Cougar Ramble

Another hectic start to column-writing day, which began with a robust workout and moved fluidly from a doctor’s appointment, to running the dogs, to the bank, to the gas station, to Foster’s for dinner and finally home, where I filled the stoveside wood cradle, swept up the debris and poured myself a cup of coffee. And, now, here I sit at high noon, hazy sun softened through sheers, pondering where to go and how to get there.

I suppose I could write about the preliminary archery and shotgun deer harvests that arrived in my inbox late last week. But why? The numbers are preliminary, incomplete (no blackpowder stats) and uninspiring if you live west of Worcester. What else is new? Hunters in the eastern half of the state recorded 78 percent of the 3,689 archery kills and a mere 74 percent of the 5,345 shotgun kills. Enough said until the final numbers are released and we can understand them in comparison to previous harvests.

Another subject that keeps passing through my mind of late is this weird winter we’re experiencing. My snowblower has been sitting idly in the carriage shed for more than a month, totally unneeded. Can’t say I ever in my lifetime remember bare lawn into the double digits of January. But that’s where we’re at this year, and I’m not complaining. I need exercise and the walking is great, hard surface underfoot, brisk air to invigorate the lungs and keep you fresh. Great therapy for one who loves to set his mind free, pondering, plotting, fantasizing, justifying. But I must say I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the weather’s been so strange. Not after what we’ve put our planet through the past two years. First the Gulf ‘s Deepwater Horizon spill, then Fukushima. Remember that? The press doesn’t seem to. Talk about poisoning our own plate. We seem to be good at it, and justifying it with lame excuses. Yeah, I know there are some who’ll call me loony. Who cares? My shoulders are strong enough to handle criticism. I truly believe that those two disasters disrupted Mother Earth’s digestive system in a big way, no matter what the fatherly figures on the boob tube and editorial pages would have you believe. But enough of that. Why beat my head against the wall? Onward ho!

Grandson Jordi’s due in town this weekend. We’ve been waiting for him since Christmas. Daughter-in-law Debbie finally called. He’s ours this weekend. Great news! Although the Christmas tree’s been down for a week, the presents are still handy, some for him, others for younger brother Arie. I still wonder where Gary came up with that name. He called him Arie Safari. Me, too, in his honor. The kid’s growing up fast. Heading on 3, not yet quite independent enough for my liking. But I know it won’t be long before I’m lugging two boys around in my travels. Can’t wait, even though I’m probably not the best mentor to produce that highly desirable front-row milquetoast skilled at telling people what they want to hear. Yuck! Definitely not my type.

My wife spoke to Jordi Tuesday night. She was thrilled to hear from him. Always is. Had left several unanswered messages since Christmas. In her conversation, she said the kid asked for me with true adoration in his voice. He wanted to know where I was.

“He’s at work.”

“Oh. Did he get that new truck?”

“Yes, we’ll drive it up to get you.”

“Good.”

To be honest, I can’t believe the kid remembered. I had just mentioned in passing that I was thinking about buying a new pickup. Wanted enough room for him and his brother. You know, just in case I needed it for Fort Ticonderoga or some other weekend adventure. He hadn’t forgotten. Which reminds me, have you priced Tacomas lately? Outrageous. But I have had good luck with two others, and I do know how to use them. I can see why some folks choose to buy a roadside beater that you start with a screwdriver. But why? Been there, done that. Life’s short. Hopefully, you’ve outgrown that kind of vehicle by 25. But that’s just me. More power to the folks who choose to live in unkempt shacks next to stinking cesspools, drive junk cars and read Penguin paperbacks while relaxing in Bob’s Furniture’s finest. All so they can die with money in the bank.

Whew, sorry! How did I get so distracted? Oh yeah, probably the devil himself, always lurking, seeking an opening, me often vulnerable. Or maybe it was that beautiful full moon, particularly alluring to a Cancer moon child like your truly. But enough of that! Onto cougars. Yeah, that’s right. Big cats again. Can’t resist.

There was plenty of feedback, some too intriguing to ignore, from last week’s column about a Leyden sighting that was difficult to dismiss. Not only that but peripheral information that went unpublished kept falling into place like windblown pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which, to be honest, don’t often just fall into place. In fact, had the related information not come together so magically, much of it would have never made it into print. But here we go, despite the fact that some news Pooh-Bahs  may call me irresponsible, even inappropriate for reporting it. Those are among these fellas’ favorite descriptions of stories they don’t agree with: irresponsible and inappropriate, two charges that roll down the back of my raincoat. But remember, these are the same people who’ve advised us to ignore the dangers of nuclear power, DDT, global warming, mercury amalgams, infant vaccines, and water-supply fluoride. Inquisitive folks, liberals, tend to take heed and explore issues like those. Others quickly dismiss them out of hand. Count me among the former.

But, anyway, back to cougars. It seems there’s no shortage of local big-cat sightings  these days and, as usual, new ones came flying at me after publicizing the latest reported to me. What’s interesting is that a lot of this stuff started before last week’s column even hit the street. A friend of mine, already bored silly by winter, got right on what I’ll call the Caron-cougar tale because he knew some relatives of the source. He called a cousin to evaluate the man’s credibility and came away totally convinced the story was sound. Not only that but he implored me to speak to the cousin myself, said he had plenty to say about local cougars, starting with the matter-of-fact assertion that, “they’re definitely here, and there are people with photos to prove it, one in Shelburne and another who placed trail cameras near the Mt. Toby caves.”

Although that information piqued my interest, I figured it would be way too difficult to substantiate and could open me up to criticism from the grand Pooh-Bahs of news. Then the plot thickened when back-to-back emails arrived within an hour of each other Saturday, both reporting sightings near — you guessed it — Mt. Toby. The first response came from an Amtrak engineer, the second from a woman living on Dry Hill Road in Montague, in the vicinity of other sightings reported here over the years. Hmmmm? Definitely worth exploration.

First, the railroad engineer, who said he had read my column for years, had followed the cougar sightings with interest, and had a front-row seat for wildlife sightings from his train. In seven years of driving “The Vermonter” between our Springfield  and Brattleboro, Vt., he claims to have seen two mountain lions, both in Leverett under the afternoon shadow of Mt. Toby. The first sighting occurred four years ago when traveling north across Depot Road. That big cat ran eastward across the tracks and was gone. The second sighting occurred two miles north of that site as the train passed through lower Toby. That cat ambled slowly across the tracks and the engineer got a good look, said there’s no mistaking a cougar, even one running, for anything else. But here’s the kicker. All Amtrak engines come equipped with video cameras that capture everything in their path, including the two Leverett cougars.

The engineer said he considered, in response to all the cougar controversy, asking his foreman to download the movie for public consumption, “But then I thought, ‘I know it’s here, it knows it’s here and why bother it?’ I think if there is a next time, I’ll have the images downloaded and share them.”

To be honest, I hesitated to even put his exciting offer in print. Why, you ask? Well, because I wouldn’t put it past the same federal wildlife officials who a year ago declared Eastern Cougars extinct to lean on Amtrak administrators to keep such video evidence hidden from the public. It’s clear that such officials would prefer to continue dismissing Northeastern cougar sightings as creative figments of gushing imaginations.

That’s the way some people who control news flow operate — always, of course, for the good of the reader. But remember: YouTube and other New News mediums are badly hurting Old News standard bearers, many of which are dying slow, tedious deaths by self-inflicted wounds spurting denial.

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