Both of my freezers are full. There’s no real need for me to take another deer, which is perfect this time of the season. It means I can head for the big woods, deep into the low conifers and the high beeches, where a northeastern hunter ought to be once there’s the promise of snow. It means I needn’t give a thought to what might walk under my treestand down on the farm. It means I can take my muzzleloader for a long, quite walk in the timber, and probably not see deer, and not care one way or another.
So that’s what I did. On the morning of the season’s first snowfall, which had started as sleet in the middle the night but turned into big wet flakes by dawn, I walked a straight mile toward the first bedding ridge where hemlocks rise to a granite knob. If you’re very lucky, you can sit here and watch deer below as they filter in to bed against rock’s south-facing base.
But none did, so I hiked to the next bedding ridge, maybe another half mile out. Here, you’ve got no chance if the deer bed right on the point. But if they hang back a little and the conditions are right, you can inch up the face, peer over the point, and maybe catch them napping.
The flakes had hardened back to a steady sleet, hissing through the trees now. I inched up and peered over—only to find two leafy, brown ovals freshly pressed into the snow.
When you bust a deer or two or three, the easiest thing in the world is to drop your guard, assuming you’ve blown the whole thing. And that’s when the other deer or two or three, which were right in front you, bound away. I’ve done it so many times that I’ve finally learned not to do it anymore. So I stood still and looked hard, but saw nothing. Then I looked harder. And there they were. Four does bedded in a semicircle, well-hidden right in front of me, not 25 yards away.
Looking vaguely in my direction, they were alert but not spooked. Eventually each one relaxed. One doe licked her fawn, and the others turned their eyes upwind, away from me. So I ducked back down, crawled to a nearer tree, and slowly sat up against the trunk, where I could see them again. The either-sex tag in my pocket never crossed my mind until I spotted the two bright rubs beyond the does. Maybe a good buck would cruise by and force the issue. So I waited.
About an hour later I started getting cold and was struck, as I watched, by how relatively impervious these animals were to the weather. Even in the sleet, the hair of their coats stood up dry and fluffy as dandelion seeds. They groomed themselves. One laid its head along its back and closed her eyes. They looked so cozy under the hemlock branches.
The sleet then softened to snow again. Big flakes began dropping as if by parachute, gliding down without a whisper, and the whole tone of the woods changed. It was snow silence.* But even quieter. Something I suspect you can only hear when you’re sitting on a knoll with four bedded deer under the hemlocks in December.
Anyway, the buck never showed, so I slipped out the way I came, trying not to wreck the quiet.
* There is a poem called “December Moon” that I sometimes read to my kids at bedtime in winter. In it, the author, May Sarton, stares from a window onto a field in the moonlight after a fall of snow, and writes: “Snow silence fills my head.”