Mountain Ghost

Posted on January 15, 2019

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(Guest blogger, friend and hunting partner of 33 years, Hart L. Daley recounts his incredible hunt from 2018)

 

The signs I read like a puzzle, putting each piece in its place,
When unexpectedly I’ve closed the gap,
And without warning the apparition takes shape.
Time comes to a screeching halt, my moves become statuesque.
I realize now, I’m within mere feet, of completing this long-sought quest.

 

 

November 2018 will always remain a unique and memorable season for me for many reasons. On October 27th, opening day, I found myself contently skulking along the mountainous ridge tops in Western Maine near my homestead. It was around noon-time when the first flakes of snow began to fall and I was pleasantly surprised to have this beautiful, yet rare, precipitation on the initial day of firearms season. Old Man Winter was intent on laying his hand upon the landscape early and it was clear as the season progressed that he was not going to relinquish his grip anytime soon.

As the old adage goes, “If you don’t like the weather in Maine…wait 5 minutes!” This afternoon would be no exception. I can only count on one hand the number of times I felt the overpowering need to leave the hunting woods to save my own hide and this day was destined to become one of them! The wind, which started as a slight breeze, gradually began to increase with intensity until it became a ferocious gale, rocking stalwart trees back and forth and dropping large injurious limbs unpredictably on the ground with the frequency of falling acorns on a crisp fall morning. If this wasn’t enough to encourage me to vacate the hillside, suddenly I heard what can only be described as an explosion that started above me to my right and rolled and rumbled across the ridgeline down to my left. It literally sounded like someone was trying to blow the top of the mountain off due to the close proximity of the noise. Because of the steep elevation I was on, it could easily have been surmised it was an avalanche had several feet of snow accumulated on the ground, but I knew that was an impossibility. This was thunder-snow! Somehow, I had missed the initial flash of lightning but that was not the case on the next two brilliant and blinding flashes followed by instantaneous booming thunder. It didn’t take a rocket scientist or meteorologist to realize that this potentially deadly electrical phenomenon was directly over my head. Needless to say, my focus was no longer on vanquishing a buck, for here I stood on the highest point for many miles around, with a steel gun in my hand as lightning continued to strike around me. So yes, on this day, and to my chagrin, I did my best to avoid becoming a human lightning rod and quickly departed for the farmhouse!

 

Sunday was a day of respite and on the following two days of my season, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel South and hunt with my longest known and cherished friend, Richard G. Bernier aka: “Buckhunter”, “Dick” or “RG”. While in RG’s company, we spent the days stalking some prime territory in southern Maine. He and I both discovered buck sign in the area during our excursions. Interestingly enough, although I was not familiar with this piece of hunting ground, on one of the days we both parted company to hunt in opposite directions, yet we inadvertently ran smack dab into each other on the top of the same promising ridge, even though other ridges surrounded us. It was obvious that we both shared an ability to decipher and recognize the topography most attractive to deer and clearly to each other! Although we were unsuccessful bringing a buck to bag and putting a bend in the game pole, there are few things more precious than spending time with a kindred spirit and beloved friend in the deer woods. RG Bernier is by far one of the greatest woodsmen and trackers in this country, the proof is in his hard work room at his home. Circumstances beyond his control limited his outings this season and curtailed his preferred style of hunting, which is to track down monstrous whitetail bucks, but rest assured he will be back at it in short order as he resumes his successful craft.

 

Upon returning north to my home in the western Maine mountains, I invested several days cruising the ridges that skirt the peaks near my home. After expending many hours and coursing many miles, I became extremely discouraged in the marginal evidence of dominant buck sign. This prompted me to shift gears so to speak and venture north to some bigger country in another Township. Prior to striking out in this region, I scoured my Delorme Atlas and did some investigative work via satellite imagery. Once I was in the area and put boots to ground, it did not take me long to find ample buck sign, yet nothing really captured my full attention. While travelling the woodlands, I eventually made an unexpected acquaintance with an average size buck and doe travelling together in an overgrown logging cut. The buck was not what I was looking for, but had he been, I still wouldn’t have been able to solidify the deal with a quality shot on him due to the thick whips and his extremely rapid departure! I am always and will forever be amazed at the strength and agility these creatures possess, and how they can effortlessly snake their way through thick terrain like water through a sieve.

Since my expectations were not met in the more desolate regions of Franklin county, I resumed my quest for a more formidable bone bearer back home. On Friday, Saturday and Monday of Veteran’s Day weekend, I decided to focus my efforts once again on the vast and sheer ridgeline near my house. I know I have described this area as steep, but to be precise, there are areas where I have to pull myself upward by using trees as allies to advance my ascent. I spent many hours and sacrificed many calories walking back and forth on this mountain, travelling up and down its slopes to no avail. My legs were beginning to plea to me in agony, begging me to slow down, and reminding me I was not twenty years old anymore! Thankfully, we received a substantial amount of snow over this weekend to brighten my spirits and invigorate my aching muscles. However, after diligent attempts, I was still unable to locate any buck sign that garnered my attention. Therefore, in a near act of surrender, I decided that the following day, Tuesday, November 13th, I’d drag myself to the office to catch up on some of my neglected workload. In the words of Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”, and my awakening eyes were presented with the picturesque view of roughly 5 inches of new snow covering the landscape with snow still rapidly falling. Needless to say, my office plans abruptly changed.

 

I hurriedly donned my woolen hunting attire, kissed Mrs. “D” goodbye, and set forth once again to scale the mountain with my trusted Remington carbine in hand. Within half an hour of traversing the bottomland areas of the mountainside, I cut the relatively fresh tracks of two deer. I quickly surmised one was an average size buck harassing a small doe due to the running and bounding tracks revealed in the white tapestry. Yes, even a starving man will welcome the crumbs bestowed upon him, and the pursuit commenced in hopes of being led into an area secreting a larger hoofed specimen. After two hours of sneaking through a tangle of conifers and hardwood, and having precariously perched snow dropping down my neck, I came upon the trailed deer. Even an experienced huntsman can be fooled from time to time. These deer had not at any point stopped or slowed to feed or urinate to provide me with any tell-tale evidence of their gender. The very large doe, who was bedded down in an old, thick chopping, rose to her feet and gracefully bounded away. As she departed, the small buck that was standing 30 yards beyond her, followed the lady’s lead, and bounded away as well. I decided at that point to start a switchback (zig zag) route up the mountain as I was determined, more than ever to cut a bigger buck track under these favorable conditions.

Upon reaching the mid- point of the assent, I finally found what appeared to be a very large buck track. The slots were long of gait and wide of girth, exposing the tell-tale characteristics of a mature buck. The tracks, barely discernable depressions as a result of being nearly snowed in due to the intensity of the storm. As I pressed on the snow began to change over to a sleet and rain mixture as the wind stung my face with it. Not to be deterred, I continued on the track to see where this buck was travelling in hopes of being led into other deer and more promising sign. I truly wished my dear friend RG could have been ascending the mountain with me, on this track, on this day like he has on so many other big tracks we have taken in unison. Rest assured, he was with me in spirit, thought and encouragement. I continued on the track for over an hour as the buck meandered haphazardly along weaving his way up the face of the mountain.

 

Make no mistake, tracking can be an arduous task. The rarities and embellishments of twenty-minute tracks to a dominant buck’s bed are just that, fallacy. The oddities of killing a buck within this short time frame are far from the norm. Most tracking quests last many hours, if not days, and can exhaust the patience of the most seasoned whitetail hunting veterans. Tracking usually results in many hours and miles through grueling woodland terrain only to be betrayed by a mature buck’s senses. His eyes, ears, indiscernible camouflage and especially his nose are formidable defenses against most careless, distracted and smelly humans, who only periodically (once a year at best) intrude upon his sanctuary. Ever vigilant matriarch does, shifting winds, rogue betraying sticks underfoot, and a multitude of other factors contribute to our eventual ruination and send us homeward with our shirt tails tucked between our legs. I described the trackers task in a poem written some 16-years ago. Here is an excerpt from Endless Track:

~ He beckons me into a tangled mess I must call tracker’s stew. It is a feast of all the work I am obliged to chew. It consists of rivers, ridges, valleys, as well as dead fall logs, And I must not forget the cedar swamps, frozen clothes and beaver bogs.~

 

As I continued on the track, my thoughts yet again drifted back to my dear friend and some of the more exhausting hunts we had been on in the past. I reflected upon an especially grueling pursuit we undertook Downeast. Having both left the warmth and comfort of Pop Bernier’s truck at daybreak, we had high hopes of overtaking a regal whitetail stag in tandem. The ground was barren of snow, but our instructions were simple, head East in our pursuit and we would eventually strike upon a beaver flowage. At that point we would traverse the rodent crafted waterway and emerge upon an old skid road, where Pop would retrieve our carcasses and hopefully that of a buck. R.G. and I left with then, youthful and enthusiastic vigor, confident that any buck crossing paths with these two Nimrods would surely meet his demise! Wrong is a serious understatement. This adventure took us many, many miles. We sought out buck sign through the most impenetrable labyrinth of softwood bogs one can only imagine. Remarkably, after hours of navigating and worming our way on hands and knees following this over-sized deer print in the leaf duff, through tight choked woodland mazes, we were finally spat from the forest’s entrapment onto the outer edges of the infamous beaver bog. This was no ordinary beaver bog. It was clearly crafted from some undiscovered and highly motivated species of long toothed wood chewers as it spanned for over a mile in all directions. All our efforts to cross this stick woven network were futile. Eventually, as darkness fell upon us, we surrendered our journey. We walked, talked, rested and laughed for what seemed an enjoyable eternity under a moonlit sky and finally, after roughly 12 miles, emerged on man-made blacktop! We were tired and fatigued, but we were full in the nourishment of comradery and shared companionship.

My apologies for the digression, which is easy to succumb to after nearly four decades of hunting and vivid memories, we now rejoin the current storyline. At this point in the hunt I was drenched; you know, that squeeze-your-hands-to-make-a-fist-and-the-water-pours-out-of-your-gloves-like-a-swollen-stream kind of soaked. Relentlessly, I continued on the track. This buck was plodding along as he continued to climb. He was not checking doe beds or doe tracks and he was not showing any signs of feeding. I could only surmise he was heading to the summit to find a sanctuary to rest, where he had a tactical advantage to settle his body to the ground. His track had not freshened.

Divine intervention played a role in this hunt, because at a point near the peak of the mountain, being cold, wet, miserable, and onto my fourth pair of gloves, I briefly contemplated turning back. It was a fleeting thought reminding myself that after many years of tracking in quiet solitude along Maine’s mountains, ridges and swamps, it is inherent in me to continue on the track. It is a passion and a yearning to seek further, to see what is over the next ridge, the next hardwood stand, swamp or valley. Turning back is not an option and time is my only true enemy. I will pursue until sunlight fades to dark. Instinctively, I heard the stern persistent voice in my head barking: Do not yield, you are already soaked and you’re very near the top of this mountain, just endure it and keep following the track. You only get wet once!

 

Shortly after that personal reminder, I approached a stand of softwood near the peak. With my jacket now completely covered in snow, I peered down to find so was my peep sight. Quietly, the orifice was cleared with a short warm blast from my lungs. As I cautiously stepped around one of the large spruce trees in my path, the ghost of the forest I feverishly sought suddenly materialized before my very eyes. Not 20 yards away, stood the massive buck, statuesque and magnificent, his back and neck still covered in snow. The monarch was facing away from me with the wind belying him as it was in both our faces. He had not a clue that I was standing precariously behind him. His death knell was crouching at the door.

The buck was quartered away standing steadfast, moving only his head from right to left as he checked the prevailing wind. I find it mystical and ironic that in this fleeting sacred moment, when my heart beat and breath quicken, it is as if time stands still and the scene becomes etched into my memory for eternity.

 

Steadily, I raised my rifle and pressed it against my shoulder, lowering my cheek to the stock I released the safety and centered the peep sight on his thick body, just behind his wide shoulder. And as I have done so many other times, instinctively squeezed the trigger. Instantly, the mammoth buck collapsed to the forest floor. Respectfully and humanely I quickly finished the noble buck off with a final shot to the neck. With that, the echo of the rifles report reverberated across the mountain side followed by all becoming eerily quiet.

 

Parting the snow laden limbs of the two large conifers in my approach to the now fallen monarch, I looked down and saw the buck’s bed, strategically placed at the base of one of these trees, which undoubtedly provided perfect cover and concealment during his slumber. In this blessed serene solitude, an overwhelming sense of remorse and insignificance enveloped me. But it is during this hallowed moment of deafening silence that God’s presence emerges louder and stronger than in any other place at any other time, reminding me of Him and the blessings bestowed upon me in life and in the many seasons He has granted.

 

I walked up to the fallen buck, knelt in the snow at the side of this mountain monarch, placed my hand on his side, and thanked God for His gift of allowing me to take this beautiful woodland creature. I knelt in gratitude and prayer for several minutes in the overwhelming stillness. Snow continued to pile upon me and the landscape. As I contemplated the certainty that the years of hunting behind me now outnumber the seasons left on my horizon, another excerpt from my poem Endless Track came to mind:

~ Quickly now I must take aim, as my shot cuts the silence like a knife. In crimson snow, the king reluctantly falls, and surrenders his grip on life. A monarch now lies at my feet, emotions explode without sound. I bow my head, the Maker is thanked, as my tears track a path to the ground.~

 

After capturing a few photos with my drenched cell phone camera – not nearly enough to satisfy RG – I field dressed the buck. In traditional fashion, I sought out a stout limb for a dragging stick and wrapped my drag rope around both antlers and bough to begin the mile-and-a-half drag back to my homestead. Mind you, I am just beyond the half-century mark in years, perched atop a mountain with a hefty whitetail that carried 11 points. A beast that later tipped the scales at 211 pounds had to be snaked out of an area that no ATV or snowmobile could penetrate. I realize that even with a lot of downhill terrain, valleys and draws and with substantial snow on the ground this will be no easy exodus and will demand plenty of muscle and determination to accomplish the task. The hard work begins!

 

Out of immense respect, I made every effort to keep the weight of this buck from cascading uncontrollably down the sheer slopes and taking me with him, as well as to keep his head from burying into the snow. It took all of my efforts, straining hands, shoulders and back as well as bracing my heels into the snow with antlers in hand to manage this task. Anyone who’s dragged a deer knows that dead weight is just that, dead weight. I was really hoping for my sons or my long-time hunting partner to suddenly appear at this point. This drag lasted three-and-a-half hours, and my legs and shoulders continued to remind me that my more youthful days had been shed to the past. In my poem Reflections I wrote of this moment:

~ Like skeletal fingers, barren branches stretch towards a somber sky. Releasing their grasp on withered leaves, whose brilliance has long gone by. Quite similar to the regal stag, that surrenders his polished crown, Another season sheds to past as the November sun goes down. ~

 

After crossing a precarious beaver bog and moderate stream, I finally arrived at the outer edge of my field tired, sore, exhausted, but most importantly and far above anything else, extremely blessed. As I gave the last tug to bring the fallen king up the embankment to the edge of the field, my drag stick, now deeply grooved from the toils of the haul, defiantly submitted by snapping at midpoint. Thankfully however, I, along with my drag stick for the most part persevered! Savor every minute afield!

 

Until next deer season…

 

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