The dog and I have a fairly regular loop we walk. From the dooryard, we head uphill – in winter, that means we first scramble over the hard-packed snowbank at the edge of the driveway – into a five-acre stand of pines. Continuing up, the pine gives way to a mix of white birch and hophornbeam, and then we reach a soggy depression with a handful of decadent apple trees I’ve tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate. Above them on drier ground is a huge sugar maple sitting on an old property line dating from the 1790s. Circling this giant, we turn back toward home through a nice stand of sugar maple before the downhill progression brings us back into the pines. It can be a 20-minute walk, but it usually takes longer because there’s a lot to see, and hear, and smell. Woody is a bird dog, an English cocker, endlessly curious.
When we make the loop in winter, one thing is certain to catch his attention. Though we never see it on our walks, a red fox has a territory that overlaps ours, and often the air is so redolent of fox urine that it doesn’t take a dog’s nose to smell it. When Woody comes across its trail, he’ll sink his nose deeply into a track, his long black ears splayed out on the snow like wings. He’ll rise out of it snorting, trying to suck in all the scent he can. Then he’ll bound ahead to another track and repeat the procedure. He won’t stop until I whistle him along.
Another breed – a hound, say, bred for the chase – would not pay attention to an individual track but would set off in pursuit of who made the track. But for Woody, the neighbor fox is more mystery than quarry.
The winter snow and the tracks printed on it give a perfect picture of the difference between my merry dog and the wild fox. The fox is all business. He barely sinks into the snow, his rear feet falling directly into the prints of his front feet. He’s purposeful in his hunting, and we’ll only occasionally see where his path deviated from its steady trajectory as it investigated something of interest. His movement is economical because his next meal is not guaranteed.
Woody’s tracks, on the other hand, reveal an exuberant dog, bounding all over the place, plunging in and out of the snow, a dog that’s profligate with his energy because he knows that every day at 8 in the morning and 5 at night, his bowl of food will be placed next to his water bowl. Like all domestic dogs, he’s descended from wild canids who learned the advantages of co-dependence with humans. He can afford his exuberance, and his playfulness can – let’s face it – border on goofy.
But behind that winning personality is a predator whose instincts kick in when he sees me putting on my hunting vest and grabbing my shotgun from the corner of the mudroom. At those signals, he turns instantly into an intense bird dog. His everyday joy turns into an ecstatic response to being summoned to do exactly what his genes have led him to. It’s no longer a walk but a hunt.
“Find the birds,” I say, giving him a hand signal, and off he goes. Fully engaged, he charges wide to the left but swings back before getting too far away. “Too far” is defined as beyond the 30 yards that constitute a shotgun’s effective range, and his range is dictated more by his breeding than his training. He crosses in front of me and makes a similar foray to the right. He plows heedlessly through thick, nasty puckerbrush in pursuit of that intoxicating smell of grouse. I walk along steadily when I can and wade my way gingerly through the brambles when I can’t, all the while marveling at his ability to track my whereabouts without making conscious contact with me. When things go just right, I’ll notice his intensity go up yet another notch, and I can expect there’s going to be a bird flying soon. On occasion, in full pursuit, he’ll even let out a yip, a startling and endearing expression coming from a dog who wouldn’t bark at a roomful of burglars. When the bird springs into flight, it’s up to me to do my part, which, sad to say, I fail at much more often than I succeed.
My interest in hunting, unlike Woody’s and the fox’s, is not genetically pre-ordained. Nobody in my family hunted, and I didn’t take it up until, at the age of 30, I wandered into a pawn shop and came away with a Montgomery Ward’s 20-gauge side-by-side shotgun. I’ve been carrying that gun when bird hunting ever since. As much as I enjoy hunting birds – particularly watching the dog work – it has one major drawback, which is that good grouse covers are becoming scarce. Around here, most of the young forests that grew on newly cowless pastures a few decades ago have matured so much that the cover is no longer thick enough to shelter grouse. In order to find covers that are likely to hold birds, you need to put on miles, not just on foot but in the truck.
I’d much rather be on foot, which is one reason I now spend more time hunting deer than birds. I can head out the back door and be hunting right away. There are enough deer in our woods (but not so many that they are destroying all the saplings) that I know I always have a chance at a buck. After more than twenty Novembers, I’ve managed to absorb a lot about hunting deer. By no means can I claim that I can pattern a specific buck (that is, to know the predictable rounds that it makes), but I have learned in general where I can expect them to be traveling.
Some hunters set out in the morning in a tracking snow and walk until they cross a track. If they ascertain that it’s a buck, they’ll start following it, reading in the track its speed and how long ago it made the track. They’ll happily put on miles in this pursuit, closing ground along the way. It must be an exhilarating way to hunt, but I don’t have enough confidence in my skills to embark on that kind of all-day hill-and-dale pursuit. Besides, I like to hunt on my own land.
So I cover ground slowly, if at all. I’ll start many days by sitting in my tree stand, scanning the woods and listening for footsteps, and I’ll climb down only when I can’t possibly stay still any longer. Released from my perch and all cold and stiff-legged, I’ll resist the impulse to do some jumping jacks because before long, even a relative crawl will circulate the blood and bring some warmth.
I walk a few steps, stop and pay attention, then take a few more steps. I do this for as long as I can stay focused, and when I realize that my attention is wandering, I’ll stop and try to regroup, because if I get careless, I could blow all my good efforts and spook a deer. When I slow down enough to be an unobtrusive part of the still woods, the wild world opens itself to me.
It always feels like a coup when I see a deer before it sees me. It means I’ve been focused and stealthy. When I can watch it go about its business while I stand concealed downwind, I know that I’ve come a long way from the days when all I ever saw were white tails bounding away.
It’s even better when I see predators that don’t see me. Deer are plenty wary, but there’s nothing like out-sneaking a fox or a coyote. The red fox whose track obsesses Woody showed himself to me one day while I was deer hunting. It was a cold, sunny morning with half a foot of snow on the ground, and I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I froze, and the fox proceeded to cross 30 feet uphill of me. With a beautiful cinnamon coat and a tail as long as its body, this creature was the essence of wild. It was unaware of my presence and just about to disappear when it stopped and sniffed the air. It looked over its shoulder at me, but didn’t bolt, just resumed his unhurried pace.
Last season, I had a long look at a beautiful coyote, again while deer hunting. The morning was so quiet that I could hear a set of footfalls in fluffy snow. Primed for a deer, I dropped into a crouch and waited. Then, along came a coyote with a thick winter coat, moving at a measured trot, its eyes, ears, and nose alert for any clue of nearby prey. Yet he never noticed me as he came up and over the ridge and down the back side. When he was gone, I went to look at his tracks, which appeared so precisely regular they could have been stamped on the snow with a machine. Only an occasional slight toe drag broke the pattern.
For most of the year, I don’t live in the wild. I spend too many hours of too many weeks facing down a computer screen. But days like that make me realize that even though the most recent generations of my family didn’t hunt, there are traces of a hunter in my DNA after all.
Before I took up hunting, I appreciated nature in the same way I appreciate art in a museum, and with the same limited attention span. Sure, it was beautiful to look at, but I needed to experience the wild by participating rather than observing. It’s only by slowing down to a hunter’s pace that I enter the wild world.
I reject the idea that hunting is just recreation, nothing more than sport. Carrying a rifle in pursuit of a deer is no less than a path into another consciousness, just as a sacrament is a path into the sacred. And that’s without even mentioning food, which is, after all, the point of the pursuit. When my family and friends eat venison that I’ve provided, we’re sharing a meal that’s been grown on our land, the product of our leaves, grass, apples, and beechnuts. Through it, we all participate in the wild. And I treasure that.