Lake Life in the Slow Lane: Big-Cat Hunting on Chilhowee Lake

Tom Sparks trekked across snowy Spence Field in search of lost sheep when a panther knocked him to the ground and clawed deep into the flesh of his shoulder, according to Alberta and Carson Brewer's Valley So Wild. It had him pinned, but he managed to stab it in the shoulder, and it ran away, only to be killed a few years later by Will Orr, near what is now Fontana Village. Some think this was the last panther killed in the Smokies. The year was 1920.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says the eastern cougar (also known as panther, mountain lion, or puma) has been eliminated because of "persecution and loss of ... habitat." In the mid-19th century, Tennesseans could get $25 for a panther carcass. These bounties took their toll on the panther population, as did the influx of settlers and development in mountainous Tennessee and North Carolina that robbed the cats of the large tracts of uninhabited land they need to hunt. The eastern cougar, "genetically distinct" from cougars in the West, was declared officially extinct in 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But talk to enough people who have lived here a while, who have spent some time outdoors, and you'll hear of a panther sighting. A fellow member of the Little River Watershed Association board said he spotted one up Panther Creek, a tributary of Abrams Creek, which feeds the Little Tennessee River at Chilhowee Lake. When I mentioned this to Maryville College biologist Drew Crain, he asked if there was a photo. That seems the official response of most authorities: There have been plenty of stories but no proof.

So I thought it time to summon Drew and his son Jared to spend the night on Chilhowee Lake at a spot that might yield a sighting: accessible by boat only, dense with vegetation, surrounded by steep and rocky terrain. Though I wanted the panther-sighting rumors to be true for many reasons, I wished for a much longer lens to photograph such a lethal predator far out of range of the kind of experience Tom Sparks had.

The gray skies growled when we put near a dock where two tattooed young women lay on the planks, occasionally dropping into the water like turtles to cool off. We were armed with firewood, pepper spray, and a wariness that came from all of the stories. One fisherman told me he'd seen a "black panther" on Happy Valley Road, and another panther on the Monroe County side of the lake. You don't have to search long online to find detailed descriptions of the carnivores' appearances in this area, but without the photographic evidence.

Rain fell just hard enough to cool us off after our paddle and we amused ourselves by throwing a knife at a stump. Could we, like Sparks, defend ourselves against a predator sometimes more than 8 feet long from nose to tail tip, with talons like slashing razors, a cat weighing up to 180 pounds that could run up to 35 miles an hour, with a vertical leap of 15 feet? As a group, I'd say we managed to "kill" the stump 50 percent of the time, that from a distance of 10 feet. But after all, the last thing we wanted was to hurt one of these magnificent animals. We only wanted to witness and record one prowling for its favorite meal: deer.

The Mountain Lion Foundation says that the chance of being attacked by a mountain lion, even out West where they are more common, is "infinitely small." National Geographic reports an average of four attacks a year in all of the U.S. and Canada. Still, the chance that the big cats might be prowling somewhere up here made me hopeful and put me a bit on edge. Drew was hopeful, too, but much more skeptical about our chances of success.

Around midnight I lay in my hammock, comfortable and tired but unable to sleep. Tree frogs whirred, a bullfrog belched, and beavers plunged their tails as the stars emerged from the thinning clouds in the narrow opening between the trees above me. A faint light appeared about halfway up the ridge, a beacon that seemed in search of something in the dark velvet humidity. I stared and stared.

About 3:30, after dozing, I arose and fed the fire, remembering a dream I'd just had: a flaming avalanche tumbling down a cleft in a forested ridge, the rocks thundering as they descended and crashed smoldering and hissing into the cold lake. In the dream, all of this occurred at a safe distance while I photographed it.

Drew awoke from his own dream and saw me sitting by the fire. In his dream, the three of us walked up a trail (as we had earlier in the evening) and came upon a gathering of deer and foxes. From a cabin, which Drew said resembled John Oliver's (the first settler in Cades Cove), emerged a big cat. But the panther did not attack. It picked up the baby fox and tossed it playfully into the air.

Morning revealed the source of my beacon halfway up the ridge. A gap in the trees had been filtering and refracting the slow descent of the moon. I scratched at one of dozens of chigger bites that would emerge on my legs and hips.

Paddling back to the ramp for a couple of miles and scanning among the fallen trees and the tangled vegetation of the steep ridges, this seemed an ideal time to see an eastern cougar and take a picture at a safe distance, on the water. The multiple sightings over the years since Tom Sparks' confrontation are western cougars that have been released from captivity, according to TWRA. Even if the eastern cougar no longer exists, the possibility that it might exist, that people still see big cats, former captives or not, that they have somehow survived the tragedy of extinction, is enough to fire the imagination and create vivid dreams, as well to remind us that preserving wilderness is vital to protecting entire species.

I like to think that one was watching us, slowly blinking in the sun, as we paddled back to our cars on the mirror-like lake, that all we had to do was look up at the right time, at the right place.

Kim Trevathan is the author of Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin, published by UT Press and available online or at Union Ave Books.