Being a good woodsman makes unbelievable experiences possible: my brother Rick stopped motionless, suddenly breathless, as he rounded a cedar stand and came face to face with a huge silver wolf. He said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
When my Dad took us into the woods as kids, he began our lifelong education about the forests, the hills and the animals; and when I took my toddler grandsons up on The Big Ridge, I tried to do as he had. The primary goal was not to raise a hunter. The goal was to raise a person who loves the woods, knows and respects the animals, and feels confident of his own ability to find his way, whether for enjoyment or by necessity. There is so much to see and experience in the natural world. Because of my Dad’s coaching, I know the woods, know the animals, feel connected, and I am safe and confident in the woods. As a result, I have enjoyed experiences that I can only describe as magical.
We walk the woods in all seasons of the year. Each season has its own challenges and charms. The clouds of spring’s black flies could not deter us from searching out wild garlic and fiddleheads in the muddy, secret hillsides and shaded places beside icy-cold creeks. In summer, it is glorious to emerge from a long, hot and sweaty climb up the Ridge to stand in the breeze and identify familiar spots, far below. The fall is of course a time of special beauty, when even small children learn to call the trees by name, identifying them when their gorgeous colours define their shapes. The kids swish almost knee-deep through brilliant yellow and red maple leaves, brown-yellow poplar and beech. Even the brown oak leaves have their own charm: when you scuff through them, you turn up mounds of acorns, sometimes five or six inches deep in a particular grove on Merritt’s Hill. Best of all are the long winter hikes. There are no bugs, and with the leaves off the trees and brush, it seems like we can see forever. We follow deer runways for miles, judging the population and traffic by the depth of the track, the amount and freshness of the droppings. We see wolf tracks from time to time, and may even come upon scattered deer hair and a couple of bones—all that remains from a deer brought down by the wolves. It is startling and amazing when a small mound of snow explodes underfoot, and a partridge flies up before your face. Rabbit tracks veer off over the softer snow, disappearing under snow-covered juniper bushes and tangled underbrush.
How many people have had the privilege of sliding around the shoulder of a ridge and coming face to face with a tiny saw-whet owl, perched at eye-level? Or sitting still and quiet on a log and having a rabbit pause to investigate their boots? Watching deer joust and jostle to feed as the sky turns rosy on an icy February morning?
On a brilliantly frigid January day, two of us struggled to the top of Blondin’s Mountain, just because it was such a beautiful day. The air was so cold that it crackled in our noses, and the sun sparkled on a fresh fall of snow. The big trees at the top of the mountain had been cut the previous year, and brush had been bulldozed into great piles, all now covered deeply with snow. As we turned to take in the view from the top, we were startled to see a column of steam rising into the air from what looked like a snow-covered rock. When we looked more closely, we saw that it was a large mound of bent-over brush, thickly covered with snow. At the top of the mound was a hole perhaps three or four inches wide, with a steady stream of steam pouring out—this was not a lazy wisp of steam, but rather resembled the pressurized steam coming from a whistling tea kettle. We could even see heat waves surrounding the opening. There was no doubt that it was the winter hibernation den of a fairly large bear. As we talked softly about our amazing good luck to see such a thing, we saw another, smaller column of steam, rising from a similar mound, only about 100 feet from the first one! Of course we had not brought a camera with us, and I doubt that my inexpert photography skills could have done justice to the gorgeous scene. But I will never forget the brilliant blue of that sky, the almost painfully sparkling snow, and the steam rising as if from two furnaces buried in the drifts.
Walking the woods in all seasons of the year is both the goal and the process: in order to be comfortable and safe when walking the woods, you have to learn--by walking the woods. My father was my mentor, and so I have mentored my kids and grandkids. We talk about the animals that live in the woods. We examine tracks and scat. We stop at the side of a sandy road to watch a huge female snapping turtle lay her eggs beside a creek, but we don’t disturb her or the clutch of eggs. We follow a porcupine (not too closely) up the hill and over the mountain, to see where its hideout is. We watch spotted twin fawns run and leap in a field at sunset. We glimpse the brilliant flash of an indigo bunting flying through the sunny space between huge cedars. I tell the kids the story of when I went inside a beaver lodge, and when we visit the beaver dam we stop to listen to the number of splashes, as the beavers go into the water. We talk about making enough noise in the woods so that bears will go away from us, because they don’t want to see us any more than we want to see them. I show the boys maps of where we are going, or where we have been. We talk about the terrain, and landmarks, and they learn what particular rock is “the Big Rock,” and how to get to “The Pine.”
We learn to respect animals and behave in ways that will not create danger for ourselves, because we are the interlopers in the animals’ environment. If we learn these lessons, we don’t have to be afraid of wildlife. We teach others to treat animals with respect: we kill only to eat, and we don’t harm animals unnecessarily.
The most wonderful thing about taking others into the woods, is that, over and over again, I get to see and experience the forest and wildlife with new eyes. I get to laugh when a five-year old reaches proudly into his pockets to retrieve both bunny and deer droppings, to show me that he knows the difference.
Now, when I take others into the woods, I do so with love and pride. I don’t expect my nieces and nephews, and their children, to become hunters. I am showing them the unbelievable beauty of the wild places that surround us. I am showing them that, even in this century, we can learn to find our way with safety and confidence through the forested hills. I hope that they will love the woods the way I do, and learn respect for our heritage. I hope that they will help preserve and pass on the knowledge that we need to stay connected to the natural world.