Tale Time

Deer, snow, coyotes and, um, a hilltown homer, that’s where we’re headed today.

Yes, more interesting feedback, most of it concerning last week’s column about icy snow spelling deer doom. One respondent was a state cop, another a kid I once coached in South Deerfield, the third an old Hampshire League ballplayer who recalled an ancient home run I hit in Shelburne Falls as a 16-year-old high school junior. All three sources had interesting observations to share.

The trooper, Kevin Wesoloski of South Deerfield, wanted to expand upon my unsubstantiated tale of coyote deer carnage discovered by Hampden snowmobilers. He said he’s heard through the grapevine similar stories from West County snowmobilers who’ve come upon gruesome scenes, blood and body parts everywhere, what he called, “a sure sign that our deer herd will suffer this winter.”

“Weso” also described driving Route 9 through the Quabbin the other day and seeing a half-dozen deer in an oak grove, “all appearing to be standing on top of the crust, good for movement but equally bad for their ability to paw through deep snow for acorns.” That site, east of here, received more freezing rain than we did, thus the thicker, sturdier crust. “Here, our hilltown deer are breaking through and sinking to their bellies,” Weso warned.

Accompanying Weso’s e-mail were three trail-camera photos of large, wily, nighttime coyotes standing atop local snow. “Look at the size of these dogs,” he wrote. “Put a couple in a deer yard and tell me they won’t take down the healthy ones. The weak are always first but these critters don’t just stop there.”

His point is valid. Maybe all the whiners out there, the ones who want to protect every beast in God’s creation, even transfer to them human rights, should someday learn how packs of dogs, wild or domestic, kill deer. Canines do not kill a deer before eating it; they kill by eating, after shredding back-leg tendons to immobilize them. Dogs start on the hind quarters, deer groaning in misery, before tearing open the belly and eating whatever’s available, including organs, stomach contents or tiny, tasty fawns in the womb. At least a big cat snaps the neck of its prey before devouring it. Dogs are less merciful. That’s why domestic dogs were shot on sight in the woods a generation and more ago, a practice today less common because of leash laws.

As for the kid I coached who responded to last week’s column, he’s Keith Bohonowicz. A snowmobiler and avid hunter, Boho’s troubled by the deer he’s seen on woodland travels. No, he hasn’t come upon any slaughterhouse scenes like the one I described in Hampden, just deer in obvious deep-snow distress reacting to human intrusion in a peculiar fashion. Two such rapid-fire observations occurred last Wednesday in the West Deerfield/Shelburne woods known locally as “The Old World.”

First, when Boho and his party approached a small, forested, hemlock-bordered spring hole, he noticed many tracks and all the hemlock branches within six feet of the ground torn to shreds right through the bark. It told him that abundant natural feed on the forest floor was inaccessible. Nearby, he noticed movement and spotted four mature does and a skipper standing with a “deer-in-headlights look,” at mid-afternoon. “As the other machines approached, the deer tried to bound up the ridge,” he wrote. “They made it about 25 yards into thicker cover before stopping and letting us pass.”

After meeting a rider at his house and backtracking, they again passed the site about 20 minutes later and the deer were still standing in the same spot, “not feeding, not moving, almost like they were taking a break after the scare. They proceeded to watch us drive by, even when we stopped for a minute or two to take in the spectacular winter view.”

The crew continued west toward Bardwell’s Ferry and, while descending to the railroad tracks, spotted five more deer standing about five yards off the trail. These animals had stress written all over them as they clumsily fled up a hill. “They tried to ascend the ridge and, as I watched the first doe bound off, she could only go about five or 10 yards before stopping to reset herself in the deep snow and bound again. I’ve seen similar scenarios many times and all you see is a white streak and the deer are gone. It took these deer two or three minutes to go 75 yards to the ridge-top, where they stopped like long-distance runners after a race and looked at us like, ‘Why did you make us move?’ The deep snow is having a negative effect on deer and it worries me. In all my years of hunting and snowmobiling, I have never seen deer act in this queer manner.”

My final source, the one who mentioned that home run, is George “Ace” Mislak, an Ashfield native who now lives not far up the road from me on Patten Hill in Shelburne. Mislak didn’t mention coyotes, just his assessment of the deer population near his home and in his old Ashfield haunts.

“I concur that the deer population has gone from slim in the 70’s to great in the 90’s to slim now …,” he wrote. “Billy Meyers of Colrain is my brother-in-law. We agree that there are fewer deer tracks in the snow these days.”

Something else of interest before I get to the long ball: Mislak’s wife recently saw a cougar near their home. “It had snowed just after Christmas and, as my wife was raising the shade and the neighbor was plowing his long driveway, she noticed an animal cross the main road. You can add her to the list of people who have sighted a long-tailed cat. I quizzed her on every detail and, sure enough, she described a cougar. I know it was not a bobcat. We both watched a pair play near our Reynolds Road home a short time before this.”

As for the home run, well, I hesitate to mention it but cannot resist, finally, because it has been referenced so many times over the years by West County ballplayers who witnessed it, including two righthanders who claim to have been the pitcher. This latest mention stirred my curiosity and sent me to The Recorder microfilm Tuesday night in search of written evidence.

The blast Mislak recalled as “a three-run homer that rolled into the brook,” was in fact a two-run job, according to the April 24, 1970 newspaper account. Mohawk coach Bill Pollard reported the home run without additional fanfare. But judging from the tale’s lasting power, that brook had to be a seldom-reached yardstick. I vaguely recall it as a soaring shot straightaway over the left-fielder’s head, wooden bat and soggy spring turf.

That diamond is today gone. I suspect it was the old Arms Academy ballpark — if so, the house that Harper and Wizzie built. I wonder how far that little brook was from home plate? Maybe not so far. Tales seem to get taller with age. But someone must have an idea of distance. Maybe an old-timer knows and could even add other baseball lore from that storied hilltown ballyard now alongside the elementary school.

God, how I love this stuff.

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