In contest’s five-year run, cougars reported Island-wide

MANITOULIN––For as long as anyone can remember, cougars on Manitoulin have been a topic of discussion. It’s not at all unusual for someone to mention a sighting, at some point in their lives, of the large, rope-tailed felines, somewhere on Manitoulin Island.

So it was just over five years ago, in the June 3, 2009 paper, that The Expositor promised $500 for a verifiable photo of a cougar on Manitoulin Island.

The responses to that challenge have been many and varied over the past half-decade and have sent Expositor editorial staff to all parts of Manitoulin at times to follow up leads, photograph paw prints and examine all matter of other evidence.

But the purse has been won by a man from Michigan whose trail camera set up on his property in Gordon/Barrie Island captured a feline that has been absolutely identified by Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) personnel and also by the Ontario Puma Association as a cougar.

The Expositor has also visited the site shown on the video camera where the image was captured for assurance that the photo was taken where the property owner says it was.

It all checks out so Ontario’s cougar range map now includes Manitoulin Island.

Steve Hall of Gordon Township stands precisely where the trail camera caught the cougar in motion in the same municipality. Mr. Hall was for many years the Ontario Puma Association’s Manitoulin contact for people who thought they had spotted a cougar here. The angled tree to the left of Mr. Hall and the tall juniper bush in front of him are the same landmarks caught by the trail camera. The photo with Mr. Hall was taken Monday of this week.
Steve Hall of Gordon Township stands precisely where the trail camera caught the cougar in motion in the same municipality. Mr. Hall was for many years the Ontario Puma Association’s Manitoulin contact for people who thought they had spotted a cougar here. The angled tree to the left of Mr. Hall and the tall juniper bush in front of him are the same landmarks caught by the trail camera. The photo with Mr. Hall was taken Monday of this week.

While the last five years have been interesting, they have also been disappointing to more than a few people hoping to claim The Expositor’s $500 reward and also bragging rights.

Early out of the gate was Father Jim Kelly, S.J. priest at M’Chigeeng’s Immaculate Conception Church who saw something near the rectory on August 17, 2009.

Father Kelly didn’t contact the paper. Then-editor Jim Moodie heard that the priest was reluctant to discuss what he’d seen but he agreed he had seen something much too large to be a dog and quite fast moving.

M’Chigeeng has been the location of a myriad of hopeful cougar sightings. Around the same time as Father Kelly’s observation, Darryl Ense was certain he saw the big cat near the community’s water tower. Mr. Ense told the paper at that time that, “it was clear as day” when he spied the big cat. “You couldn’t mistake it for anything else.”

In the same neighbourhood, Rachael Panamick and Lee Taibossigai had also seen what they were sure was a cougar just around the same time as Father Kelly’s encounter and the Expositor story of August 12, 2009 noted that the parallel observations were almost certainly those of the same animal because cougars are solo travellers who mark out a vast range.

In September of 2009, no fewer than four people, travelling along the Government Road in Tehkummah, in two separate vehicles en route to catch the Chi-Cheemaun also reported sightings of what they assumed was the same animal. One of the observers, Dave Mills of Burlington, told the paper he’d seen a large cat with a ropy tail. “It was unmistakable,” he said. The other travellers along the same road at nearly the same time saw exactly the same thing. No one could produce a camera in time, however.

The Government Road was referred to as Cougar Corridor in an October 14 Expositor story when Debbie and Gorman Young of Providence Bay, driving towards Tehkummah, also had what they were certain was a cougar encounter––two times. “We were heading towards Tehkummah with our two grandchildren, around 6:30 pm that evening, and it ran right out in front of us. It was moving fast but we knew what it was.”

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The Youngs delivered their grandchildren then decided, on their way back to Providence Bay, to stop (near the Carter Bay Road intersection) at the same spot in case the animal made another appearance…and it did, after a 45 minute wait.

Ms. Young did take a photo through the car window with her 35mm camera but when the prints came back, the animal was a distant spec as an image and barely discernable from the yellow weeds on the roadside.

In mid-February of 2010, Greg Hayden was certain he saw a cougar, certainly a large cat, near his Evansville home. He later saw the same animal in his neighbour’s driveway and expressed concern for his children playing outside.

In November of 2010 Don Dowdall of Sudbury was sure he’d captured photos of a cougar at his property near Evansville but the MNR determined that as there was no tail visible and hence “no object for scale to determine size, one could not conclusively say it was a cougar. It could be a bobcat.”

November 2010 was also an eventful month for Ron Johnston of Amherstberg when, visiting friends in M’Chigeeng and crossbow hunting for deer on Jerusalem Hill, he witnessed a large cat chasing two deer. He saw them cross his line of vision and crash into the brush and then heard a loud snarl from the cat. And then silence.

M’Chigeeng, along with the Government Road, continued to be a hot spot for presumed cougar sightings. In the spring of 2010, Jesse Beaudin (who claimed he had been skeptical about the existence of the animals in his community) told The Expositor that he became a true believer when he caught sight of a large animal to the west of the band office. “We saw it running to the end of the trail and going into the bush.”

He realized it was too large to be a dog but the clincher came when the 14-year-old Manitoulin Secondary School student got a good look at the animal’s hind end “and the tail was massive,” he told The Expositor of his experience. “I knew right away that the tales were true,” he said. Jesse and cousin Roger also found the animal’s large paw print.

But still no photo evidence.

Sheguiandah residents reported cougar sighting too. In early 2010, Greta Garbutt was certain she saw such an animal in the ditch beside Orr’s Sideroad. She noted that her father had been a trapper and she has seen a lot of animals in her lifetime. “This was definitely a member of the cat family and it did have a tail,” she told The Expositor at the time. “I’ve seen bobcats before and it definitely wasn’t a bobcat.”

In mid-August that year, seasonal Spring Bay area resident Gary Shaver saw what he was certain was a cougar walking along the top of a rail fence and he took pictures but the animal moved out of the way and the image couldn’t capture the all-important tail.

That spring, Brenda Wright of Evansville saw the same animal, twice, at her camp. “It was a tan colour, it was a big animal, it had a long tail,” she said at the time, also observing that “cougars have been seen from one end of the Island to the other. If the MNR or anyone else says we don’t have cougars on the Island, I beg to differ!”

Around the same time, Gail Robinson of Little Current is certain she saw a cougar near Honora Bay along Highway 540. “It had a long swooping tail and it bounded away with very long and high leaps,” Ms. Robinson told The Expositor. Others had also reported a large cat haunting the Honora Bay roadside.

And the stories continued, for these are only a sample of people’s experiences.

Now it’s official, the reward has been won and we know there are cougars on Manitoulin.

In a way, it’s too bad because just as the Sasquatch is to British Columbia, so the cougar has been, at least until now, to Manitoulin.