Monday, September 2, Minnesota River Valley, Savage, MN.

Marlin Coots, McGregor Industries' gap-toothed night watchman, was wrapping up his shift with his morning round of the company's remote shipping facility. He loved this part of the day, when he could step to the edge of the minimum-maintenance road and gaze down into river bottom woods. Sometimes he'd see a raccoon scurry away into the bracken, or an opossum's slow climb up a tree.

The perimeter road was always empty, particularly here, where a huge oak anchored the landward side of the pair of dirt ruts. The other side of the road dropped 15 feet to the bottoms. On this morning Marlin was startled to see a large brown animal lying on its side, its neck twisted at an unnatural angle.

A white-tailed deer. The kill was too primitive for a poacher.

Marlin slid down the embankment for a closer look. The carcass was barely cold. Its chest cavity had a clean incision from neck to belly. The ribs were parted and its heart and lungs were gone. When he looked around he noticed a paw print the size of a frying pan.

"What the …?"

His Dad had told him there were serious predators in the valley. Marlin's father spent most of his adult life hunting and fishing this stretch of wild river, from Savage, on the edge of the Twin Cities, all the way to Mankato. His Dad had taught him how to rig a motion-sensored camera with a flash, to take nighttime photos of game trails.

The next day, Marlin's camera snagged an image of a cougar clear enough to print. "Big Cat Returns to Minnesota," the Star Tribune reported. One of the more dramatic TV news channels asked, "Are you safe in Minnesota's woods?" The stories reported that in the past 10 years there had been dozens of human-cougar encounters, "and in some instances people were stalked, killed and eaten."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tried to place the sighting in perspective: In Minnesota, people had a better chance of being struck by lightning.

The kill, the tracks and the photo made for good TV, which is why, three days later, one station ran a follow-up piece on cougar hunting habits, noting that the predators often returned to feed on kills a second, and even a third time, sometimes several days later.

"So if you're heading into the Minnesota River Valley," warned the news anchor, "be careful out there."

Click to continue to Chapter 1