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Sunday, June 13, 2004 

Deer in the Arboretum

It's true.

I spent yesterday morning in the Arboretum. I didn't see any deer, but I did track one for about 50m through the bush.

She made it pretty easy for me though, by staying on a small walking path. Which makes sense since the surrounding undergrowh was fairly thick. Paths of least resistance and all that.

Based on what I saw yesterday morning, my best guess is that a doe or smaller buck walked along that trail sometime Friday evening before dark.

A doe or small buck because of the size of the prints and the fact that they weren't splayed apart. A deer track looks kind of like a tall skinny heart that's been split down the middle and separated by a centimeter or two. Each half of the heart shape is made by one of the deer's two toes, with the points indicating the direction of travel. Sometimes two small holes will be poked in the ground behind the toes. These happen when the dew claws touch the ground. A heavier deer - most often a male - will often leave tracks that show the toes being splayed further apart.

Walking because of the pattern of the tracks. There would be one print every couple of feet. On close inspection I could often see that it was actually two impressions, one on top of the other. When a deer walks, it will put its hind feet in the same spot it puts its front ones. The pattern left behind looks like the one I followed yesterday.

Friday evening because the prints were relatively fresh. Gravity hadn't had too long to wear at the edges of the prints. But not too fresh since on a number of occassions full spider webs had been built across the path, between prints left by the deer. Unfortunately, I forget exactly how long it takes a spider to build its web. So my estimate of the age of the tracks could have been thrown off a little.

I didn't observe any scat - droppings - which would have helped me age the prints.

That, however, is about the extent of my tracking skill. When I was a kid, I always found it the most boring part of hunting. I hadn't come to appreciate the detective game aspect of it, so I didn't always pay as much attention to dad on this subject as I wish I had. I was a shooter.

To arbitrarily slice up the activity, there are three parts to hunting. The scouting, the shooting and the skinning. Tracking is a big part of scouting.

It was the shooting that interested me and that I was good at. Being calm, cool and calculating is necessary to be a good shooter. There are deer hunters out there who have hunted for years without getting a thing because they're too excitable. They'll shoot too soon, and miss. They'll make too much noise, and scare off their prey.

I, however, am not very excitable at all.

But at the same time, empathy is just as important as being calm, cool and calculating. You have to be able to identify with animals. You have to be able to look at an area and think like the animal you're after. To feel what it does. To anticipate what it will do. The more empathy you have, the better a hunter you will be.

Opening morning of my first deer season, I took two deer.

The first I saw coming from sixty yards out. I knew what it would do and waited until it was ten feet from me before taking it. Perfect kill shot. Never knew what hit it.

The second I saw from a couple of hundred yards. It was across the valley from me, with too many trees and too much distance between us. So I stalked it. It took nearly forty-five minutes, but I crept through the bush until I was at the bottom of the hill it was on. Unfortunately, shooting uphill is completely different from shooting horizontally. The altered parabolic arc has to be carefully taken into account. I didn't do a good enough job. It didn't die right away. And it didn't die quietly.

That was nearly nine years ago. I was fifteen, yet I remember it like it was yesterday.

It's a delicate balance. The more empathy you have, the better a hunter you will be. However, too much empathy will keep you from hunting. It's kept me from it.

Other than target practice, the shooting is over for me. I can't do it. Don't get me wrong. I don't think it's wrong to hunt. It's a necessary thing. I just don't have the heart to do it anymore.

But the scouting is a whole other matter. That I can do. That I actually enjoy doing now, just for its own sake. I love it because I love animals and the outdoors and it lets me spend time with each.