Thursday, May 2, 2013

The great spotted feline

Lynx rufus is not to be messed with.

And the eye my brother nearly lost

The morning was dark, like they tend to be deep in December. I don't recall why I was up so early, but my brother Jed had risen before the sun to greet the cold air and crunchy snow to check his traps. He had been awarded a bobcat tag that year, and it just so happened we knew where a few of the wild felines were roaming the woods.

As he put on several shirt layers I was sitting at the dining room table sipping coffee. Then came his boots, laced high up his ankles for support in the deep snow. Next was a beaver hat and a pair of big leather mittens, wooly on the inside. Soon he was dressed for moderate walking in the woods - not so bundled he'd be sweating in an instant, but not so lightly he'd be shivering by the time he got to the little red truck. I sipped my coffee.

He offered, "Do you want to come?" I stared at him mildly, unblinking, analyzing the cost/benefit.

"Not particularly," I replied slowly, still unsure of my answer. Unsure because I had a good feeling about the spot he had set only two days past. It was a prime location - a game trail crossroads, mixed forest with clear cuts on two sides, an old, narrow logging road for access, and plenty of cat sign when he set it. Combine that with favorable weather conditions the night before, and you just knew in your gut conditions were primed for a catch. My only response was another sip of coffee.

"Well, wish me luck," he said, and was out the door. I watched from behind the window. When his truck headlights came on they lit fluffy falling snow. The sky was just barely beginning to show life in the east - a dull pink glow washing out the grey clouds. I sat still and hoped he would hurry up before I changed my mind about not going.

Soon though, he was gone. Barreling out of the driveway over the frozen humps in the ground. I could almost hear the keys clacking on the steering column with every jostle the little red truck took. He turned the corner and soon his taillights were gone into the great white darkness, and I was left at the table reading and, you guessed it, sipping coffee.

Neither Jed nor I had ever trapped a cat before. We had both been out with dad when he had caught them, but that was different. This season was different, because it was the first bobcat tag Jed had received in all his years applying for one, so he was the trapper in charge of the set now. Dad could go with for scouting and advice, but Jed had to make all the final decisions and was bound by law to check the set every day - my little brother was growing up, as I was about to find out...

Perhaps a half hour or so passed, I'm not completely certain, but it wasn't as long as I'd expected, so when Jed returned so soon I assumed he hadn't caught anything. At the very least, I had hoped it wasn't a snapped trap, because that would just worsen his chances of catching anything the next day. When he came through the door though, I knew there was a story coming.

Across his face was a sharp red line. The scratch arched just below his right eye, and ran across his nose, down across his other cheek. It was a wide, skin splitting red mark, but it didn’t seem to be bothering him very much. Rather, his eyes were wide with excitement and his face was flushed, and he paid the mark no mind.

"Did you get in a fight with the underbrush?" I had to ask him with a grin on my face. "Looks like you nearly lost an eye out there! What the hell happened to you? Wait, don't tell me. You caught a cat and he slashed you… right?" He was clearly not mortally wounded so in my good brotherly nature I was required to make fun of him.

"Well, he had way more leeway than I thought," Jed began to explain.

"You caught a cat?" I was kind of shocked. Kind of shocked that not only had he caught a bobcat, but that there was clearly a very close encounter between the two of them, one that could have gotten very serious, very quickly for my brother, out there by himself.

Jed started telling the story like he always does - leading off with some unimportant detail that's hardly related to anything in the rest of the tale, then jumping around in time to add something he left out from before, then remembering he had to get to the point of it all eventually, and finally just puttering out to end on another unrelated note. I bit my tongue and sipped a lot of the coffee.

Apparently he had in fact caught a bobcat, a nice sized one. The creature was securely caught by the foot in a leg-hold with the trap chain on a grapple that was wrapped and weaved around a tangle of saplings. When Jed approached the cat to deal the final blow, the cornered cat leapt up and lashed out. Jed had mistaken the amount of leeway the chain allowed the cat, and so was caught off guard. When the claws came at him, Jed leaned backwards and narrowly avoided losing his eye. Instead, they only graced his face to leave the thin red line I was now staring at. He had come home to grab some more tools to handle his catch, and this time I figured I'd best go with him.

When we got there, the scene was as Jed had described it. We had to work the cat into a position that was safe for one of us to approach, and all the while Lynx rufus growled. It was a groaning howl from his gut, not like a hissing house cat. This bobcat was absolutely ferocious, and he was huge, and he was angry. I remember thinking it was a very good thing he was not caught on accident, because if we had to let him go, I was fairly certain he wanted to finish peeling Jed's face off before his escape.

Bobcats have been reported taking prey eight times their own weight. It's rare, sure, but this fella had been around the block a few times. They are mostly solitary throughout their lives, and can thrive on many different kinds of prey, though snowshoe hares are a primary source in this neck of the woods. They have few predators outside of humans, but wolves will attack them, and coyotes and owls are happy to take kittens.

The cat that day was a bold, gnarly beast, and in the time that I knew him I saw a few things. I saw resilience, ferociousness, and wild independence. But I also saw patience, agility, and balance. This creature was a born killer, adept at ending lives, and well equipped to do so. He was a predator of the north, hard and strong, and in him I saw reflections of a fiercely independent attitude - one that is quite familiar in these parts.

In the end we took his life. Not out of hatred, or fear, or pointless killing, nor that it would be wasted or disrespected. The opposite, actually. The bobcat is both a solemn symbol and a respected natural resource. He is a perfect example of sustainability, in fact. The creature has been part of the fur trade in North America for hundreds of years, and still thrives alongside us throughout the continental U.S.

Often times we fool ourselves by becoming disconnected from the danger the wild wood still holds. My brother’s near life-altering incident with the cat was a stern reminder that mankind is just as fragile as the rest of the natural world, and I know for certain that neither of us will ever again underestimate the great spotted feline.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” - Helen Keller

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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