Two phone calls, a month apart, reporting separate sightings of a New England phantom, added perspective gleaned from a morning trip to my old stomping grounds, and here I sit, molding it into an outdoors tale for the sports page.
So let’s begin with the apparition, otherwise known as mountain lion or catamount or panther or puma or, heaven forbid, Eastern cougar — an agile, secretive and potentially dangerous beast that once roamed these parts as a top-of-the-food-chain North American predator, which has now, for the second time in four years, been declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This declaration comes despite claims of many card-carrying wildlife biologists with impeccable credentials that there never was a genetic difference between cougars in the East, West, North or South. That’s right. No subspecies. Just one big cat that grew larger in northern climes. So put that in your carved calumet bowl and smoke it. While you’re at it, pull that sacred tribal smoke deep into your lungs, hold your breath and savor the enlightenment that may invade your consciousness. It won’t harm you. The truth never does. In fact, it can be liberating. Well, of course, that is unless someone in power is determined to hide it, which, naturally, I am in no way suggesting here. Just something to keep in mind.
The freshest sighting is new indeed and came my way from old South Deerfield acquaintance Eddie Jablonski, known in town as far back as I remember as “Jabber.” A couple of years older than me, he lived as a boy across town off Sugarloaf Street, patrolling “The Desert,” barren sand drifts out by the old town dump between West Street and the East Whately line. He remembers well the days before residential development — Gromaki and King Philip avenues — and the Route 116 bypass changed the landscape forever by the early 1970s. Jabber also remembers great brook-trout fishing in lower Sugarloaf Brook between the Brookside Cemetery and Herlihy Park, and so do I, though not nearly as well as he and the Sadoski boys. Their backyards, it was a hike for me.
First word of Jabber’s cougar tale came my way Friday afternoon from work. Colleague Jay Butynski left a message on my home phone alerting me to a breathless message on my work phone asking for a call-back. The man had seen a real, live four-legged cougar at midday in North Hatfield and was anxious to speak to me. I finally reached him Monday afternoon, by which time his excitement had abated little. All he knew was what he, with his own eyes, saw trying to cross Depot Road through Bradstreet in broad daylight. He didn’t care what anyone thought or said.
On his way to Golonka’s Farm Stand on the North Hatfield/Whately line, Jabber was cutting across from River Road to Routes 5 & 10 when, just past the outflow of Cronin Hill Road on the left, four telephone poles down the road, he spotted what he first assumed was a deer. When it walked out into the road and presented a clear broadside view, he knew it was not. The musclebound cat briefly froze, turned its head toward Jabber’s oncoming vehicle, reversed direction and vanished in a jiffy into a tall, deep silage cornfield.
Jabber continued to the spot of the sighting, looked north into the cornfield, saw nothing and was so stunned that he turned around and went home. Forget the sweet corn. He had a story to tell, returning straight home to wife Patti, who wondered why he hadn’t snapped off a cell-phone photo?
“You know how that goes,” he quipped. “By the time you dig the phone out of your pocket, flip it open and prepare to take a shot, it would have been gone. I know what I saw. It was huge. The long tail, face and ears told me it was no deer. Definitely a cat. Big. Took up half the road. I was flabbergasted. I turned around to go home and call you. What a beautiful sight.”
OK. So that’s the eyewitness report delivered before 4 Monday afternoon, three days after the fact, yet still vivid. The plot thickened Tuesday morning when I was about to leave Grybko’s Garage after an oil change and a lively, meandering gabfest with Leonard Grybko, father and son, always good for a chat. As though predestined from above, lo, who walks through the door but North Hatfield’s own Bernie Smiarowski, who with his three brothers runs a vast River Road farm where I often buy spring asparagus. The Jablonski cougar sighting had occurred right in his neighborhood, and — go figure — it didn’t surprise the man one iota.
“Really?” he pondered. “I didn’t hear anything but sure would like to see one.”
“Why does the state deny they exist?” he continued. “I’ve heard other stories from credible sources. There’s one guy who not long ago claimed he saw a mountain lion down by the (Hatfield) sewage-treatment plant. Why would he lie? I believe him and think you would, too, if you heard his story.”
Which brings me to that first phone call, about a month back, from local historian/photographer Ed “Gizmo” Gregory, who’s collaborated with another local historian, Greenfield’s Peter S. Miller — yes that Peter S. Miller — on many photographic-history books of Franklin County towns. Well, Gizmo must have had an interest in Colrain’s Catamount Mountain because there he found himself during the last few days of June with hilltown historian Muriel Russell. Walking the wooded ridge-top lane in search of cellar holes and old mill-sites, Russell heard something, looked up, pointed and said, “Look at the deer running off,” and Gregory, camera slung around his neck, saw fleeing movement of a peculiar tawny beast.
“As I followed it’s movement, I knew we weren’t looking at a deer because it wasn’t bounding and showed no white flagging,” he told me on the phone during the first week of July. “I said to Muriel, ‘That’s no deer. It’s a cat.’ It was low to the ground and powerful, not a graceful deer bounding off. I know I can’t prove it, but it was a cat. It was tan and long, no bobcat.”
And, of all places, he saw it up on Catamount, which got its name from the big cats that lurked there in the early days of 18th-century Scots/Irish Coleraine settlement.
You be the judge.