Saturday, December 8, 2007
Warning: This post is not for the squeamish!
Tracks in a dusting of snow can tell tales we might hear in no other way. I always assumed that because I live in the center of town, deer would not make it to my yard, but I now know that’s not the case. Over the years, thanks in part to a motion-detector light in the backyard, I’ve seen opossums, raccoons, woodchucks, skunks, cottontails, gray squirrels, red squirrels and chipmunks, but no deer. We had an unseasonably cold week followed by a light snow Friday night. When I went out to get the paper Saturday morning, the tracks of a good-sized whitetail in the snow showed where a deer had walked up my driveway to sample our neighbors’ yew. As it would turn out, that is not the only mystery revealed by the snow that day.
As I walked up to Moose Hill a little later that morning, I decided to stay off the road as much as possible. By ducking into the woods at the end of the train station parking lot I was in the woods quickly and was thrilled to encounter a Boy Scout troop working on a new trail. I’m happy to think we’ll soon have another way to get to and from the Hill on foot without walking on the street.
My route took me over the dam at the low end of the cedar swamp – where the scouts are also building a new bridge. I did have to leave the trail to walk on the street for a few minutes before reaching the Hobbs Hill Loop. Back in the woods, with nearly every step I took, every time I looked down, I was likely to see that I was not the first to pass over any stretch of trail that day. It seemed deer were everywhere. Large canine prints could have been from a coyote which are said to be common now. On the boardwalk across the swamp on the way to the Kettle Trail, more delicate canine tracks may have been those of a fox and wider prints showing long claws made me think maybe a fisher was poking around. A fresh snow reveals how much activity goes on in these woods that most of us never see and many of us never imagine.
Where the Kettle Trail hits Moose Hill Parkway near Upland Road, I crossed the street and took the Vernal Pool Loop trail past The Boulders where I sometimes like to stop and sit. Rather than take the Loop back toward the sanctuary visitors’ center, I continued straight on the abandoned section of Everett Street. Like Summit Road on Moose Hill Farm, this old road that once probably carried horses, wagons and carts now carries weekend walkers through the woods. Old fields and a cellar hole reminded me that this land was long ago the home of a hopeful farmer. New tracks in the snow informed me that I was not the first human to pass that way on that day.
Everett Street eventually hits the power lines and I turned left (southwest), thinking I would follow the right-of-way to Moose Hill Farm. Again, marks in the snow told me that the path along the power lines was a busy thoroughfare and a few walkers and many deer had been there ahead of me. Because of all the interesting things to see in the new snow I was looking down more than up. About the time I was daydreaming about how someone looking for a break from the city could hop on a train in Boston’s South Station, take the train to Sharon and, in literally two minutes could be walking in the woods on a trek that could last much of the day, a red spot in the snow caught my eye. At first I thought someone had stepped on a bittersweet berry, but that didn’t seem right. I stopped and looked more closely and realized I was looking at blood. I noticed it was in an area of compressed snow. For a moment I thought perhaps someone was pulling a child on a plastic toboggan, but soon enough the puzzle pieces came together and I knew what I was seeing. Someone had dragged a deer along the path. I knew there was poaching in the area; I had seen the cut fences and part of a tree stand before, but this trail was fresh.
I decided to follow the trail, hoping to flesh out the story. I turned around and retraced my steps, noticing I had been walking on the drag marks for a while without realizing it. Because the animal had been dragged in that direction the amount of blood was diminishing. Once again, my eyes were cast mostly downward and I didn’t look up until the drag marks left the path. I raised my gaze to the wooded edge of the right-or-way and saw a large dark shape in the snow. The hunter had left his burden barely concealed at the tree line. I don’t know if he was tried of dragging the big carcass and planned to come back for it later or, not wanting to be caught in the act of poaching, had been scared off the trail by an approaching hiker – possibly me – and was lurking nearby.
That last thought kept me from lingering too long, but I studied the dead buck long enough to snap a couple of photos and observe that it was an eight-pointer and that one of his antlers had been damaged – maybe in a fight with a bigger buck. The deer had been gutted and I saw an entry wound in his flank. The strap the hunter had been using to drag the animal was still around its neck. I wondered when he would be back and if the rising temperatures might spoil the meat.
I reversed direction yet again, following the drag marks in reverse this time in a way that reminded me of watching a film backwards. As I walked, the spots of blood became larger and more frequent. Near a low spot in the right-of-way the drag marks left the path and went through weeds, then brush, and then into the woods. I followed the trail through the trees and over old logs, the blood now leaving big splotches of red in the fresh white snow. I knew what I would eventually find, and I didn’t have long to wait. In deep woods by a small brook, in an area trampled by footprints and marked with smears and spatters of bright blood, was the gut pile. Along with the intestines was the liver. Off to the side, cut in half, was the heart. I wondered if the hunter was looking for parasites, or performing some sort of barbaric ritual. I’ve never killed a deer, so I don’t know if these organs are usually wasted. I wondered if he said a prayer of thanks to the deer, but I thought not.
I was starting to get a little creeped-out, but I did a little more CSI. I saw where the buck had been in his death throes along a path of broken branches and sprays of blood. I saw where he took his last steps before the razor-edged broad-head arrow sliced into him. I knew the hunter’s perch must be close and, looking up, I soon found his tree stand. Steel hooks for climbing were screwed into the trunk of the tree and a nylon cord for raising and lowering his weapon was hanging down.
I was feeling quite a mix of emotions. I didn’t think much of this poacher for killing a deer on private (and probably sanctuary) property without permission, but I had to admire his efficacy. As one who had enjoyed a delicious beef brisket for dinner the night before, I was in no position to feel moral outrage over the harvesting of a little venison. I later determined that this was indeed the last day of deer hunting season, so this guy was not hunting out of season and – for all I know – he may have been carrying a valid hunting license. As one who recently suffered with Lyme disease and one who sees the damage over-browsing does to the forest, I do worry that we have too many deer around. I sometimes have trouble seeing things in black and white. Maybe it’s a good thing for we suburbanites and city-dwellers who eat meat to see something like this once in a while just to remind us that the burger on our plate means that something had to die.
I’d had enough of blood and guts, so I moved on. As I headed up the hill toward Moose Hill Farm, an uneasy feeling came over me. I wondered if this dead buck was the same one I’d seen twice before among the high rocky outcrops and cedar trees near Moose Hill Farm.
I like my favorite resting places on Moose Hill to have names. If I find a name on a map, like Hobbs Hill, the Boulders or Allens Ledge, that’s fine. Sometimes I make up my own name like the Lower Meadow, or the Mikveh. I’ve started to call the rocky hilltop near Moose Hill Farm the Tor. These bare rocks rising from the surrounding forest with their scattered scrubby cedars and scraggly pines makes me think of Sherlock Holmes stories with tors rising from the mists of the moors, and I think of the buck there as the Stag of the Tor. (I try to ignore the high-voltage power line running so close by and to tune out the roar of I-95 coming through the woods.)
There are actually two or three rocky hilltops that make up the high ground in this area. I climbed the steep slope from the power lines up to the first one to find a fire ring. I imagine generations of walkers have been attracted to this place and I was looking for a spot for breakfast, but this one was too close too the wires. I dropped down into the saddle between two summits, following natural pathways that, as more tracks in the snow revealed, were also used by deer. I was also keeping my eyes open for my buck, hoping to see him bounding off through the oaks as I had twice before, telling me he was still alive and well. No sooner had I completed those thoughts when I found something I’d never seen before in all my hours in the woods. At my feet was a whitetail deer antler. It was fresh and clean and the tissue at the base where it had been attached to the buck’s skull was still white with flecks of red as if it had fallen off that very morning. It was perfectly formed with four large points and a small stub near the base indicating that it likely came from an eight- to ten-point buck. This was a lucky find because, as I recall, rodents love to chew shed antlers, so they don’t last long on the forest floor. More importantly, because of its location and size I felt sure this antler came from the buck I had seen in the area. This meant the dead deer I had seen earlier was not the buck of the Tor. I even wondered if the damaged antler I saw on the dead deer could have been broken in a fight with this one on an adjacent territory. I was hopeful that he would live to fight another day.
I found a nice spot to sit on a rock in the sun to eat my sandwich and drink my coffee. I sat high on the hillside and looked out over the oak forest below, maybe much the same way the buck would survey his domain. I didn’t sit long because I had a long walk home and had already been afield for quite some time. I found my way through the woods to old Summit Road and the new loop trail through Moose Hill Farm. When I broke out of the woods into the big hayfields I could see across the rolling hills to the tall towers of downtown Boston, gleaming in the bright sunshine through the clear winter air. I found it remarkable and a little amazing that a little fresh snow could reveal so much wild drama within sight of this major east coast city. I felt more than a little lucky that I had been there to take it all in.
Labels: Poaching, Whitetails