The cry was piercing, raw, and close, echoing through the humid late spring air of the Stecoah Mountains. I was in my tent, which was pitched in a glade. I sat up quickly, my heart hammering. A chill ran through me. I stopped breathing and listened, fearing there might be another — nearer — dreadful encore. Nothing.
I’d never heard the creature before, but had read a description of its cry — “the sound of a woman screaming.”
I parted my lips, exhaling slowly as the adrenaline kick fizzled out. My afternoon siesta over, I packed up my tent and continued to the next shelter. There I shared my experience with other backpackers, but chalked it up as just another “A.T. Adventure Moment.”
Now, years later, I wonder — was it a bobcat? Might it have been a larger, more controversial and formidable animal now reportedly being seen in some places along the Appalachian Trail — a mountain lion?
Some website research recently revealed a page where debate rages in Connecticut. There are reported sightings of mountain lions (puma concolor) over a wide area around Farmington (www.ctmountainlion.org). The map on the site is of particular interest. Comments there show how contentious the issue has been.
When I backpacked the Long Trail in Vermont I would hear rumors of mountain lions in the Green Mountains. Vermonters call them catamount. I never saw evidence for them, but then I wasn’t looking.
Encounters with mountain lions (also called panthers, painters, catamount, and pumas) reach back to the early settlement of America. Their habitat, once abundant in the eastern range, dwindled, and they were considered extinct due to the encroachment of the logging industry as well as having been hunted. Still, reports that they survived persisted among some scientists and locals, though definitive evidence was lacking.
Today, wildlife officials at the local and state levels agree that cougars exist in the Appalachian range, at least to some degree.
Which leads to the obvious question: what should you do if you saw a cougar along the trail in the wild?
First, do not run. Cougars, though shy and wary of people, may chase anything that flees from them, including people.
Another technique, sometimes used when meeting with bears in the wild, is to make yourself look bigger than the animal confronting you. Stand up tall, raise your open arms in the air. Stay calm, backing away slowly while maintaining eye contact with the cat, and talk loudly. If you are attacked, fight back furiously. Use your fists, any available weapon, tree limbs, rocks. Putting up a fight can deter or drive the cougar away.
In my estimation, I believe it would be unlikely that I would see a mountain lion when backpacking the Appalachian Trail, nor does current news and reported sightings deter me from venturing onto the trail.
Still, when I look at that map of Connecticut sightings it makes me wonder. What if?