SENECA -- Orion the hunter stood overhead, the stars emblazoning his belt sparkling magnificently in the deep 6 a.m. darkness. Down below, another hunter, named Dean Johnson, was trying to shake the bonds of earth -- crouching in a tree, hoping a deer would come his way.
In a nearby parking lot a group of shadowy figures was gathering, preparing to stalk young Mr. Johnson and dozens of other hunters who had their rifles loaded yesterday for the first day of Maryland's one-week season to hunt deer with firearms.
Across the state, 150,000 hunters are expected to kill 36,000 deer during the week, with about half the deer killed yesterday on the first day of the season. Here, in the McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area in western Montgomery County, the people in the parking lot were marshaling their own ammunition -- television cameras, newspaper reporters and noisy feet.
They were animal rights activists, planning to follow hunters through the fields to get in their way and scare off deer in a symbolic attack on the sport and on laws that prohibit harassment of hunters.
Within an hour, four of the hunting protesters would be arrested (a fifth was arrested later in the day) and Dean Johnson and his hunting buddy would be ready to come in for a hot coffee break before resuming their posts in the 44-degree morning. No deer had been taken yet.
Just after 6:30 a.m., the animal rights caravan set off from the parking lot of the Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling Buddhist center. The Buddhists were not participating in the demonstration, but sympathetically lent their parking lot.
About 20 members of the Fund for Animals, a national group basedin Silver Spring, climbed into several cars. They were followed by about six cars and vans bearing reporters and by a contingent of state Department of Natural Resources police.
Wayne Pacelle, national director of the Fund for Animals, led the 15-vehicle procession slowly down River Road along the Potomac. A few miles away, BMWs and Jaguars were parked in front of enormous houses. Yesterday morning, Ford pickups and Chevy vans had taken over the roadside, their occupants already in the fields searching for deer.
Dean Johnson, a 19-year-old plumber from Gaithersburg, and Eric Johnson, a 19-year-old deliveryman from Potomac, had arrived at 5 a.m. to begin the day they had eagerly awaited since this time last year.
The sky was growing brighter as the animal rights caravan turned onto Deer Quarter Road, and suddenly, with startling speed, full daylight arrived. The protesters parked on the road and bounded out of their cars. As they swung their legs over a low barrier, gunfire boomed out like cannon in the 1,947-acre, state-managed public hunting ground. Paul Williamson, a 36-year-old activist from Silver Spring, flinched.
Wearing bright orange vests, the protesters strode briskly along the edges of muddy fields, breaking into groups of five or six. Each group was accompanied by its own DNR police officer, who kept in radio contact with a mobile command unit parked on River Road.
Mr. Pacelle, a 25-year-old Silver Spring resident, and six companions encountered a hunter, Jesse Philpott of Laurel, at about 7 a.m., 15 minutes into their walk. Within three minutes, four of them had been arrested by Cpl. E. W. Russell of the DNR.
Corporal Russell told Mr. Pacelle he was free to walk in the preserve, public land that lies along Seneca State Park west of Washington and south of Frederick. But, he said, he couldn't follow Mr. Philpott.
Mr. Pacelle; Mr. Williamson; Sharon Lawson, a 35-year-old computer analyst from Silver Spring; and Norman Phelps, a 51-year-old personnel worker from Columbia, were arrested, cited and told to appear in court Jan. 14 in Silver Spring.
"It's lawful to pump a bullet into an animal's side," said Mr. Pacelle, "but it's not lawful to walk in the woods. Now the hunters can have the bloody playground to themselves."
Mr. Philpott walked off quietly. "These people chase the deer right out for us," he said.
"What's lawful is not necessarily what's right," said Mr. Pacelle, who asserted that his freedom of speech had been violated by his arrest. Ten of the activists had been arrested Sept. 15, the first day of the bow hunting season, and six were arrested in September 1989, also at McKee Beshers. Last year, 14 were arrested at the beginning of the firearms season. Most of them were originally convicted in District Court but were later acquitted on appeal in Circuit Court.
No one bothered Dean Johnson when he walked by. Last year, he said, the presence of the protesters had disturbed him. This year, he said, he didn't feel intimidated.
"I just like being here, being outdoors," he said. "I love the excitement of looking for deer."