The Mystery Of The Little Devil Giant Cat

800px-Bobbie_2010_2220px-Mountain_lionYesterday was my birthday and I took my traditional long hike. I love hiking and Virginia is one of the greatest locations for hikes in the United States. I decided to re-hike the Little Devil’s stairs, a demanding hike in the Shenandoah that starts with two miles of climbing up the side of beautiful waterfalls. The end of the hike however proved to be one of the more memorable conclusions to a hike in over 30 years of hiking. These are some of the pictures that I took, but it does not include the one picture that would have settled a debate over the long rumored mountain lion in the Shenandoah.

IMG_0560I had taken the blue trail and finished the arduous over eight mile hike when I took a wrong turn and ended up climbing another mountain. Near the top I came around the corner and came face to face with what I would swear was a mountain lion. I am used to seeing black bear and bobcats in the Shenandoah. This was a large tan cat that looked every inch a cougar. I backed away down the trail to give him space. Ten minutes later I returned and the cat returned. I slowly went back down again and stopped and listened. When I started to descend again, the cat was now behind me. I walked back up the mountain and stopped. I then saw the cat moving opposite me in the forest. It seemed to be circling. Unfortunately, my cellphone was almost dead (after dealing with some problems on the blog ironically). I was able to reach a ranger through Leslie at home who told me to remain still and that a ranger was being dispatched. I stood there contemplating the curiosity of being killed by a mountain lion — something that would make the standard Hallmark card condolences card rather difficult for family and friends.

IMG_0559When the ranger arrived, he told me that the assumption was that it was a very large bobcat who was angry at my stumbling upon a den or cub. That could be, but I have to say that the markings and size were nothing like any bobcat that I have seen. It was pure tan with no other markings or spots and three to four times the normal size of a bobcat. It looked very much like a mountain lion which are found in Virginia but not normally in this part of the Shenandoah. However there have been a series of reported sightings from hikers of a mountain lion in the area — prompting the placement of cameras and bait to try to solve the mystery.

I told the ranger (who was a wonderful professional) about scat that I had spotted down the trial with what appeared to be deer fur. I was able to take him to it and he collected it for testing. I also described seeing very large cat prints down the trail. As I accompanied the ranger on this impromptu lion hunt, I learned a huge amount not just about the animals but the park service. These rangers do a remarkable and inspiring job. We are incredibly fortunate to have these men and women patrolling our forests and rescuing and protecting hikers. Whether it was a huge uncharacteristically aggressive bobcat or the long-rumored mountain lion, it was still an exciting birthday hike either way.

Obviously, the whole Shenandoah is safe and indeed our national parks remain one of the safest forms of recreation. These parks are also the most popular federal programs and the worst funded in the federal system.

31 thoughts on “The Mystery Of The Little Devil Giant Cat

  1. Sounds as if you had an enjoyable and educational experience—

    If you love to hike visit us in Montana in the Beartooth Mountains. Stunning scenery with plenty of wildlife to study. After your hike you could then drive over the Beartooth Pass on Hwy 212 leading into Yellowstone that Charles Kuralt once called the most beautiful alpine drive in North America.

  2. Happy Birthday, professor. It sounds like you had quite an adventure. One all important question is, what did the tail of the cat look like? Was it long or was it short, looking bobbed?

  3. Happy Birthday!–and that does sound like a mountain lion. There are apparently some in the east–rangers say they were ill-gotten pets and set free. I have seen one near my house in MD. Try a bike in the woods! At least you can feel more comfortable with the false sense of security of being able to move faster when you see a large predator.

  4. Happy Birthday JT. Don’t ever try to preach to a cat in the bush.
    My favorite hike spot is the back side of West Point Military Academy.
    Same wildlife + 155 mm artillery fire practice from the cadets during summer training.

  5. Happy Birthday Jonathan.

    Great post.

    I am thinking Mountain Lion too.

    Many animals are on the move due to climate change, so just because they don’t have a history in that area does not mean they won’t as things change.

    And there are the other reported sightings too.

  6. I lived in Tucson next to the Catalina Mountains several years ago. Bobcats with their cubs were a common sighting in our neighborhood. One Thanksgiving after sending visitors home in the late afternoon I saw two beautiful cubs in our front yard next to some trees. I got my camera, stood outside by the front door taking some pictures wondering where Momma was. Soon enough she came around the house, walked about 20 feet past me towards the cub, stopped looking at me, peed on a cactus, then walked away with her cubs. Life is rough for an adult bobcat. The fur on the cubs was full, colorful and looked very soft. The mother’s fur, not so nice looking.

  7. That is awesome! Michigan has FINALLY recognized that we have wild mountain lions. My son & I inquired (over a decade ago) after sighting HUGE cat tracks on a snow-dusted N. Lk. Huron beach but we were fobbed off. However, Bobcat and Lynx tracks are much smaller than those of a Catamount/Mountain Lion and we knew it. We were later told by the Michigan Conservancy that they possessed excellent pictures of cougars (long tails & all) taken a few miles from where we had seen the tracks (“The Alcona Co. Cougar”). They explained that such reports are routinely belittled due to the massive funding requirements for protecting these big cats. Also, should someone injure or kill one in self-defense, the onus would then be on the human to prove the circumstances. Given enough time, so many videos, pictures & reports came in from all over the state that public safety & awareness couldn’t be ignored. Evidence could no longer be dismissed as having come from “feral cats” or “escaped pets”. You knew & we know what you saw!!! One minute you are on a merry-go-round @ the zoo and the next you come upon a mountain lion in the wilderness. Now, that’s livin’ !!!!!! ***It would have been exponentially more ironic had you chosen the lion on that merry-go-round ride. :0

  8. Jonathon – Happy Birthday.

    Wayne – I think you would have to agree that the Going to the Sun highway is the most beautiful scenic route in Montana. ;)

  9. We used to have rumors of mountain lions in South Mountain Park (southern edge of the city of Phoenix) which were confirmed when a pair wandered out of the park and into South Phoenix where they were photographed.

  10. They are both beautiful with spectacular views. It’s hard to say which one is nicer, I love them both. As you know, the Beartooth Pass leads into Yellowstone National Park with the Sun Road in Glacier National Park–two wonders that come highly recommended. We’re frequent visitors to Yellowstone as we’re about an hour away—sometimes longer depending upon the road conditions.

  11. Wow! That must have been scary. The Shenandoah Valley is one of my favorite places in the world.

    I ran into a mountain lion myself once, here in CA. It was within sight of mountain bikers who were whizzing by on another trail, unaware it was even there. I almost walked on it when it rose up out of the brush and gave me a warning.

    The ranger didn’t believe me either, at first, until he found the huge tracks.

  12. Happy Birthday! Tomorrow is my husband’s birthday and sometimes I wish he’d take a hike. :)

  13. What a great story. Happy 53rd birthday. Nothing like analyzing big cat shit to celebrate.

  14. pardon me? – on our last vacation my wife was telling my sister that she wished I would go away for a week so she could get stuff done without me in the way. I asked my sister if she would take me and she eagerly agreed. Suddenly my wife decided it was not a good idea after all. She did not want us to have fun without her. :)

  15. Cougars are making a comeback in the Appalachians. Locals also call them “mountain lions” and “panthers.” I have seen two tan ones within fifteen miles of my house. My daughter’s fiance’s best friend had a wildlife camera mounted on a tree stand near Watauga Lake in Carter County, TN last year. He got this picture one night. I snagged it off my daughter’s Facebook page. According to everything I read, melanized cougars are non-existent in this area. Last I heard, the photo was being studied by a team from the University. I assume he showed them where the photo was taken.

  16. I use to go up a mountain with a 70 lb backpack. The cats are there. And lots of porcupines. Weather is always unpredictable. Also has the highest recorded wind speeds.
    Now I do it the lazy way. Mt. Washington 5,000 ft NH. FYI, the cats are not the problem. The porcupines will eat your hiking boots if you leave them outside….that’s a problem!

  17. Chuch – glad they are making a comeback. Southern Arizona has a rare black panther, usually found around Tucson and south into Mexico. They do not get this far north.

  18. They eat children or would if given the chance. They also attack full grown men. Their ancestors ate our ancestors on the African Savannah.

    We are their prey.

  19. What do mountain lions call bikers in their forest? Meals on wheels. Amazing birthday gift, the best part of which is that you are still here to tell us what happened.

  20. A few years ago, a North Dakota Fish & Wildlife agent darted and tagged a mountain lion in that state. Two years later, that cat was killed by a car…in Connecticut. These cats do travel. Bobcats are maybe twice as big as a mature domestic cat, but if you say it was a Mtn.Lion, I’m inclined to agree.

  21. We observed a black Florida panther leap into our small campsite in the Big Cypress Swamp , paused momentarily to stare at us and sprang out of our sight in one mighty leap. While we could only stare in amazement at each other a bobcat landed in the same spot as the panther and immediately jumped into the bush in the same direction as the big cat as if the two were playing tag.

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