Cougar Almost Home (c) Rod MacIver

CATRUNNERS, Prologue

Summer. A fine time for adventures and our favorite mountains, deserts, and seashores. And a good book to travel with us. The Rewilding summer reading program for our young rewilding friends (and any others readers as well!) includes Catrunners, a young-adult novel by John Davis. The Prologue follows, and Chapter One will also be featured in coming months before the book is completed and published by Essex Editions. ~ editors

By John Davis

John Davis c/o Kenyon Fields

John Davis c/o Kenyon Fields

On rain-soaked kaleidoscopic leaves, Ranger descended the east flanks of the High Peaks, quickly and quietly as the prevailing breeze. He was hungry, having only managed to catch one Snowshoe Hare while up in the spruce-fir sub-alpine forests, barely enough to maintain for another day his 170-pound ripped physique. Now in mid-elevation northern hardwood forest, with plenty of Northern Red Oak and American Beech trees dropping nuts to feed White-tail Deer, Turkeys, and other potential prey, Ranger was back in a more abundant land.

He found a deer path, faintly visible from the compressed leaves, followed it till he noticed just the right stout overhanging oak limb, then climbed the tree to snooze on the branch, and wait. Ranger’s keen nose and ears awoke him after a long nap in waning sunlight that October afternoon, when a big ten-point buck sauntered toward him. Ranger looked carefully, felt the urge to pounce, and suppressed it. This was too big and strong an animal for him to safely take, even now that he was full-grown. He snoozed again, until at dusk two yearling does, probably sisters, walked casually up the trail, their hooves just audible on the damp maple, beech, birch, and oak leaves. The first doe looked a possible but formidable catch; she clearly would give him a fight unless he timed his pounce perfectly. The second looked a little weaker, a little easier.

Mountain Lion, public domain

Mountain Lion, public domain

He found a deer path, faintly visible from the compressed leaves, followed it till he noticed just the right stout overhanging oak limb, then climbed the tree to snooze on the branch, and wait. Ranger’s keen nose and ears awoke him after a long nap in waning sunlight that October afternoon, when a big ten-point buck sauntered toward him. Ranger looked carefully, felt the urge to pounce, and suppressed it. This was too big and strong an animal for him to safely take, even now that he was full-grown. He snoozed again, until at dusk two yearling does, probably sisters, walked casually up the trail, their hooves just audible on the damp maple, beech, birch, and oak leaves. The first doe looked a possible but formidable catch; she clearly would give him a fight unless he timed his pounce perfectly. The second looked a little weaker, a little easier.

Next day, under crisp clear autumn skies, he had a big breakfast of venison, covered the carcass again, then slowly walked a wide circuit around the small tree-canopied mountain on which he’d found food and rest. He sniffed and listened and looked for prospective rivals (other male Pumas), thieves (carcass scavengers), or more happily but less likely, mates (female Pumas, last sensed fifty miles west of here). He sensed none of the first or last categories, but more than he wished of the middle: He smelled, saw, or heard Black Bears, Coyotes, Fisher, Raccoons, ravens, crows, Blue Jays, and a Bald Eagle – any of whom might help themselves to his hard-won meat stash.

Sure enough, as he neared his temporary dining and napping room, he saw a mother bear and two cubs feasting on his kill. He knew better than to try to chase away a hungry family of bears, so he waited till they’d had their fill, satisfied his own appetite again, then pulled the diminishing carcass back into the pit and covered it in leaves and sticks.

The second morning after his successful kill, Ranger feasted again, then covered the meat, and lay down for a mid-morning nap. About noon, as a warm sun liberated odors from the carcass, he heard more scavengers approaching. This time it was a family of Eastern Coyotes, reasonably known to some of their human viewers as Coy-Wolves, for the healthy fraction of Eastern Wolf genes many of them bear. They were much bigger and more Wolf-like than any of the Coyotes he’d ever encountered in the Badlands. He knew he could easily defeat any one of them in a fight, even make a few meals of one; but a pack of five, that was a different matter.

Plus, the meat was seasoned enough now, in this last stretch of almost summery weather, it was nearly too far gone for his discerning palate. With a quick snarl, to remind the big dogs that a big cat had got the meat they were about to enjoy, Ranger strode away, finishing his descent of the Sentinel Range. He reached the East Branch of the AuSable River about dusk, then waited quietly on the river bank, till traffic on adjacent Route 9N had subsided. Then he bolted across the road, and began climbing the next Adirondack sub-range, the Jay Mountains, a little lower but rockier than the Sentinels, thus full of good hiding and sunning places.

As he strode through the hardwood forest, red and yellow leaves dropping around him, and occasionally bound up ledges toward high vantages from which to look around and survey his possible future territory, Ranger managed to find and deftly flip and kill two Porcupines – prey too prickly for most predators, but convenient – if risky — game for Pumas and their smaller cousins Bobcats (as well as for the largest surviving weasel family member in the area, Fisher). Ranger looked eastward from grand viewpoints atop Saddleback and Slip Mountains, summits still rocky and open decades after fire partially cleared them. He saw what looked an equable and friendly realm, of rocky forested hills extending in a broad swoosh stripe through a wide valley of woodlands and small farms. He could see what looked to be a safe route through the West Champlain Hills, all the way to Lake Champlain, distantly sparkling with Vermont’s Green Mountains as dark backdrop. He imagined this Adirondack Coast to be a rich territory teeming with tasty animals.

So he started down, and sought prey again, as he descended toward the burbling North Branch of the Boquet River many miles eastward. West of a big snag-studded swamp near Fay Mountain, Ranger out-witted a male Turkey, no easy matter, and left just enough of him to feed a hungry, nearly-grown aptly-named Turkey Vulture.

Cougar (c) MasterImages

Cougar (c) MasterImages

Ranger found good cover beneath pine/hemlock/hardwood forest along the narrow, rocky upper North Branch of the Boquet River, so followed this waterway downstream. Fortuitously, this led him to the safest crossing of the most dangerous road in Adirondack Park, I-87. Ranger watched and waited a good while before daring that crossing. Finally, soon after midnight, about half way through that October, Ranger felt the distance between trucks and cars roaring overhead was great enough, he could sneak past the highway, under the bridge over the North Branch, before the next truck approached.

He moved as swiftly and quietly as a pine bough might float down the rushing river. The ground felt disagreeable there – riprap right under the bridge, ATV ruts in caked mud either side – but that seemed a small matter, for gaining access to that fruitful realm he’d scanned from atop the Jay Mountains. Then, as he exited the underpass, he heard a faint click, and turned as he hurried forward to see a strange camouflage box in a small cage on a post – similar to objects he used to see in the Badlands, apparently maintained by people with guns. So he rushed down-river, away from the road, bridge, and scary box.

Safely away from those human frights, he happened upon a small group of young bucks napping in a hemlock grove next to a cascading, noisy stretch of the North Branch. As he assessed their vulnerability from behind a big hemlock, with plunging waters drowning out any sound from his breathing, he noticed one had a broken antler and looked a big haggard, like it had been bested by an older buck. He chose this buck as his prey. After a minute of the classic feline stealth hunt — creep/freeze/creep/freeze/creep/freeze … Ranger made the rapid rush. Although he quickly topped a speed of 40 mph, the bucks had suddenly caught his scent as the breeze shifted, and bound away before he could make a successful pounce.

Luckily for Ranger, who’d decided to wait for another chance in this deer-yard, that same broken-antlered buck reappeared, alone, the next day, just a quarter mile downstream. This time, Ranger crept closer and sprinted faster; and the bested buck was dead beneath him in seconds.

So Ranger dined and snoozed in this riparian forest for three more days, till a jaunty, Patagonia-clad angler came along, and started casting for trout. Fortunately, he’d eaten the best of the meat by then, and hidden the rest well enough a human would not find it; but he no longer felt safe here, so slipped away in the rising sun. He found cover, before other humans might be out and about, in anorthosite ledges of low hills fronted by farms to the north.

Though he could see many easy prey animals in the farm fields below his rocky-hill perches, he could also see occasional dogs and people and their big machines; and he sensed he must not be tempted by easy prey here, for people meant danger. He’d lost his mother back in his Badland youth to humans that drove big machines and made a big blast with a pointed stick. He would avoid their kind.

Under cover of darkness, he continued along the swath of forest – Split Rock Wildway, the people who’d set the camera under I-87 called it — reaching like an arm of safety from the High Peaks far behind him to the big lake before him. Upon reaching the pair of breast-like hills known as North and South Boquet Mountains, he could smell a common but seemingly benign human presence. He glimpsed from hidden rocky alcove lookouts two small groups of people walking on paths through lands marked with green signs that seemed to suggest some sort of wildlife sanctuary. None of the people carried guns.

Cougar, public domain

Cougar, public domain

Continuing south from South Boquet, he entered an area where the boundary signs were faded yellow, not bright green, and the forest was patchily cut, and he again sensed more danger. He looked up just in time to see a man on a stand in a maple tree pointing a gun at him.

Ranger then made the fastest sprint of his young life, approaching the speed of his Cheetah cousins in Africa, as he heard three bullets narrowly miss him from behind. He kept going till he saw more of those friendly green signs, amid healthier, older forest.

By now, it was late October and autumn winds had dropped most of the hardwood foliage. So his cover by day was less. He thus waited till dark to approach the next big rocky hill that stood between him and the lake. He followed a small stream (Sprig Brook) down, then slipped through the narrowest part of the wildlife corridor, a bottleneck, where farm fields constricted safe passage to a quarter mile of rocky woods.

He was abruptly stopped by another road, Route 22, where a truck roared by just as he approached. Ranger waited and watched, then decided he’d risk a quick rush across the road, as traffic was light this late at night. He made it, scared but safe, then faced one of the biggest rivers he’d seen since leaving his first Adirondack home far to the west.

He walked along the left bank of the Boquet River, and decided the current was safest to cross at a pair of islands bounded by narrow channels where the water was swift but not dangerously so. Ranger plunged across, rushed through an area recently logged, then found the safety and cover of mature forest, as dawn approached. He caught another Porcupine for a light repast, then slept away the mid-day hours under a lichen-carpeted boulder. He traversed in seconds a talus slope that would have taken a human hiker many tense minutes to climb, then loped up past scraggly Pitch Pines to the rockiest summit of Coon Mountain at dusk. From there, he looked down on an inviting wetland complex with a round pond, fringed by Leatherleaf and Swamp Loosestrife, at its center.

He ambled this way, feeling safe for a lack of any obvious recent human intruders. When he reached the wetland, though, he faced another kind of busy, building mammal – a Beaver. A hefty old Beaver was gnawing on a hemlock tree a good hundred feet from its pond of safety. Ranger had seen plenty of Beaver sign since being moved to the Adirondacks, but his Badlands lineage had no recent history, or genetic memory, of preying on these stout bark-eaters.

Ranger was hungry enough to risk new prey. He sprinted at the aging Beaver before the huge rodent sensed his danger, and had him dead eighty feet from his watery realm.

Ranger found the rich fatty flesh very appetizing, and realized this animal could form part of his diet, when he wasn’t lucky enough to get a deer. Ranger ate much of the Beaver that night and the next day, especially enjoying the paddle-shaped tail, then wandered eastward just before dusk. He smelled smoke from a chimney, so skirted the Beaver family’s down-stream pond on the side away from a small cabin, espying a fleece-wearing man near the cabin cutting firewood with a bow-saw. The man looked harmless and smelled faintly of domestic cats, so Ranger padded coolly over damp pine and hemlock needles east toward Split Rock Wild Forest.

Cougar Almost Home (c) Rod MacIver

Cougar Almost Home (c) Rod MacIver

That night, Ranger reached Lake Champlain, just north of towering cliffs patrolled by Peregrine Falcons and known to nearby people as the Palisades. He could not continue east without a very long cold swim, but had no wish to do so. He would now roam these West Champlain Hills awhile, looking and smelling for a prospective mate. He knew there was plenty of food here. The question was, could he find a mate.

Follow, Like & Share Rewilding!
RSS
Follow by Email
Facebook
Facebook
Twitter
Visit Us
YouTube
YouTube
Instagram
Rewilding

The Rewilding Institute (TRI) mission is to explore and share tactics and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation and restoration in North America and beyond. We focus on the need for large carnivores and protected wildways for their movement; and we offer a bold, scientifically credible, practically achievable, and hopeful vision for the future of wild Nature and human civilization on planet Earth. |Subscribe | Join The Movement |

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Steven Kellogg - August 3, 2018

This is a vividly descriptive and intriguing introduction to a saga about the return of a long absent and magnificent big cat to it’s traditional Adirondack range. This reader looks forward to reading additional entries in Ranger’s tale as he explores the rugged forested mountains that were once divided into the hunting and breeding territories of a large population of his ancestors.

Reply
Leave a Reply: