Thursday, November 13, 2014


It was about this time of year, a few fall seasons ago, while doing my best to exemplify proper driving technique on my way home from school with a certain woman harboring no reservations for calling me out, that I was graciously reminded through the storm of previously-kempt hair whipping in the wind from the open windows that trees, in fact, grow in people’s yards—not in the road—and that I should avert my gaze—stat.  

The logic I readily offered, that foliage is of primary concern while driving in the fall (Just ask Yankee magazine), as it’s fleeting while cars will drive the road the year-round and pavement remains the same dull gray in all seasons, was accepted and dismissed with the same look, which I’d rather not describe.  It was obviously lost on her, as the windows went up immediately.

    Over my many years of driving experience, I’ve come to understand one key principle.  Driving is equal parts vehicle operation and observation.  Outdoorsmen, I believe, know this best; and for us it is a vital concept.

    Whichever outdoor activity that’s on your mind, it pays to be observant; for scouting is central to success in any such endeavor, and a practice to be taken seriously.

    Enter, the 20th Century invention of motor vehicles, and driving.

    During no other daily activity does one cover as much ground as when driving.  Simply by driving to Charlottesville from my Fluvanna County home, I cover roughly 25 miles of good deer and squirrel habitat, and cross several streams that I believe to hold fish.  For the same reason that mail carriers often know the location and patterns of deer and other game along vehicle travel corridors, outdoorsmen who pay their dues being observant drivers may enjoy more success in the field, if not on the road.

    VDOT was obviously in on this strategy, as our roads typically traverse beautiful country, follow closely to rivers, and are bordered by fields that seem to be deer magnets.  Interpreting the clues that these sly, state-agency outdoorsmen embedded in the creation of roadways will help simplify the scouting process further.

    Often times, the more treacherous the road, the more valuable it is as a scouting route, as hilly country typically outshines flat in the eyes of outdoorspeople—holding more streams; bigger, tougher game; and more pleasurable hiking.

    Deer crossing signs are largely misidentified by the non-sporting public as warnings, though sportsmen know the truth.  In effect, these signs are state-imposed ratings of the quality of the peripheral habitat; and the more signs present, the more you should pay attention to your surroundings.  The frequency with which deer actually inhabit the road is far lower than that with which they inhabit the marginal land; but should one venture into the road mistakenly and collide with your vehicle, you will have tremendous insight into the physical characteristics of the local herd.

    A high-mountain road that follows the course of a stream is as blatant a sign as they come.  Often nicknamed “fire roads,” these paths were originally created as tools for emergency teams to quickly reach remote streams and assess their fishability with respect to water volume and clarity, simply by peering out the window.  Should a forest fire break out in the surrounding hills, emergency respondents were close by and ready for action, just as quickly as they could break down their rods.  These tools can and should be utilized by the fishing public, who need not interrupt their fishing efforts in the event of a forest fire.

    When traveling and scouting such roads, mainstream driving instruction that advocates for keeping your gaze fixed 20-30 seconds ahead on the route of travel is a common pet peeve of mine.  This practice rarely provides insight into the local outdoor opportunities, and serves no other effective purpose, save for avoiding accidents.

    I find my 1:2 rule much more suitable.  In a three-second loop, focus your attention on the road ahead for one second, adjusting course and speed, and locating potential hazards.  Use the following two seconds to assess your surroundings, whether a field, woodlot, or stream.  Then repeat.  As a ratio, should you need more time for vehicular operation, the rule allows you to simply double that time and devote it to observation.  For example:  If you should need four seconds to effectively operate your vehicle, designate eight to scouting.  This ensures adequate safety and maximum information gathering.

    Good driving is a skill that comes naturally to most outdoorspeople, but that often gains criticism from the non-sporting public.  For more successful days afield, keep your eyes open and focused on your surroundings, drive a car with good safety ratings, and have your local ambulance service on speed dial.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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