Just Because

The brittle leaves underfoot were dry and noisy, the day unseasonably warm for early November, approaching 70. The noontime sky was clear, blue and infinite, not a trace of a cloud anywhere, the southern sun big and bright, the air tomb still.

We were walking an abandoned road, me and a man who shares my love of local history, old roads and stone-clad cellar holes marking the sites of long-ago abandoned hilltown dwellings. I had for some time meant to return to this road and these woods containing the historic farmstead of Conway’s first settler, Cyrus Rice. It was as good a day as any, with optimal visibility through bare-boned fall hardwoods; revealing, dusty beams of light filtering through to illuminate patches of the forest floor. We were there as the result of a mid-morning whim and my impulsive phone call had us traipsing through what was once a sparse group of expansive 18th- and early 19th-century farms, now dense forest along the western lip overlooking Deerfield’s Mill River section.

We had met at the Route 116 convenience store, where he left his car before I drove my 4-wheel Tacoma pickup to our destination, there driving a few hundred yards up a snowmobile trail to a location within sight of charred remains from a mid-20th century hunting camp. From there, we walked and talked and studied the lay of the land, stopping here and there to probe beneath the leaves on the forest floor with my walking stick, assessing acorns and other hard mast (hickory nuts everywhere); along the way passing a bittersweet canopy tangled through small trees, a massive wild grapevine wider at its base than my right thigh, and even a twin white birch more than a foot and a half wide along the ridge’s highest spine; your typical, knobby, southern New England upland forest. Beautiful indeed.

At the peak of the first hill we hiked, the old road traveled a short distance downhill and split. We took the right fork down a level, where the road looped us through wide-open forest to a spot where a tidy stonewall abruptly ended, behind it a line of large maples blazed with circular red blotches head-high, behind them a foot-wide spring brook running clean and free through a shallow hollow and toward the Mill River. We stopped and talked and probed and laughed as we discussed our next move, how far we intended to continue our little discovery mission, trying to connect opposite ends of the road. But we were in no great hurry, just enjoying the gorgeous day, the sun, the woods and conversation through breathless dry air.

I mentioned that I thought I knew the small brook as one I used to cross years ago hunting on a friend’s land, perhaps a half-mile below. Down there, I remembered the stream as wider, trickling through a steep, foreboding gorge-like ravine just above its confluence with the Mill River. As we discussed that and the straight, sturdy stonewall, the blazed trees and whatever else came to mind, we heard leaves rustling in the distance. Something was moving toward us from the other side of the stonewall. At first, I assumed it was a squirrel but told my friend it could easily be something we weren’t expecting, even a bear, because there are many bears in those woods, and they would definitely be around with a bountiful nut crop to forage. Then he saw something moving and said it looked like a dog, “right there,” pointing, “Do you see it?”

I didn’t but was expecting a coyote. When the animal cleared the trees screening me and came out into the open, I could see clearly what we were dealing with: a whitetail, spikehorn buck, spikes eight or 10 inches long, probably weighing between 90 and 110 pounds. We continued talking and it kept on its merry way, right at us, walking to within 25 yards before noticing us, freezing, staring for a second or two and taking two or three bounds to the peak of a little knob maybe 50 yards away. It stood there, broadside, to again examine its unexpected guests before vanishing over the top.

How do you explain such a thing? Deer hunters wash their clothes and bodies in special scentless soaps, apply scent masks or cover scents to their clothing, and discipline themselves to remain quiet and motionless for hours on stand. And here we were, midday, bright woods, making absolutely no effort to conceal our presence or be quiet, and the young buck walks right up to us as though deaf. You’ll never convince me that deer was deaf. No way. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, what it’s all about for such sightings, gun or no gun.

Of course, my pal had another take as we walked back to the truck discussing it. He agreed it was an incredible moment, but asked if I was certain it wasn’t an escaped mule. Uh-uh. A mule it was not. Definitely a spikie.

I guess it’s days like this that bring me to the woods. You never know what you’re going to run into. Perhaps something you’ve never before seen, maybe something you’ve seen many times but never get tired of. This week’s spikehorn was more the former than latter, but still unusual, unexpected, interesting and, on another level, frustrating.

Frustrating? Yes, because I must admit that since the sighting I have more than once during idle moments thought: “Why doesn’t this happen when I’m deer hunting?”

Just because.

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