Crossing paths with deer marks collision of two worlds

As I walked through the quiet, snow-carpeted woods Sunday on the last day of the antlerless deer season, I saw fresh deer tracks crossing the boot prints I’d left the day before.

I was on my way to my ground blind as the sky slowly brightened, and the crisp tracks gave me a glimmer of hope.

About 3½ hours later, I was walking back to my van, crossing the same tracks and carrying most of the gear from my blind. I stopped again, staring at the tracks frozen in time. At some point, two deer had crossed here, surviving as they and their kind have done for centuries. I had warm clothes, insulated boots, a heater, a backpack full of gear, snacks and water, and two muzzleloading rifles.

How could two naked animals with no tools other than their keen senses of smell and hearing outwit a human?

Deer are in a survival state every second of their lives. I am not. If I make a mistake, I spook a deer or simply fail to shoot one. I go home to a warm house, plenty of food and water, and everything else I need to keep living. If a deer makes a mistake, he may die in seconds.

That was true of the snow-covered doe that lay next to the roadway, directly in line with the main deer trail at our hunting club. A large metal box, traveling faster than she could imagine, but beyond her understanding, surely took her life.

Had I been in survival mode, I would hunt at night when the deer are active. I would use a spotlight, a semi-auto rifle and possibly some corn for bait. I’d cut into the road kill to see if there was good meat to salvage, and probably chance life-threatening bacteria in order to eat and survive.

That isn’t hunting, although I certainly love venison and consider myself a meat hunter. Game laws wisely prohibit night hunting of deer, the use of spotlights and baiting in some cases.

If I hunted only to obtain meat, my annual efforts could be considered inefficient at best, and idiotic at worst.

I’ve read some humorous emails about the real cost of a pound of venison when one considers the costs of rifles, ammo, blinds, tree stands, vehicles, licenses, hunting clothes, processing fees and all the other expenses associated with our sport. Of course it would be much, much cheaper to go to the best local meat market and buy the most expensive cuts of beef rather than hunt.

What draws us to these woods and trails every year? Our hunting companions or deer camp friends certainly are a part of it. Yet, I find myself most at peace with this natural world when I am hunting alone.

Sitting quietly in my blind and watching silently for the flicker of an ear or tail amid the snowy white pines and oaks is not only a stress reliever, but a soul rejuvenator. It can’t be explained fully to non-hunters. It’s a realization that yes, humans really are a part of the natural world, if only temporarily.

I feel I’m reaching back in time, even history, to a moment when humans depended on hunting for survival, but they didn’t have the tools of today. Spears, clubs and later bows and arrows meant many hungry nights and short lifespans. Gunpowder eventually kept settlers’ bellies full and protected them from two- and four-legged predators, too.

Boredom is the enemy of today’s hunter. Deer hunting is a lot like being a police officer. It’s hours of boredom punctuated with a few seconds or minutes of pure adrenaline. During the waiting, we hunters play on our cell phones, snap photos of other wildlife, snack, smoke or jot a few notes in a notebook.

A pileated woodpecker, one of my favorite birds, lands within 30 yards of my blind. He is visible through a small gap between two pines. My little Canon point-and-shoot camera comes out of its case and I struggle with the auto-focus lens to get some clear shots. I manage a few, plus a brief video before the crow-sized bird moves to another tree.

About 10 a.m., I realize it’s time to pull the plug on another year of gun hunting. I won’t be here for the holiday hunt, but I do have a few more days of crossbow hunting left. I gather my gear and head for the van.

As I walk quietly through the canopy of pines, I imagine those generations of hunters who came before me. Did they once stand in this same spot, under a canopy of larger trees? Or was this a completely different landscape?

Seeing those sharply pointed deer tracks offers deep satisfaction to a mature hunter. The old saw says you can’t eat tracks, but they tell me that I’m in the right spot. If I’m patient long enough, eventually those ever-meandering tracks will cross paths with my boot prints, and the stars and natural world will align with my soft, weak and flawed human world to allow me to take another whitetail home.

Today is not that day.

I know that as long as I can walk, draw breath and feel my own heartbeat, I will keep returning here to hunt.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at Ross@wolfriverccw.com.