My first indication that this year’s deer season might be a bit different than those in the past came way back in July, when I took a drive past my group’s favorite hunting spot.
I saw sunlight filtering through formerly dark growth. The woods were — different.
In retrospect, after a month of tromping through the forest in search of deer, I realize “different” isn’t really the right word.
In many spots, the woods were simply nonexistent.
Before we go any further, let me make one point perfectly clear: I am not complaining.
The land, after all, doesn’t belong to me or to my hunting buddies. We appreciate the fact that a landowner of a large parcel allows us access to hunt at all and have long known that some day, some year, logging crews would arrive and our happy hunting grounds would change.
Yes, again. My friend Chris Lander grew up hunting these woods, back when another landowner called the shots. For more than 30 years, he has spent November days there, first with his family and now with me, his brother Billy and our friend Pete Warner.
Chris and Billy know those woods so well. When they’re talking to each other about where they hunted, they often refer to logging roads that no longer exist or dark growth that used to be or “the spot where dad jumped that doe.”
The Lander boys remember back when those deer woods were last cut, some 20 or 25 years ago. Those long-ago skidder paths — some of them, at least — served as our deer hunting highways, leading to stands and blinds and rocks we’d sit on. Those paths led to the edge of a brook where deer hid out, and they served us well — until they didn’t.
About five years ago, we really started to notice the change. Alders encroached on those paths, then covered them completely. Once-easy traverses of a nearby ridge became grueling marches. Thick stands grew thicker. Shooting lanes grew in. And we wondered what would happen if we ever did see an actual deer. Would we have enough time to get off a shot?
If the land had been ours, we would have cleared out a few lanes, offering longer range shots than would improve our odds.
But we didn’t. The trees weren’t ours. We left them alone. And we watched as year by year, season by season, the forest thickened around us.
“One of these years, they’re going to cut this again,” we told each other. “That’ll clean things up.”
And then they did.
My second indication of the extent of the cutting came on that same July day, when I pulled up to a clearing we’ve always referred to as “the parking lot,” because that’s where we’ve typically hopped out of our trucks and headed into the woods.
Instead of a parking lot, it was a log yard, with piles of large trees stacked up, awaiting transport.
Things would be different.
And they were.
Over the course of November, we found that the landscape had changed vastly. Trees we once used as landmarks were no longer there. Old, grown-in skidder paths had been replaced — sometimes in the same spots, other times running in different directions — by other, newer (muddier) tracks.
And in some spots that we’d formerly been able to see about 35 yards into the woods, we found a virtual moonscape, with vistas stretching 150 yards in any direction.
Not optimal, of course — the deer weren’t likely to prance across the treeless prairie, posing for us — but in some ways, an improvement.
None of us ever did get a deer this year, though Pete and Billy still might cash in with their muzzleloaders. But overall, we were encouraged.
We saw more deer sign than ever. We saw more deer, too.
And as the sun set on the regular firearms season on Saturday afternoon, we were left muttering a familiar, but different refrain.
No longer do we want someone to come in and clear out a few of those pesky trees, you see. Now, we’re waiting for some regeneration to occur. And when it does, we’ll be here … and we’ll be ready.
“Wait until next year,” we told each other, in that familiar, yet different way. “Once this starts to grow back, there will be deer all over these woods.”
That, at least, is the hope.
Of course, we’re nothing if not optimistic
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke