Big cats seen all over Adirondacks
By Kim Martineau
Phil Terrie was driving on an undeveloped stretch of
Route 28 between North Creek and Indian Lake when a large critter loped across the road. It happened in a flash, but he has
no doubt that what he saw was a panther. It was broad daylight, and he could see the animal’s tawny coat and long tail.
“It was a huge cat,” Terrie recalls. “It
had to weigh over 100 pounds.”
He slammed on the brakes, hoping to get a closer look,
but by then the cat had vanished into the woods. Terrie, an English professor and Adirondack historian, is hardly the only
person to glimpse a panther in recent years, even though biologists insist that the cats died out in this region in the 1800s.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) contends that the panthers seen by Terrie and others were pets that
either escaped or were released.
Al Hicks, a DEC wildlife biologist, notes that many people
illegally keep wild animals as pets. On several occasions, for instance, the agency has been called upon to capture servals,
wild cats from Africa. “We have no reason to believe that they crossed the Atlantic Ocean and started a population here,”
he remarked. “These were cats that people let go.”
Yet there have been so many panther sightings that some
Adirondackers are convinced the experts are wrong. Peter O’Shea, a naturalist and tracker who lives in Fine, points
out that the sightings date back more than 50 years, and he said he receives dozens of new panther reports every year. Although
he has never seen a panther himself, he has seen their tracks, most recently in January 2002 near Star Lake.
“It’s highly implausible that there could
have been an uninterrupted slew of escaped panthers over the past half-century,” he said.
Terrie, who summers at Long Lake, had thought the same
thing when he spotted that panther crossing the highway in the mid-1980s. He changed his mind, however, while researching
his book Wildlife and Wilderness: A History of Adirondack Mammals. “If there were a resident population, somebody
would have found kittens by now or a den.”
Even so, Terrie understands the allure of believing that
the panther still prowls these mountains. “We want to think of the Adirondacks as a mythic, ideal wilderness,”
he said, “and the panther would be a symbol of that,”
Whether the panther is real or a myth, one thing’s
for certain: People do see panthers here. If you don’t believe it, read on.
It was the first day of deer season. Thomas Hickey, a
State Police investigator based in Ray Brook, was sitting on a rock ledge on Baxter Mountain, overlooking an area that attracts
white-tails. “I saw a movement in the bush,” he recalls. “I thought it was a deer. When it walked out, I
said, ‘My gosh. It’s a mountain lion.’” He zoomed in on the cat with his rifle scope. “It just
walked up the trail like it owned the mountain. It was a huge brown-colored cat—60 to 70 pounds.” Later, Hickey’s
hunting partner found a dead deer a half-mile away. It had been killed a day earlier, but only its hind quarters had been
eaten. It was partially covered with leaves. A wildlife biologist who examined the bite wounds concluded that they could have
been caused by a mountain lion.
Ray Keith, a Wanakena logger, was working in the woods
near Irish Brook between Cranberry Lake and Seveys Corners in June 1999 when a large cat with a long tail crossed his path.
It was about noon. “He came out of the tag alders and stood in the road for a second, and then he disappeared,”
Keith recalled. “It was definitely a mountain lion. I would guess it weighed 150 pounds.”
Keith, the son of guide Herbert Keith, who wrote Man
of the Woods, has spent much of his life in the wild hunting, trapping and logging. He notes he had seen panther tracks
before in the Five Ponds Wilderness. His girlfriend, Judy Wilson of Aldrich, says she also saw a panther last year, crossing
Route 3 west of Cranberry Lake.
Kurt Armstrong, a DEC wildlife biologist, was driving
along Route 3 five years ago near the border of Franklin and Clinton counties when he saw an animal in the road. “My
first thought was I better slow down. My second thought was, This is something big. It’s got a big tail. From the tip
of his nose to his tail, he took up most of the driving lane.” The animal’s relatively small head, in proportion
to its long body and tawny color, convinced Armstrong that it was a mountain lion. The cat crossed the road in two bounds,
and with the third it vanished into the woods. “At first I said, No, it can’t be.’ It was kind of a surprise.
Then a few days later there were other sightings. I said, ‘I’m not seeing things.’”
Harry Newton, a fly fisherman from Saugerties, and his
son were driving on Route 30 south of Indian Lake in 1989 when a deer leaped into the road. His son hit the brakes and just
managed to avoid it, but the deer ignored the car and continued gazing toward the side of the road. “He was acting strangely,”
Newton says. “He wasn’t at all worried about us.” Then the deer started away, and a large cat came into
view. “It had a long, heavy tail, almost as long as the body. And a tan color, like a deer’s summer coat. I remember
that the tip was dark. Was it dark because of shadow or dark hair? I can’t say.”
Newton turned to his son. “What did you see?”
“A mountain lion,” his son replied.
Newton kept the encounter to himself. “I figured
people would just say, ‘You saw something else.’ I’m not going to get into an argument about it. I’m
sure I saw it.”
Mike Rechlin and Bob McAleese, two forestry teachers
at Paul Smith’s College, saw their mountain lion on a canoe trip. “He had bounded across the river on a log in
front of us.” Rechlin recalls. “It was wet. I thought it was a deer. I said, ‘Bob, look at that.’
And it spun around and looked at us, twitched its tail and ran off into the bush. It was one of those eerie feelings. We’re
not supposed to see this. That’s not supposed to be there.”
Ken Kogut, a DEC wildlife biologist, saw a panther on
Route 3 near the western boundary of the Park about four to five years ago in April. “It landed square dab in the road
in front of me,” he says. “I put on my brakes and slowed down.” As the cat stared, Kogut went through his
checklist: Long, narrow body. Three-feet high. One solid color. And the dead giveaway, its long, flapping tail with the black
tip. After a few seconds, the cat moved. “With one bound it cleared the other lane and landed in a ditch. As I went
by, I saw it loping away through the brush, going south, with that long tail with the black tip waving at me.”
LITTLE TUPPER LAKE
Ray Brown, state fish and wildlife technician, was riding
an all-terrain vehicle on a gravel road near Little Tupper Lake in September a decade ago when he turned a corner and spotted
a big cat sashaying ahead of him on the road. “It had a narrow body and a long, sweeping tail. It was more of a rusty
color than a tan. It never ran. It kept walking. I think he was thinking to himself, ‘I can get away from you at any
time.’” Brown sped up, but when he got within 25 feet, the cat stepped gracefully into a spruce swamp and disappeared.
“I’m 100% sure of what I saw.” he said. Later that fall, there was a rash of sightings around nearby Lake
Rob Hastings came upon a mountain lion on his Rivermede
Farm one summer morning about 10 years ago. “I went out to feed the chickens, and 50 feet away I saw what I thought
was a golden retriever. The color and size reminded me of my neighbor’s dog. Then I looked harder. The tail was twice
as long as its body. We eyed each other for a moment. Then it turned around and ran. They run so smooth––like
a cat. A dog is much more jerky. The splendid, most striking thing was the tail. That’s what really convinced me I wasn’t
When Hastings, a New Jersey native, told his neighbors
about the encounter, many of them laughed. Most had lived in the Adiron-dacks their entire lives and never seen a big cat.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to see it, particularly by my chicken coop. But there it was. There’s no doubt
in my mind.”
Henry Savarie, a cartographer for the Adirondack Park
Agency, was driving along a local road near Franklin Falls Reservoir in June 1981 when a panther ran in front of his car.
“I said to my wife, ‘Do you realize what we just saw?’ It just loped off into some alders and wetland. It
was about two and a half feet high. It had a big, long tail, very thin. A tawny coat. There wasn’t any mistaking it.
It was a mountain lion. We were just in awe of the thing. Wow!”
Barbara McMartin, author of a series of guidebooks, is
disappointed that in all her tramping through the Adirondacks she has never chanced upon a moose. But one night near Averys
on Route 10 she saw something much rarer. “There’s something distinctive about the way a big cat bounds,”
she said. “It had a golden tawny color. A long bushy tail. A very feline behavior, the size and everything. My friend
Stan said, ‘It’s a cougar.’ I replied, ‘My God, Stan. ‘You don’t see these in the Adirondacks.”