Summer is now officially a memory. Most of the foliage on the hardwoods have made their short journey from branch to ground. Save the leaves on a few red oaks and American beech trees the woods are naked. Gray bark, mottled with green and white lichen, acts as a silhouette to the sky as I look off to the northern horizon. For the first time since last April I can see long distances in this dense forest.
This temporal transition, the time between summer and winter, is one of my most active times of year. It is cool and moving about seems much easier. I am not impeded by either heat or deep snows. Traveling up steep hills and over long distances does not take as much toll on this aging body. The clear and brisk air clears my mind.
On this fall day I am looking for deer sign. This area does not hold large populations of white tailed deer. The forest is too mature, there are to few fields, and far too many predators for large populations of this wily hoofed animal. We do have some very large deer. With many thousands of acres of deep woods out my back door the capable white tail can live for long periods. I harvested a large buck during black powder season in 2008 that proved to be 9.5 years old. The average life span of a deer in this state is about 3 years. This old buck was mostly toothless. The remaining molars were aged to detect his longevity. He was one of the oldest deer to ever have been taken by a hunter in this state. It is quite likely he would not have survived the winter in any event.
I am traveling to potential forage areas. I am hopeful that I can find some acorn or nut mast somewhere in these deep woods. My best bet on finding a nut mast crop is along a nearby ridge that hosts an enormous American beech tree population. Last year was the best beech nut crop I have ever seen so I am not very hopeful that I will find any large amounts of nuts two years in a row. As I climb the steep hill to the ridge top I stop a few times. I have been battling a chest cold and I am breathing hard as the result of this temporary malady. The brief respite offers a view. Through the naked hardwoods I can see old stonewalls traversing the steep landscape. The wall is imperfect. Some parts have scattered stones that were toppled by frost heaves. Amazingly there are also long stretches that are nearly perfect where the wall is still nearly square and erect. This testament to skilled free stone wall builders from more than 200 years ago makes me smile. I doubt when they built this wall that they had any idea that it would be so permanent. It is now as much of a landmark to the forest that grew up around these walls as the large glacial boulders left behind 14,000 years ago by the retreat of the great Wisconsin glacier.
After this short rest I head back up the hill. The thick layer of dry leaves under my feet crunch as if I am walking on potato chips. I’m not likely to sneak up on any wildlife today given the amount of noise that I am making. To make up for the noise I decide to travel in a nonsequential pattern. This is a common method of stalking used by predators in the forest. By moving intermittently, the noise is both reduced and mimics traveling wildlife. The idea is to stop and start every half a dozen steps or so. Deer often use this pattern. They move, stop and listen, go, stop and smell, and go again. Although animals can still hear your movements it tends not to spook them, particularly if you are down wind where they can’t pick up you scent. This slow pattern of movement is favorable to my poor breathing caused by the chest cold.
Except for a gray squirrel and a host of nuthatches my sneaky approach to the summit is for naught. As I arrive on top in a vast area of American beech trees I am struck by the absolute beauty of the gold turning to chestnut brown foliage. The bright sun halos each tree and the gold color lights up the forest. These trees will hold their leaves well into winter, and some will lose their last foliage after buds break in early spring.
A quick scan of the forest floor reveals no beech nuts. A few spiny husks left from last year can be found. If there were any of these prized nuts they have long since been consumed by wild turkeys, deer, squirrels, and grouse. I am not surprised given last years perfect conditions and bumper crop. I sit on a fallen beech tree to rest and take in the beauty. It is at moments like this that I am most at peace. For a few moments I do not think at all. I just take it all in. Time has no place when experiencing the peace and harmony of nature. It stands still for your enjoyment.
After exiting from my meditation I head along the ridge in a southerly direction. The hiking is easy on this level terrain except for a climbing over or walking around a few tree tops that still remain from the great ice storm of 2008. I am heading in the direction of a singular large red oak that will sometimes bear a crop of acorns out of sequence with the rest of the red oak community. Generally red oaks have a simultaneous peak acorn crop every three years in this area. This particular oak sometimes produces a modest crop the year before a peak crop which should occur next year.
I get to an old deer trail that heads in an easterly direction. It goes downhill and uses switchbacks on several ridges to reach an oak tree that might be 400 years old. I have written about this red oak in the past. It is simply amazing. It has a branch wing span that is at least 150 feet in diameter. The trunk is better than 6 feet wide. And the most spectacular feature is that it is growing directly out of bed rock. There is a narrow flat area where the tree calls the place home. It is simply massive and I am absolutely dwarfed when standing next to this old tree. Doing a complete scan for acorns requires I climb down some nearly vertical ledges given the branches of this tree hand over a steep angle of bedrock. I first look over the level area around the base of the tree. I find a few caps from this years acorn crop, but the harvest appears to have been scant. As I carefully scale won the bedrock face to the craggy area below I am keenly aware of the very wet and slippery rock face. Having no technical equipment, being alone, and considering my aging body I move with precision during my descent. Upon arriving in a boulder filled forest below I look between all of the rocks in the boulder field for signs of a acorn mast crop from this year. I find no acorns and only a few caps from this years yield. Not a good sign for the white tailed deer and other critters that depend on a mast crop to fatten up before the cold winter arrives.
There is an easy way out of this boulder field that does not require that I climb back up the steep bedrock face that I just climbed down. It lengthens my walk by about a half an hour. Essentially what I am doing is following a single contour around the mountain until I can exit into a large, relatively level forest on the north side. The area is commonly used by mammals traversing the area. I find bobcat and eastern coyote scat along with an area where a black bear has recently turned over a fallen tree in search of grubs, insects, and other forage. The log is ripped apart, indicating its efforts were not in vain. Bears are also dependent upon mast crops in heavily forested areas. Fortunately they have some good, if not perfect, alternatives in that they can forage for insects, carrion, and small animals that may to tend to fill their bellies. Any food is good food for bears when winter is coming.
There are more oak trees along this contour line than I remembered. I find no acorns from this year. There is evidence that there was a small crop but it is long since consumed by foraging wildlife. I’m hoping there was enough to help these animals build up a little reserve for winter.
Circling the hill I emerge into the forest again. It seems nice not to be stuck on a ridge trail. Here I can randomly choose a path on my journey home. The forest here is mostly black birch, sugar maple, and white ash. The branches are as naked as a jay bird which gives me a nice view to the horizon in the northwest
Thick dark clouds heading in my direction indicate a cold front is heading our way. Winter, being just around the corner, will be host to many such events. As I move through the woods, my pace quickened by a march down slope, I breath cold, fresh air. I am reminded how much I love winter, This cold, white, stark, and unforgiving season brings out the best in me.
I’ve always been a survivor.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in October of 2012