Cape Fear Cougar?
Three years ago, just after deciding to uproot the family and move to NC, I did what any fanatical fossil hunter would do and Googled every stream, river, town and county in North Carolina along with the words "fossil" and/or "Shark Tooth". Almost all the searches resulted in either dead ends or information already available in various well known books and websites. One search however hit gold; an online version of a text from about a hundred years ago that describes numerous locations and their geological formations. I downloaded the entire book from online and was even able to purchase an original copy from an antique book store. For the past three years I’ve been transposing these locations onto recent maps just waiting for the day when I would have the time and ambition to take a chance and try a new, unknown location.
On July 4th I made my first trip into the unknown when I ventured down to the Cape Fear River in Bladen County. The location was about a three miles from the nearest access area - just close enough to use a canoe. The formation exposed was the Cretaceous PeeDee formation and shark teeth were included in the fossils cataloged there. I arrived at the river at about 7:00AM to try and beat the heat for at least the first leg of my journey. The water was fairly low and there was very little current. As long as the wind didn’t kick up I’d be fine paddling both the downstream and upstream trips. After about 10 minutes I spied something along the bank that looked kind of funny. I could see the tail of a decent size fish along with what appeared to be the scale pattern of a large snake. I made my way over to the bank and saw one of the wildest things I’ve seen in nature: what I’d guess to be about an 18 inch channel catfish being swallowed by what I’d guess to be about a 5 foot snake. It was hard to believe that this snake could get a fish that big into its stomach and could only imagine the battle that incurred between the two. The snake I later learned was a Brown Water Snake and catfish evidently are at the top of their dinner menu. I snapped a picture and continued on.
The nature on that stretch of river is really remarkable. Snakes, lizards, fish and birds were everywhere - I think I saw more Pileated woodpeckers that morning than in all my previous 39 years combined. About halfway into my trip, I came around a tree that had fallen out into the river but still had all its leaves. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something fairly large make its way up the tall bank. It hadn’t heard my approach and the tree blocked me from its view - it was cat. A big cat. I saw its whole body for what felt like a split second, maybe it was 2 or 3 seconds. The top of the bank was about 40 feet high and steep. This thing was three quarters of the way up in the blink of an eye. It stopped near the top and peered back down at me. I could see its general outline through the brush but the shadows prevented getting a clear view. I drew a couple of stokes with the paddle to get a little closer but I knew it would take off at any moment. I slowly put down the paddle and reached down for my camera. I really didn’t think that I would be able to see much in the shot, but I knew it might be the only chance I got. I took the picture and again began to paddle towards shore - he was gone after the second stroke.
The instant I saw the cat take off up the bank I thought it looked like a cougar. However, not really being familiar with bobcats and knowing that cougars are for all intents and purposes extinct in NC, I decided it must have been a bobcat. I continued on without really thinking much more of it.
As I drew closer to my destination the geological features began to take over the landscape - only, which ones contain fossils? I’m probably as unknowledgeable as anyone in identifying formations in NC. Give me some Pungo or Yorktown and I’m fine, but out here it looked as though I’d really have to do some work. There were a couple of distinct layers visible. One that drew my attention immediately was a grayish clay with black objects cemented within. My wishful self hoped that these black objects were bone but instead they turned out to be pieces of fossilized wood. After taking a picture I picked a piece out to take home. I roamed around trying to find a single shark tooth lying out in the open but none were to be had. There was some sand that looked similar to the material at Elizabethtown, so I loaded up a couple of screens with that- nothing. I roamed around for about an hour and decided I needed to work one of these areas really well before I turned back. I would then at least know where not to look on the next trip. I went back to the Etown looking material and after about 5 screenloads a ray of hope - a bleach white fragment of a crow shark tooth! Eureka! By now the time was drawing near for me to start heading back. There was a good wind brewing and I didn’t want to spend the next 4 hours paddling against it. I loaded and washed about 5 more screens. In those screenloads came a tiny goblin shark tooth fragment, a partial Enchodus (fish) jaw and a small but really nice goblin shark upper lateral tooth - nice! Satisfied that my day wasn’t in vane, I began the long trip back. The wind gave me a bit of trouble but I made it to the car in about two hours.
Upon pulling into my driveway I met my neighbor and mentioned my "bobcat" encounter. In the conversation he had mentioned cougar sightings down that way - could it have been? I made my way inside with a quickened pace to see what my crap-shoot of a picture might reveal. When I first opened the picture all I could see was the same view I had at the river. There was a broken branch caught in a tree right near where the cat was and I had made a mental note of it when I took the picture. I zoomed in, and after about 4 clicks with the magnifying glass I could see it. The face, while partially blocked by a leaf, was very visible and while I’m not an expert on big cats, it looked like a cougar. I began googling "bobcat" and "mountain lion" to get a feel for the different characteristics. The one that struck me the most was the tail. I knew that cougars had a thick long tail. What I didn’t know was that bobcats did not (so that’s why they’re called "bob" cats) In the blink of time that I had seen the cat before he made it into the brush there was one thing that I did see and that was its tail. It was the tail of a cougar. In the past week I emailed the picture to several institutions in the area and the general consensus was that while it "could" be a cougar, the picture was not conclusive on its own. Regardless, it was an amazing sight!