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On The Trail: Cougar crossing


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Noontime Saturday. Sunny. I’m running a fever indoors as the outdoor thermometer is forecast to drop. Sitting on a burgundy leather wing chair near the dining-room woodstove, I’m pulling on tall, green rubber boots with aggressive treads for a trip out back to the dogs under icy conditions. No reason to take another tumble like the one that broke a couple of ribs on my right side four or five years back.

I feel a cool breeze, detect commotion, then hear conversation moving my way from the carriage-shed door, through a parlor, a bedroom and the kitchen, where an unfamiliar man in sunglasses appears. It’s Craig Herdiech, who I last heard from by telephone years ago in connection with some columns about rattlesnakes. His mother had grown up in Greenfield, where she remembered a neighborhood rattlesnake den along the southern periphery of White Ash Swamp before the area around Cherry Rum Plaza was developed or the Route 2 bypass existed.

I knew his baseball-coach dad, Bill, a Greenfield native, long before I knew him, and had met his mom, Joan. I first became familiar with the kid when he was a ballplayer during the early years of my Recorder tenure. He was then a teen making his way through high school and playing on the Vets Field diamond. These days, no longer a kid, he enjoys dabbling in the some of the same type of stuff that keeps my wheels spinning, my gears grinding — that is, what he refers to as “bushwhacking” with his pal “Franny” Welcome and others. Welcome, too, first came into my viewfinder as a high school athlete, he at Turners Falls. Then I crossed paths with him on the local semi-fast softball diamonds. He’s always been friendly when we’ve bumped into each other.

Anyway, back to Herdiech, following my wife through the kitchen Saturday, his facial expression and gestures screaming with excitement. The man wanted to talk to me about something.

“Oh, there he is, Craig, sitting right there,” my wife says, pointing.

I look up, don’t recognize him.

“Hi Gary.”

“Hi. Did she say Craig?”

“Yeah. Craig Herdiech.”

“Oh, hi, good to see you.”

I rise to shake hands.

“So, what brings you out here today?”

There’s no hiding it. He’s all jacked up.

“You’ll never guess what I just saw in Northfield, coming back from Winchester, New Hampshire,” he blurts.

I had a pretty good idea.

“Cougar?”

“Yep, a mountain lion,” he reported. “I can’t say I saw much of it because it was hauling ass, bounding across the road. It crossed right in front of my car soon after I turned west onto Route 10 toward the bridge.

“When?”

“About a half-hour ago. I came right here.”

“There was no mistaking it,” he continued, transitioning into his next phase of description by spreading his arms wide. “Its tail was this long. It all happened fast. Just a few long bounds and it was gone,” over the bank headed south toward Llewelyn’s Farm.

OK. There you have it. Another Franklin County cougar sighting. How does one assess such a sighting; even one who’s evaluated many? Well, No. 1, observation told me the excitement was real and palpable, No. 2 the man ventured far out of his way to report it face to face, and No. 3, this has to be the fifth or sixth credible Northfield sighting that’s come my way over the past 15 or 20 years. Remember, there’s no shortage of deep, mountainous woods around Northfield, no matter which side of the Connecticut River you’re on, and I’ve received credible reports from both sides.

I see no reason to doubt the man. Well, that is unless I follow the policy of state and federal wildlife officials who refuse to accept any sightings as evidence. It’s true that all reports of cougar sightings are not accurate. There is such a thing as a mistaken identity. I have seen it myself, when people send me photos of bobcats or orange tabbies walking along a distant wood line. Still, to assume that all sightings are misidentifications, hallucinations, LSD flashbacks or wild hoaxes by publicity seekers is not a wise or valid predetermination. Cougars were historically here, much of our landscape has reforested, deer populations have rebounded, and bears and moose and turkeys have come back. So why not the return of the big cat? How could it be impossible?

Remember, officials chose to ignore several reported sightings in southern Connecticut back in 2013, then had to explain a cougar carcass on the highway, one ultimately identified by DNA as a South Dakota “disperser.” Then, closer to home in June of 2016, the attack on a Petersham horse that officials said could not possibly have been committed by a cougar was indeed proven to be a cougar-attack by two reputable forensic labs that analyzed the biological materials gathered on the scene by the horse’s irate owner. Like many cougar reporters before her, she felt disrespected, believing condescending officials called to the scene had treated her like an idiot. That’s what you’re up against if you want to report a cougar sighting in New England.

So now, here we go again. Huh? A noontime Saturday cougar passing through Northfield at an unlikely riverside spot?

Hmmmmmm?

Why not?

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.