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Mountain Lions: Mystery, Myth and Matters of Fact

by Fred First

Inside the rustic cabin a few easy miles from the heart of Camp Winnataska, a dozen ten year old campers scrambled to choose bunks, exhausted from the longest hike some of these Birmingham city boys had ever taken in their short lives.

The chatter waned toward a whisper as night fell. “What if there are bears and stuff out there!” wondered one of our charges, a wonderfully terrible idea that quickly morphed into an hour of swapping lies, ghost stories and legends of woodland monsters.

As the boys’  finally began to wear down somewhat towards bedtime, another camp leader and I slipped away. We could still hear the buzz of conversation inside through the thin walls. In the near-dark we hauled a campfire stump over next to the cabin so I could reach the corrugated metal roof with a claw-like branch. Scratch scratch with the branch on the metal; we waited.

“Listen!” a high-pitched voice called out above the background little-boy babble, followed by collective holding of the breath. “Did you hear that?” Scratch. Wait.

And when the timing was just right, I let loose my “mountain lion” scream through cupped hands–a growling, throat-rending scream modeled after the terrible howl of man-eating tigers on Tarzan. But for our purposes that dark and starry night, this was the terrible cry of a Mountain Lion. We’d planted that seed earlier during the ghost stories. Shame on us.

“Why yes, we lost a camper up here coupla years back” we’d told them. “Started off hiking towards this cabin with 13 kids your age and when we got here, there were only 12. Found most of little Kenny back along the trail we walked today, draped across a fork of the tree about ten feet up–where she pulled him for dinner. Man!”

We half believed it ourselves, so common were the tales we’d heard from our seniors, obliged as each generation is to pass on to the next the fear and reverence we owe to the legend of the Big Cats.

I bring this up because twice, in totally independent party conversations lately, I heard grown men in tight little knots of conversation, perpetuating myth and rumor, tales of sightings and sworn testimony of reputable folk declaring the Certain Truth of these Ultimate Predators among us.

The Convinced swear that they (or more often someone they know who knows someone who) got a good look at the tail–almost as long as the body. “Now don’t tell me that was a tabby or a bob cat, no sir. And I was (or the other guy was) sober as a judge” they swear.

If a big cat was to want to be left to himself, he could hardly find a better place than our remote edge of Floyd County. Yes, I can imagine Mountain Lions out there, padding along in the moonlight silently up on our ridge tonight.

Those majestic predators were once common across all of Virginia and North America. Their demise (until recently?) in the East was in part because of the dwindling of the deer population. Well that particular item is prominently back on the menu, with only the local pack of Killer Subarus to keep deer numbers in check. Unless…

Rumors abound. We want to believe.  But I am, at times, a rational man, a science-oriented kind of guy not given to Elvis sightings. And so, in light of the recent party conversations and the pervasive hope and conviction there are “painters” in our woods (and even in spite of the Facebook picture this month of one ostensibly killed just off Route 8–show me the body), I did some studying on the matter of the Cougar of Floyd County and the East.

Here are the facts in a nutshell: a couple of organizations (like exist with the chief purpose of investigating sightings of eastern cougars. I want to believe, but listen: “Since the ECF’s inception in 1998, years of fielding, following up, and soliciting evidence from such reports have failed to produce a single cougar confirmation.” Oh ye of little faith.

If they are in fact not here (and I know some folks, sober as judges, who swear they’ve seen them) they ought to be–on Wills Ridge, in Free State and along the Little River. We gain by that hope and belief that wildness lives immortal just beyond our door.

And these magnificent reminders of life’s fine balance do live as we sustain their existence in our imaginations–generation after generation of campers, hunters, tellers of tales–believing we might reach the crest one day and see a panther disappearing into the distance.

We imagine them out there, watching, even as you read this final sentence, watching without a sound; waiting . . .

Scratch scratch.

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