoughts are that if they are killing that many cougars out West, I hope some will ( and are) populate around here.

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