“McPherson Woman Reports Rare Mountain Lion Sighting: Last Documented Sighting of a Cougar in Kansas was in 1904.” That was the headline!
The local newspaper was first to tell my story; just a couple sentences about what I saw in the New Gottland area of McPherson County. Days later, a regional newspaper ran with a slightly expanded story.
Never did I imagine a reporter from the Wichita Eagle would be dispatched to interview me, take my picture, and write a story.
I knew what I saw was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, but I had no idea a sighting hadn’t been documented since 1904 – until I read his article. Had I known, we would have been a little more careful with what that cat left behind.
The landscape changed dramatically just south of our rural McPherson County home – the gravel road plummeting down, then up, then down again before rising to the driveway of our hilltop home.
That last quarter mile was full of surprises as the bottom seemingly dropped out of the road but oh what a beautiful area it was. A scenic, wooded area with a quiet little stream. No matter the season, this was a beautiful part of God’s creation, and a welcome sight that day as I returned home after ten days with my parents in Tulsa where my dad was hospitalized.
When rains filled the nearby pond, upstream, that low spot at the bottom of the first hill was impassable with water flowing across the road. Even when it wasn’t over the road, sloppy and muddy ruts on those hills were often hard to navigate
Beautiful trees provided a canopy overhead that blocked the sunshine that was so necessary to dry the roadbed. When those trees were coated in heavy frost or snow, those hills became a winter wonderland.
We enjoyed living where wildlife roamed. It was not unusual to see opossums, skunks, pheasants, chuckers, and quail in our neck of the woods. Even in our yard. Deer and wild turkey were common, and coyote serenades were the norm at our hilltop home. Bobcats were nearby, though reclusive, but what a treat it was to see them occasionally.
Being surrounded by God’s creation – both animals and plants – was what I loved most about being in the country for thirty-plus years. It’s where we raised our family – and yes – sometimes I really do miss country life. Especially when I remember one particular memory.
In October of 1996. I was driving at the crest of that first hill when something moved to my left. I thought the tawny and well-camouflaged critter was a young deer amongst the expanse of native grass. Summertime greens were gone and the cooler Fall temps brought a new kind of beauty to the area.
I braked to let it cross the road in front of me.
To my amazement, it was no deer!
Instead, a majestic cougar casually walked out of the rustling grass to make its way across the road directly in front of me. Oh, how I wish I’d had a camera.
I will never unsee that sight, but I’d sure love to share the experience with others. It was (and still is) mesmerizing!
The cat slinked along, very casually placing one heavy paw on the road in front of another. He was in no hurry. Nor was I. When he reached the middle of the road he stopped in his tracks and turned its massive head my way as if to lock eyes with me.
I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. That square jawline. Those piercing eyes. His relaxed ears. Such a calm, yet massive face. More stocky than the image I share, but oh, what an amazing experience to see such an awesome creature!
Time stood still. Once satisfied with our shared face-to-face glance the cat turned his face toward the ditch and continued on his way in no particular hurry. His long, thick tail nearly dragged on the gravel. It curled upward with distinctive dark hair near its end. The tail was the last thing I saw as the cat disappeared into the grass on the other side of the road.
I was left speechless. And blessed.
I’ve heard it said that to see a cougar in its natural habitat is a thrilling experience that leaves a lasting impression. I would agree. 100%.
When I got home I hugged my family and then opened up an encyclopedia. Remember those forerunners of the World Wide Web? Was it a cougar or a mountain lion? I learned they’re the same animal and the encyclopedia described exactly what I saw at dusk that day. Tawny brown, dense fur. A long, thick tail. A square jaw and short muzzle. Large paws.
The next day, my husband and our son walked to the place where it crossed the road just south of our house. A barbed wire fence stretched across a slight washout in the ditch where he had come through. The ground was too dry and the grass too dense for any tracks, but Jim found a tuft of brownish hair stuck on a barb of that fence. How cool!
He pulled it off to look at it, then flicked the hairs off into the Kansas wind. Oh, how we wish he’d kept those hairs. He does, too.
Days later, a guy from the Kansas Fish & Game knocked on our door. After reading the article, he hoped to scientifically verify my sighting by examining a hair. He asked my husband to show them where the cougar crossed the road; where he found the tuft of hair mentioned in the article.
If only we had known. We could have saved that hair.
But, it’s okay. I know what I saw. I only wish I could replay it for others to see because it was an unforgettable moment in time.
We no longer live in the country. Our kids are grown and busy raising our grandkids. My husband and I retired and moved to a small community 30 miles away from our hilltop home. We have many memories of those days in the country but – for me – there is none to compare with the day I locked eyes with a beautifully majestic mountain lion who just stopped to say hello as he passed by.
Thank you, God…Creator of both man and beast…for that once-in-a-lifetime experience and for my ability to replay the memory, as it will never grow old.