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The end of another year is fast approaching; there’s just one more day left in 2013. A child of the 20th century, I stillI have a hard time identifying with “the 2000s.” The numbers don’t make sense anymore and the math is getting increasingly difficult. The new millennium came too soon – I was hardly in synch with the old millennium! Rapid changes in technology, philosophy and social mores make me feel extremely old school, but that’s where I’m most comfortable so that’s where I’ll stay.
Luckily, the wild world just outside our doors has never changed. I can hardly tell what’s “normal” now among humans but the birds and animals remain consistent, predictable and dependable. It’s no wonder I spend half my time in the woods! In less than a minute I can whistle up a flock of chickadees, whose actions and antics are the same as they were last century and the century before that – continuing a behavior pattern that no doubt dates back to the very first chickadee. I’ll let professional ornithologists debate that point, all I know is that when I need a quick burst of optimism I know the black-capped wanderers will provide.
I think the hunger for normalcy extends to all things, perhaps no more than the whitetails that have returned to my back-yard feeder in recent days. The hunting season opened back in September and continued unabated till mid-December. I spent most of every day looking for a fat buck or doe to stock the freezer for winter and never actually raised my rifle till the middle of the muzzleloader season. Where they go during fall is every sportsman’s quandary, and yet here we are just a few weeks later and the deer are back in the yard just before dusk, filling up on grain and sunflower seeds as if the last four months never happened.
In fact, with my supply of venison safely stacked in frozen one-pound packages, I spent the last week of the blackpowder season roaming the woods for the pure joy of it and still did not see a single deer. Come the first storm of the year (that foot or so we received a couple of weeks ago) my yard was peppered with deer tracks of all sizes. Just the other night I got up at 4 a.m. to stoke the fire and five deer were standing less than 10 feet from my office window. It’s my normal routine to go out after a storm and back-track the deer to see where they’ve been bedding, and this time I found them in the very places I hunted so hard these last few months. They nearly won the game of hide-and-seek, as they do most years, but I’m glad to know that they were where I thought they were, just not when I wanted them to be there!
The snow reveals other mysteries as well. I hadn’t seen a raccoon since early November but on a recent walk in the woods I found the tracks of several as they worked their way along a nearby stream. I followed the tracks back to their starting point and discovered that they’d turned an old culvert into a den. The road crew had tossed the old, crumpled culvert into the woods after installing the new one, and the raccoons wasted no time moving in.
Some of my year-end observations are not as positive. A four-hour walk on snowshoes revealed not one rabbit or grouse track, which is very unusual, and only a few signs of squirrels. This, coupled with few sightings of ground hogs along the summer roadways and very few crows to boot, had me wondering what’s going on with our small game populations. Even worse, I was lucky enough to go on two moose hunts this fall but, after driving over 800 miles over logging roads in two different zones, we saw exactly one rabbit! We did see a dozen or so grouse per trip (the first and last weeks of the moose hunt) but if you compare miles traveled to birds seen, the ratio was borderline pathetic. Granted, one will see more game by venturing into the woods and getting off the roads, but it seems rather incongruous to have observed more moose than rabbits or grouse in a week of dawn-to-dusk cruising. There seems to have been plenty of habitat available. In fact one or another in the party said, “This looks like a good place to see a partridge,” a dozen times each day but, sadly, we were wrong 99 percent of the time. Other hunters claim to have seen “hundreds” of rabbits and grouse on their moose hunts, but if my group had to depend on birds and bunnies to survive we’d have starved!
The lack of small game may well be a regional or local issue, but when the woods “up north” are as empty as they are in my back yard, something must be wrong. This will definitely give me something to ponder all winter, another good reason to get out and explore.
If nothing else, these first few days after the holidays are perfect for unwinding, rejuvenating the spirit and cleansing the soul, and for most of us, hunters and shoppers alike, this is our first chance to take a deep breath in months. One needn’t wander far from the maddening crowd to find solace and serenity; two steps beyond the edge of the woods you are in another world, a place where peace and quiet prevail.
Each year at this time I spend a full day roaming the woods, considering last year’s revelations and weighing next year’s options. I make surprising progress sitting on a snow-covered stump in the empty woods undeterred by bad news in Washington, the threat of inclement weather or the rise and fall of the stock market. Life is so much simpler out here, so black and white. The chickadees are infinitely cheery and optimistic no matter what else is going on in the world. We could learn a lot from them.
Got the post- (hunting or holiday) season blahs? Take them into the woods with you and leave them there. Now that’s what I call a New Year’s resolution!
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