Close Encounter

It was the last day of shotgun deer season, a Saturday, half-past noon, and the glare of a low, bright sun in the blue southern sky was blinding, even when filtered through the skeletal, gray, naked, wetland forest bordering riverside meadows. I wasn’t hunting. Just walking the dogs on our daily route, where deer are never far away.

For the second straight Saturday, I had lingered longer than usual at my morning reading station, where on sunny days the natural light is warm, illuminating and engaging. So, eagerly awaiting, the dogs were more than ready for their unrestrained morning romp, especially 5-year-old Chub-Chub, who, unlike his geriatric mom, Lily, going on 13, is in his prime and in top shape following a robust pheasant season in punishing cover. I, too, was ready to ramble. What had delayed me on this day was Peter Cozzens’ book, “The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West,” which I found gripping and difficult to leave.

Walking south into the sun for the first half of our half-hour walk, I was bareheaded and, even though wearing prescription sunglasses, had to raise my hand as a visor to shield the sun and get an idea of what was ahead. A week to the day earlier at about the same midday hour, I had run into two deer feeding under a large red oak just below the crest of a 20-foot escarpment leading up to the Christmas tree farm on the upper terrace. The white flash of a fleeing whitetail had caught my attention. Then I got a clear look at the second deer, a stubby little skipper that ran a few steps and stood broadside looking at me from 50 yards before following the leader, likely its mom, out of sight to safety. Could have been a button buck. Maybe just an immature doe.

I do believe that those two deer and others where I walk, and where my presence and that of my dogs is felt, do not view us as a threat because we never pressure, pursue or threaten them, just pass through on our daily rounds. They know my truck, my whistle, my voice and my scent, and are used to avoiding us by standing still and letting us pass in their habitat. When we’re gone, they walk right down my trodden path, unafraid. It’s sort of like the friendly dynamic between deer and farmers they get comfortable with. When farmers are out in their fields spreading manure, cutting hay or corn or performing various other seasonal chores, deer stand on the periphery or even right out in the open as they work. Coyotes will do it, too. But put a stranger out in those same fields and watch the deer scatter, aware that it’s not the familiar farmer they’re dealing with.

Anyway, back to that final day of shotgun season, we didn’t appear to jump deer where I had seen them the previous week, but I could tell from Chub-Chub’s reaction around deer runs passing to and from the upper level that they weren’t far, had passed through and left distinguishable scent at some point. You can tell by the way the dog squirts through the tangled bordering undergrowth into the wetland and just stands there on a deer run, still and straight as a statue, head high, looking and sniffing. Sometimes I’ll see a deer likewise standing still and staring back, but not typically.

After turning the corner, where wild grape vines are tangled through a patch of staghorn sumac, and walking 100 yards to the southwestern terminus of our walk, we turned 90 degrees east, following the edge of the wetland forest past an old beaver pond shielded by a 15-foot-high hardwood spine. That leg of our walk heads for a large, stately apple tree standing sentry over the Green River’s west bank, some  roots exposed in the sandy, eroded riverbank. About halfway to the fruit tree, dogs scenting rabbits through rows of Christmas trees, soft northern breeze blowing from me into the wetland, I heard what I knew was a deer run off from within 15 yards of me, just below the beaver-dam outflow. Blinded by the low, bright  sun, I saw the tail flash but little else.

When I put my hand to my forehead, I could see what appeared to be a long, tall, full-bodied doe bounding away. It jumped a little brook and stood broadside 40 yards away, head turned in my direction, ears on high, straight alert. That’s when I noticed small antlers protruding no higher than its erect ears, the right beam larger than the left, probably a 4- or 5-pointer. I couldn’t see the small rack clear enough to count the points. Its mature body would probably have tipped the scales at around 130 pounds.

Upwind, my dogs never noticed the handsome animal. They just continued making their rounds through the Christmas trees as the  buck and I sized each other up.

“Don’t worry, Buddy,” I said in a soft, soothing voice I often use with  a  pet. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Had I been hunting, that buck would have been dead. But, honestly, I believe I’m through hunting deer. If hungry, yes, I would kill a deer. But if not, why kill such a smart, beautiful creature that carries not a menacing or dangerous bone in its body?

I continued looking that buck square in the eye and speaking to him in a soft, friendly manner and, no lie, he stood there tall and proud, ears cupped in my direction, curious, cocking his head ever so slightly to the sound of my voice. Finally, after more than a minute, he spun 90 degrees from east to south, took two playful bounds and trotted away gracefully on an angle, in no great hurry. I guess my body language and unthreatening demeanor assured him he had nothing to worry about.

That buck had good instincts. He read me well.

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