Once, by complete happenstance during deer hunting season my hunting partner and good friend Smitty and I found an area that was covered with snowshoe hare tracks. On that day in 1974 we wandered into an area high on a ridge. There was an area that had suffered great damage, perhaps from a microburst, several years ago. The remnants of branches and broken trees could still be found. Hemlocks, red maples, and yellow birch were lying on the ground, mostly in one direction. More prominent on this day were the many shrubs and saplings that had filled the area. Small hemlocks, red maple saplings, sugar maple saplings, elderberry, blackberry, and raspberry were now all plentiful. The hares had evidently taken advantage of the new found forage, as evidenced by the dozens of fresh tracks in the snow.
We logged this find into our memories as a possible place to hunt the wily hare in mid to late winter.
One night over a couple of cold brews after splitting wood all day in 10 degrees below zero weather, my friend and I decided it might be a good idea to return to that high ridge for a try at the local hare population. Snowshoe rabbits are mighty fine fare, especially when mixed with frozen vegetables from the garden harvested only a few months prior. Smitty remembered that there was a pond on top of that ridge, about an eighth of a mile beyond the blow down area. We consulted a USGS map and found that the pond was called Drake Pond. It was really more of a large vernal pool these days, mostly grown in with wetland vegetation. From our back door to Drake Pond it was about 3 miles. Not an easy three miles, mind you, but three miles that would make your legs work hard and your lungs breath deep climbing hill after hill, each with a deep valley in between. Given that we wanted to be hunting at day break we thought it would be best to take a sleeping bag along and spend the night on Drake Pond so we could get an early start. The next afternoon carrying only our shotguns, a sleeping bag, and a snack we headed out into the woods. It was a cold, cold day, so our fast pace was a good way to stay warm. The woods were primarily hardwood forest, much of it on a 45 degree angle, either up slope or down slope, dotted with stone walls here and there marking the edge of long lost pasture. The ridge lines of each hill, each at about a peak altitude of 1500 feet, lined up north to south. We basically followed the center line of the forested hills up one side, across the peak, and down the other side. After the third hill we located Drake pond on the peak of the mountain. It was nearly dark and Smitty and I were happy to be at the end of the trail. We decided to hang out together until it was time to go to bed, and then we would sleep on opposite sides of the pond, about 50 yards apart, so that in the morning we could push each side of the blow down in search for the snowshoe hares. Before the twilight drifted into complete darkness we each prepared a spot to lay our sleeping bags from hemlock bows. The bows would keep us dry and provide a little cushion, aiding us in a good night’s sleep.
We slowly ate some energy bars, savoring each bite as we knew this would be our only meal tonight. Smitty had stashed a small bottle of his favorite beverage in his coat pocket, and we shared that as well. The night was cold, the sky bright with shivering stars, and we both were silent as we took it all in. At about 8:30 we decided to turn in. Smitty wandered across the frozen pond, and I heard him say in a loud voice “And to all a good night”. Crawling into my down sleeping bag with my clothes on, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit what would have been a pillow if there were a pillow to be had.
I dreamt pleasant dreams, as I always do when sleeping in the wilds. I dreamt of my dog Max chasing down some game and awoke briefly to remember Max had recently passed away. I remember thinking about this and feeling comforted by the thought of Max chasing game in the great beyond. I felt as if he were with me that night.
I fell back into a deep sleep, and was violently awakened by a loud, horrifying scream. A cry so terrifying that it could wake the dead. It was nearly on top of us, located approximately half way between Smitty and me. The hair stood up on my neck, arms, and wherever else it could stand up. I waited in the dark, still half asleep, beginning to think that this was not really happening; perhaps it was some part of some awful dream that had completely rearranged my psyche. And then it screamed again. The shrill, crying scream that started high and ended with a long low growling sound. There was no doubt about it now, it wasn’t a dream. Another long silence ensued, and then a third cry, this time louder than before but from a different location closer to Smitty. I hadn’t really thought about Smitty through all of this, my mind was so focused on whatever it was before me. After the third scream I heard the familiar sound of a shotgun round being pumped into the chamber of the gun. I knew he was awake, and evidently very prepared. Smitty is a former Marine, and he is a little more reactionary than I. My reaction was to sit there in silence, and try to identify the culprit with my senses. His reaction was to lock and load.
The third cry in the night triggered a memory of bobcat caterwauling that I had heard when I was young. Long ago I was with my mentor, a true woodsman, who told me about how bobcats scream, especially during mating season. He told me that there was no danger, that the cats had a great fear of man. We listened briefly to several cats compete with their horrifying screams. After a while they stopped, and we travelled on. It was a memory that had been locked away deep in my memory.
The cat screamed a forth time, still farther away, now at perhaps a distance of 100 yards. From this position the cat took a stand, and cried and screamed for a good 15 minutes. No one would describe these sounds as musical, but once you got over the initial shock there was a frightening beauty to the display of sound.
Eventually the cat stopped, and moved off, making not a sound. I could not tell the direction of his exit.
There was still many hours of dark left before dawn. I tried to get back to sleep, but the adrenaline ran through my veins keeping me alert to imaginary sounds. Hour after hour passed as the cold night slipped away towards dawn. Occasionally I would hear Smitty stirring on the other side of the frozen pond, and I wondered if he had any luck getting to sleep.
At day break I could see Smitty standing on edge of the ridge looking off towards the sunrise. I got out of my sleeping bag and wandered over to see how his night had gone.
The circles under his bright blue eyes told me that he had not rested any better than me.
“How did you enjoy our visitor last night?” I inquired.
“Visitor, you mean intruder!” he responded.
“Well, from his point of view, I’m sure he thought we were the intruders,” I said.
“That could be,” said the Marine, “but, if he had come any closer he might have been a dead intruder!”
“I heard you lock and load,” I said.
“Yes, you did, and I knew you were thinking I was overreacting,” replied Smitty.
“Well, it was a bit cautious, don’t you think?” I quipped.
“Nope.” said Smitty and with that he unloaded his gun for a safe journey to the area where we planned to hunt hare.
Just for the record, we had no luck hunting hare that day. I reasoned that the bobcat caterwauling likely scared all of the snowshoe hare off the mountain. When I mentioned that to Smitty on the way home he looked at me and said “For God’s sake man, it should have scared us off the mountain too!”
I chuckled all the way back to the homestead. Smitty didn’t see the humor in it all.
Written for www.wildramblings.com April 2009.