Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Throughout my youth I regularly divulged in enrapturing trips, daydreams colored by the nostalgia- and adventure-soaked glossy pages of the classic Sports Afield and Field & Stream that appeared in my mailbox monthly.  Many of the faraway adventures highlighted in such publications outran the growing range of my mountain bike in my pre-driving years, namely the annually-published how-to’s and accounts of “big woods” whitetail tracking.  Benoit, the fabled, north-country whitetail tracker and writer routinely caught my jealousy, and inspired in me an appreciation for the industrious and fine art of tracking deer in the snow.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    But I had little opportunity to hop aboard a plane and head for the “north country” wildernesses of the Adirondacks or Green Mountains at 10 years old, as neither my budget nor my attendance record at school would allow it.  Moreover, dependable winter blanketings are not typical of the general firearms season—they come later, in the height of the winter.  Still, as I have found time and time again, increased sporting opportunities present themselves when one is willing to trade in their gun for a camera and chase game after the season closes.

    My chance came some six or seven years ago in the event of a first heavy snow, arriving sometime around mid-January.  Throughout the deer season, for fun, I had been maintaining a trail camera on a vacant woodlot adjacent to our subdivision home and capturing images of some resident whitetails.

    The light in my head clicked as I checked the images on the camera the morning after a snowfall of almost 12 inches.  The same bucks were moving, frantically, early in the night, before the snow, and continued to trigger the camera as inches accumulated.

    The next morning, determined to find tracks from the bucks, I ventured out into the cold, high-stepping, with my Nikon in hand.

    The site of the camera showed sign of tracks, though merely a string of indentations filled in by the fresh powder.  Following them, as they weaved in and out of successional pines and shrubs, I quickly came upon what looked to be a fresh bed—an ovular patch of wet leaves and melted snow beneath a small leaning pine.  The tracks redirected at the bed and continued on—this time more defined in shape and devoid of fresh powder. 

    Mental images taken from the pages of my magazines and books, allusions to the “north country” fantasy I had by then begun to entertain, filled my mind and excited my pulse.

    Now as I approached the bed and the exiting track, I could see the trail shoot off into the more open grove of the vacant woodlot deliberately, rarely straying from a straight course.  As I followed it, I could tell by the cleanness of the tracks and the depth of the snow (and the difficulty I was having walking in it) that the animal could not be too far ahead, but scanning the scene one, two, and three times presented no glimpses of my unknown quarry.

    Taking care not to step on the tracks should I have to retrace my steps, I continued on to the edge of the open woodlands, where thicker brush met the hardwoods in a creekbottom.  Immediately inside the thicker cover, the track began to meander around logjams, under deadfalls, through thickets.  

    Luckily, I had the presence of mind to recognize what had occurred in the snow mere moments before.

    Aware of the storm rolling in through the night, the deer took cover in the pines behind the house.  The frantic escape from its bed was likely the result of the presence of danger, which inspired the animal to flee the thicket, dash through the open cover, and look for cover in the creekbottom.

    As I comprised this replay in my mind, I stood still, staring off into landscape, oblivious.  Totally unbeknownst to me, my target sat in hiding mere feet away from my position and, sensing my hesitation and believing her cover compromised, dashed from cover and trotted into an open field adjacent to the creekbottom. 

    My reflexes flinched and my camera was raised and the shutter pressed.  The shot I captured was less than perfect, though I was ecstatic to realize that had I been probing the wilderness of northern Vermont in the height of deer season, my actions may very well have earned me a deer and the accomplishment of downing my first snow-tracked whitetail.  Ever since, when the air turns cold and the landscape white, and deer season in long gone, I push myself through the doldrums of winter replaying that north-country fantasy.

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