Sneaking out of the house was nearly impossible. Since the start of bird season the dogs never took their eyes off me, particularly Maggie our youngster. Earlier in the day, I had snuck my deer rifle out and tucked it in a corner of the entry. Leaving sad faces behind, I walked out of the house in my deer hunting garb.
An inch of snow covered the ground and no wind moved the air. An overcast sky promised daylight fading early. The snow had fallen a couple of days before, but constant cold temperatures had kept it from melting.
I picked a course away from the house where the dogs could not see me entering the woods with a gun. If they had my wife would have been forced to listen to a sorrowful chorus.
Just beyond the edge of the lawn, tracks showed where a bobcat had walked up through the softwood trees and sat. Was it there in daylight? Did the cat know there were dogs around? From its perch it looked up the hill at the house and our shop.
An old skid road lead down to the edge of the soggy marsh. The damp snow-covered ground muffled my footsteps and I took care not brush against dead twigs. The coyotes keep a worn path parallel with the wetlands, and I followed it west. Judging from the tracks, only a few had passed by since the snow fell. Snowshoe hare tracks were everywhere and I wondered how they survived. Their lives had to be constant terror with all the coyotes in the neighborhood.
A blown-down fir tree forced a course change. Stepping from hummock to hummock, I crossed wet ground beneath firs and cedars.
Movement…I froze. A blue jay landed on a low branch, then flashed away again.
Where the ground grew firmer, I followed the stream beneath a canopy of tall softwood trees. The ground there is predominately flat and slow streams meander through from the north, joining the larger stream further west. Beyond where I could see, the hill goes up through birches and maples, with patches of evergreens breaking up the forest. Craggy, near vertical, ledges break up the slope, making ascent or descent impossible in places. To the south, on the other side of the stream, a smaller steep hill climbs upward through mixed woods. Some of that hill is so steep that deer detour around it.
I hope to find tracks ahead where the deer funnel between the steep slope and an open field beyond. Two years ago there were so many tracks it looked like a highway. The previous fall our trail cam caught deer there too.
A twig snaps off to my right and I freeze. Up in a tree a squirrel chatters. I wait and listen, watching for movement. A slow step to my right puts a fir tree in front of me, a possible shooting rest if I needed one. The squirrel was very persistent, but finally stops. I wait another fifteen minutes, then continue.
Tracks show where a bobcat has climbed up on a stump and sat. Could it be the same one that visited the house? Tiny tracks that look like lace ribbon weave across the snow. Coyote tracks are everywhere.
I reach the open field without seeing a single deer track. Discouraged, I turn northward to head back along the north side of the valley, following the edge where the land starts to climb. That course would make a giant circle around our home.
One giant white pine clings atop a craggy boulder the size of a house and I wonder how it stays. A spruce holds on similarly. Holes in the mammouth rocks formed gloomy shadows.
The dark craggy vertical ledges breakup the slope and I know deer cannot cross them. Just beyond a giant white cedar, a stream tumbles down from above, creating a series of roaring waterfalls. When I stop to watch a grouse explodes from the top of a fir tree. Where was he when I had my bird gun?
Another skid road takes me up through skinny young maples. A lone coyote had taken the same path. Off to the left an enormous shattered fir tree lays on the ground, broken by a recent wind. Either side of the whippy maples the forest looks eerily dark beneath dense fir trees.
Big ones. They go down the slope into softwood trees not far from our home. How old are they? The edges looked sharp and no snow was in the imprints. The deer must have crossed the valley. How I could have missed them? I must have crossed them on the other side.
Darkness and the end of shooting time was only a half hour away. I waited in the shadows of the softwoods, timing fifteen minutes on my watch, then slipped uphill to a woods road that would take me back to our field.
Coyote tracks littered that road and yellow snow showed where they had marked. The neighborhood seemed to be overrun with those hoodlums. Next to a rotten stump, bobcat tracks went in under the low branches of a fir tree to sit in the shelter of its branches.
It was time to call it a day.
At three in the morning I woke, realizing that the reason I hadn’t seen the deer tracks anywhere else on my circular hunt was because the deer hadn’t crossed to the other side of my circle. Could that snapping twig and chattering squirrel been caused by that deer?