Capturing the memory of a whitetail

OUTDOORS

December 02, 1990|By PETER BAKER

The trail had been heavily used at both sides of the small clearing above the river. The freshest tracks led downhill from a sparse stand of pine, across the glade into mixed hardwoods, where a few squirrels noisily hunted acorns among the damp leaves.

Farther downhill, a small stream of dark water ran toward the Patuxent, its slow passage thinly audible above the wind in the treetops.

On the floor of the wood, deer droppings were clustered at the edge of the clearing, where a whitetail had stopped to survey the scene, and spread in a rough line farther down the trail, left behind casually as the deer moved through the brush.

The droppings were shiny and pliable, but cool to the touch. The freshest tracks were moist, their rims still topped by newly turned soil.

How long since the deer had passed? Hard to tell, given the misty rain and the hour of the day.

The sun, making its transit well below the equator, had tracked so that effectively its light shone from south of west, leaving the northeast sides of the rises above the Patuxent in the half-light of an overcast autumn afternoon.

DTC Most likely, the deer bedded uphill from the clearing, in any of a number of small depressions within the pines. There, just below the crest, the wind could not reach it, but the sounds and smells of the wood could. The deer's line of sight would be along its backtrack, the route most likely to bring danger near its resting place.

Two or three times a day, perhaps, the whitetail would follow the track, cross the clearing and work its way toward acorns and water, each time stopping before entering the clearing, each time acknowledging its instincts for safety and survival.

The question was, where was it now? Downhill? Uphill? Downwind? Upwind? Two ridges over and three creeks down?

The guess was downwind and downhill, in the hardwood eating acorns or drinking water from the stream. Eventually, perhaps, the deer would return along the track, cross the clearing and enter the pines.

Getting into position to make a shot presented a few problems. Coming uphill and upwind, the whitetail would smell man or another animal or its own urine in the breeze. Two scents would only signal danger, the other might signal clear passage.

A crosswind position was taken behind a thick-trunked oak on the edge of the clearing with free sweep of the tree line. In 30 or 40 minutes, it would be dark below the crest of the ridge while the sun still lit the treetops.

The wait, in any event, would be brief. Either the whitetail would pass before nightfall or the hunter would depart.

Midway to dark, the whitetail could be heard in the wood, apparently rummaging in the leaves for acorns, but not seen. The sounds, too heavy for squirrels, too patient for larger small game, grew louder. Then, the whitetail was at the edge of the clearing.

As I adjusted my position to make the shot, the leaves rustled, the whitetail snapped a look at me and I jerked my right index finger.

The light was poor; the shot was imperfect.

As the film advanced and the auto-exposure mechanism beeped its low-light warning, the deer flipped its tail, sprang through the brush and was gone.

As I look at the photograph now, after the photo wizards in The Sun lab have tweaked the film and finagled the print, the doe stands broadside to the camera, perhaps 25 yards away and camouflaged in the bramble at the tree line. The photograph, heavily grained and poorly focused, is suitable for neither publication nor framing.

But through the viewfinder in the murky light, the doe's neck and head were turned to look back somewhat over its right shoulder, its tail was down, its ears were up and its nostrils were flared. Its head, neck, shoulders and chest were exposed.

A rifle shot or an arrow would have dropped the deer where it stood.

In this instance, the shooter missed his mark, and only the moment and the memory can be recounted.

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