An Existence Based on Survival

Silence invoked a peaceful solace. Snowflakes drifted. Subdued yellows backlit the oaks and cedars on the far hill. A broken-over sedge grass leaf, brown and wispy, twitched. On the west side of the big swamp, out in front of a forked red oak that split and tented in a violent summer rainstorm, a little grove of poplar trees stood barren. Winter’s white dust highlighted the slender sentinels’ larger branches. Snowy ribbons wandered east and west. Ice filled the tiny creek, but the swamp’s muck was still pliable and unfrozen. Such was the beginning of that wilderness morning, December 10th, in the Year of our Lord, 1797.

Three crows winged westward. “Caw, caw, caw, caw…” Their chants, the first sounds uttered by fowl or creature, echoed in the pleasant cold an hour after first light. A wild turkey hen clucked, “Ark, ark…ark, ark, ark, ark,” somewhere in the tall oaks that overlook the hidden bog. Then quiet returned.

The smell of damp wool permeated the air. Snowflakes and water droplets dotted the crimson trade blanket’s ridges and valleys. The Northwest gun’s muzzle pointed east. The smoothbore’s forestock rested where the blanket covered a leather leggin. The trade gun’s lock and butt stock hid under the wool that passed beneath the woodsman’s right shoulder.

The crackle and crunch of brittle leaves announced the crossing of the south island by a large doe and her two offspring. The trio paused where the swamp willows and elders meet the island’s south bank. Ears flipped. Shiny black noses sniffed. Intense, brown eyes peered to the southeast.

A white-tailed deer's head peers over frosted sedge grass.The whitetails dropped down as they entered the swamp. Only when their heads and necks remained upright was their existence visible as they plodded on the brushy path that wandered to the lone maple tree at the swamp’s far edge. They lingered but a few moments, then bounded up the hill to the safety of a monarch oak, busted up years before. Heard, but unseen, the doe and fawns milled about on the hilltop, then went silent.

“Jay! Jay! Jay!” Blue jays screamed to the south. Two more chimed in on the ridge, straight uphill from the split red oak. Dead, dry leaves rustled on an upper branch that curled against the ground. A plump fox squirrel hopped along that main branch, brushing off snow here and there. The squirrel stopped two trade-gun lengths shy of the jagged break, and began to chatter. “Chukk, chukk, chukk, chukk…”

The “crunch, crunch, crunch” of a walking deer wove its way into the fox squirrel’s barking. The sound seemed to come from the north, but no movement betrayed the maker. The crunches grew soft, then ceased. With a quick flip of its bushy tail, the fox squirrel’s rhythmic chatter ended. A few hops later, it scampered down the north limb, rattling the leaves on that top and scattering little white puffs in its wake.

Again the silence of that December morn allowed a humble woodsman time to reflect. In the midst of deep contemplation, a large doe stepped from behind a bushy cedar tree that leaned over the swamp, twenty paces upwind. She exhibited great caution, as the other deer had. She flipped her ears, sniffed and looked about. This pause lasted for ten minutes or there about.

Once satisfied, she, too, dropped down from the swamp’s cut bank and plunged shoulder deep into the tangle of swamp grasses and elder bushes. Her hooves crackled the ice on the tiny creek as she traveled with her head down. The trail she chose led to a brushy point with a modest-sized box elder tree, but she did not emerge from the swamp. Heartbeats jumbled together into another ten minutes of wilderness observation by an experienced forest tenant. Then the doe walked from the swamp to the trunk of the box elder before she again waited and watched…

Imitating the Ways of the White-tailed Deer

“I don’t pay attention to does and fawns,” the modern hunter declared. Others around him nodded their heads in agreement. “If it’s not a buck, a good buck, I’m not bothered with it. Most of the time, does are just a nuisance.”

“Either you dominate the outdoor world,” or “you learn to become a part of the forest;” these are the two most prevalent philosophies regarding the pursuit of wild game. The fellow who espoused ignoring does and fawns falls into the first category. He appears to be one of many in the camo-clad crowd, if the outdoor television stars and/or videos posted online are any indication of numbers.

This ‘dominate ‘em or blend with ‘em” thinking is not new. The other night I was doing some research on the Siege of Fort Detroit and the taking of Fort Michilimackinac in the summer and fall of 1763. One author contrasted the French and British fur trade policies. The French inter-married with the Native Americans and assimilated to the culture while the British policies attempted to dominate the Great Lakes regions, or any area that fell under their rule. This clash is evident throughout the French and Indian War, on into the American War for Independence and beyond.

Most 18th-century journalists include a hostile nemesis somewhere in their writings. Avoiding a life-threatening clash weaves its way into many harrowing hunting tales. For the young clerk of the XY Company, George Nelson, the concern was always with the Sioux:

“…On my return I found others [diver ducks] perched on trees that had fallen in the water. I crawled up & was going to fire, when a thought struck me that I had better not. ‘Who knows if there be not a Sioux near.” I reluctantly retired. At a few paces further on I discovered the track of a man!” (Nelson, 78)

Thus, the avoidance of a hostile encounter is incorporated in many traditional black powder hunts. This detail mirrors the historical record, and with careful scrutiny, can be found in most of the journals from the 1790s or other time periods. To be sure, the primary purpose of the simple pursuit is still the taking of wild game for the table. However, the stealth needed to accomplish both elements of the scenario is somewhat the same.

When discussing and evaluating still-hunting and stalking techniques as they relate to the time of our forefathers, a solid piece of advice is to imitate the ways of the white-tailed deer. Again, by subjecting the old narratives to careful study, references to applying woodland observation to daily survival abound.

Msko-waagosh watching from behind a dead red oak tree.Quiet movement, concealment in natural cover, pausing to observe the forest, attention to clothing color, accoutrement fit and a slow, deliberate progress all contribute to becoming a forest tenant. Each of these contributing factors, along with others, is of great importance and is worthy of further discussion.

The point I wish to make is that we all have choices, regardless of our hunting style and/or time period. In most instances, the majority of my hunter heroes embraced living within the parameters of the glade as opposed to dominating it. Thus, I subscribe to the same philosophy, and by doing so, take great delight in observing, evaluating and attempting to emulate the ways of the white-tailed deer.

The older does, the tutors of the herd, live an existence based in every day survival. The events of that morning in December of 1797 represent a pure learning experience. The smells, the sights, the sounds, the feel of the forest were the does’ guide to the next step. And that is good enough for this humble woodsman…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.


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