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Buddy the adventure cat steps into the great outdoors

Adventure Cats, a website dedicated to cats enjoying the great outdoors, was started in 2015. Its Instagram page has 129,000 followers.

Steve Swartz walks his cat Buddy on a leash as he trains him to hike in the woods at the Apollo Park in Brogue, PA. Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
Steve Swartz walks his cat Buddy on a leash as he trains him to hike in the woods at the Apollo Park in Brogue, PA. Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Dogs will fetch your hiking boots and do backflips by the front door if you mention going "outside."

Ask a cat whether it wants to go for a hike and it will pause, lick a paw, and maybe say "meow." That means "no," or, at best, "meh."

But not all cats. Not Buddy. His "meow" means, "Yes, that sounds wonderful. Go get my harness and GPS tracker and warm up the car."

One day last week, Rachel Swartz, one of Buddy's owners, was coaxing the cat along on a York County trail:

"Psst, psst, psst! Hi, Buddy. Hi, Mr. Puffy Tail."

Buddy is a 7-month-old feral found near a warehouse last year in York. Someone dropped him into a box and put him by Steve Swartz's desk at the heating and air-conditioning company where he works, across the street. Someone knew Swartz loved cats, just as much as he loves kayaking, camping, backpacking, stand-up paddleboarding, and photographing nature.

Now Buddy is training to be an outdoor cat.

On this day, he was wary of the media, popping his head out of a backpack with mesh windows and stepping gingerly on the trail at Apollo County Park in Brogue, a few miles west of the Susquehanna River, only to plop down on the pine needles when he saw strangers.

"He gets pretty shy," Steve Swartz said, crouched down near Buddy.

Buddy is part of a movement, a collective purr from cats all over the world who want more out of life than a warm lap and a broken shoelace. These "adventure cats" have their own websites, Instagram pages, and YouTube channels, furry transcendentalists finding solace in nature with a look on their faces that screams, "I'm enjoying this."

"There's a lot of stereotypes out there about cats," said Laura Moss, a freelance journalist who started in 2015. "We saw it as a way to rebrand cats and cat people. It's not for every cat, by any means, but there's a lot of cats out there who would love some fresh air."

Cats hate water, right? Adventure Cats features a feline named Vladimir who kayaks in fjords with his newlywed owner, and another named Bug, who paddleboards with a personal CFD: cat flotation device. Cats aren't just going to jump into a lake for the heck of it and stink up the car the way dogs do. They're not fools.

Adventure cats ski, sail, soak up the sun on warm, Southwestern mesas, and even scale rock walls in backpacks. The bonuses are endless: Cats will catch and eat flies in your tent, and when you stop at a craft brewery for a flight in some crunchy mountain town, they're perfectly content to curl up on the car seat.

"Once we get up in the woods, he does his own thing," Matthew Tumbiolo, a Schuylkill County resident, said of his cat Gepetto. "You'd think he was a dog."

Tumbiolo even took Gepetto on his honeymoon, a road trip that included hikes in the Outer Banks, Smoky Mountains, and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina.

"He'll go off into the woods on his own, maybe 30 or 40 feet from us," he said. "If he gets too far, he starts crying."

Tumbiolo has eight cats but only one other, Mr. Bones, goes outside. Mr. Bones acts like a teenage mountain biker on Red Bull. Gepetto is more Thoreau at Walden.

"Mr. Bones likes to distract Gepetto," Tumbiolo said. "He kind of does this body-slam roll into Gepetto when we're out."

Steve Swartz started slowly with Buddy, easing him into the harness and later the leash before venturing outside. Some cats don't get past the harness.

"Yeah, sometimes they just fall over," Swartz said.

Buddy moved on to parks, and Apollo is the Swartzes' favorite as it's rarely crowded. Still, they make laminated signs and place them at the trailhead and other junctures along the route asking dog owners to leash up.

"Buddy the cat is hiking here today," the sign reads. "He is not used to strangers yet and can be a scaredy cat."

Swartz has bigger plans for Buddy, including an overnight trip, likely close to home at first. He's already bought Buddy, who has his own Instagram account, a tiny tent, and Swartz has plans for more gear in the future.

"I'm looking into a radio tracker with a five- to 10-mile range," he said.

Buddy did bound down the trail at Apollo Park eventually, mostly going 50 feet at a time before crouching down to scan the scenery. He almost looked like a … you know …  but he isn't.

"Wherever he goes I go," Swartz said. "He's not leash trained in the sense that he's going to follow you where you go. He is a cat."