Hiking on a cold, blustery day, I kept my eyes to the ground, half to look for antler sheds, half to shield my eyes from a sustained, 30mph wind. I listened more than looked for my two dogs, who were running off leash ahead and behind me in about a twenty-yard radius. Not that I could hear much over the howling winds whipping the tall grass all around me.
But I did hear this. All day I’ve tried to replay it in my mind, but it’s hard to describe. A snort, maybe. Kind of a huff. An unquestionably animal, nasal sound. I stopped.
When I looked up, about fifteen yards up the slope from where I was standing, I saw Finn. He was absolutely motionless, broadside to me, and he was nose to nose with a large coyote.
They faced each other, statues. No more than a baseball’s diameter apart. In my mind I ran through my options. I’ll call him, and hope he comes and the yote doesn’t. Beyond that, I’m kind of out of ideas.
“Finn,” I called. They both turned their heads and looked straight at me. I somehow took a moment to compare them. The coyote seemed a bit taller than Finn, but he was on the uphill side, so truthfully they were probably the same height. Finn is a tall, lean 75 pounds. The coyote had thick fur around his head and neck, giving him at least the impression of being larger than Finn. I could read Finn’s body language, even though much of both their bodies, including the ever-important tails, were concealed by the tall grass. But Finn’s neck was erect, and his ears were up and slightly back. He seemed fine, maybe even playful, but just a bit apprehensive.
The coyote I couldn’t read at all. Ears fixed atop his head, body concealed, blank slate. Like reading a painting of a coyote. Not to mention my lack of experience with the animal – my previous closest coyote encounter was from about 200 yards away, at Yellowstone. This was new territory.
I just wanted to get some space between the two canines.
“Here,” I called, not overly forcefully. Without hesitation, and a bit to my surprise, Finn turned away from his new friend and trotted the fifteen yards back to me, ears up, tail wagging. The coyote watched him.
Eyes still on Wile E., I called for Winnie. Luckily, she was unaware of this entire transaction, and came when called from another direction. I watched the coyote.
He took a single step toward me and I felt utterly unprepared. I don’t know enough about these animals and their behavior. I don’t know the right thing to do if they show aggression, nor do I really know what their aggression necessarily looks like. My dogs were milling around my immediate area but I wanted them still and close. “Finn! Winnie! Heel! Now!
The firm commands, I presume, stopped the coyote in his tracks. He thought better of advancing, and turned around. A step into the grass and he was gone. Far too late I fumbled for my phone, held it up high and snapped a few photos, knowing there would be no sign of him in them. I praised my dogs, thankful this encounter was diffused without incident, and that it was Finn who encountered him, rather than Winnie. I’m not sure things would have gone as well if the roles were reversed.
Hiking back to the car (reducing that 20 yard dog radius to something closer to 10), I thought about the encounter. The noise of the wind likely resulted in Finn and the coyote surprising each other in the grass. I don’t think he knew we were there until he was snoot to snoot with what to him was probably the ugliest coyote he had ever seen. Finn likely viewed him as just a funny smelling dog who doesn’t wear a collar, but I really don’t know. He was absolutely disinterested in the coyote once he recalled to me. He never even glanced back over his shoulder as we left.
I, however, did.
At a recent Virginia Outdoor Writers Association conference in Charlottesville, VOWA teamed up with Bass Pro Shops to recognize some promising young outdoor writers, and this year’s outdoor writing competition produced some fantastic essays. Matt Reilly of Fluvanna County High School was one of the winners. He began reading Every Dog Has His Day and I was enthralled from the very first line. By the time he was done, I knew I had to share his essay. Matt is a gifted writer, an avid outdoorsman, and as likable a young man as you’re likely to ever come across. He writes a column for the Rural Virginian called Adventures Afield, which I’m sure has a much greater reach than this blog. But I wanted to share Matt’s wonderful story here. Once you read it, I think you’ll agree that as long as there are young outdoorsmen like Matt who strive to share their outdoor experiences with this level of thoughtfulness and skill, the outdoor writing industry is in good and caring hands. I’d like to welcome and thank Matt for sharing this with my readers, I’m honored to have him bring you this Dispatch…
As the sun threatened to deliver morning, we abandoned the house in silence, save for a shrill whistle and the rhythmic clinking of a field collar.
Its owner, Tucker, a sprightly, peppery English setter, rode the truck’s back bench-seat well. Curled in a ball of muscular fur and tradition, his position was suggestive of the hardiness and sophistication that often characterize upland hunting and its participants. I diverted my gaze, trying not to focus on his being more than was necessary.
The sun was smothered by the clouds and fog, presenting the day in a melancholy haze. A half-hour drive landed us on the brushy banks of the James River, at a boat landing in the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area. The parking lot was empty, and with reason. Woodcock had long since abandoned the tangled successional growth of the riverbottom, squirrel and deer season had withered, and February’s biting personality had fishermen frightened from the banks of the meandering river. For the season, the secrets of the James seemed secure under a sheet of thick fog.
Tucker glided out of the back door tenderly; and Dad corralled him to adjust his collar and behold his soft, stringy ears. Few words were spoken before the morning commenced with a beep from Tucker’s collar and our shotgun-toting footsteps crunching upon cut corn.
The weather on such days is enough to draw my thoughts inward and leaden my tongue in meditation; but there was something more spiritual at play. We followed our four-legged guide closely, observing him peruse cover, rather than observing the cover he perused. A rabbit dashed from cover. Tucker ignored it from good training. We took little note, our reflexes jaded by thought.
The communal element to bird hunting was as clouded as the sun; as Dad looked forward to Tucker for conversation. I understood. In past years, the two had enjoyed much together. From cool Minnesotan nights to fast-paced grouse shooting in the snow-blanketed forests of the upper-Midwest and Virginia highlands, their relationship was one of mutual dependency. Second only to their common love for grouse and woodcock, Tuck’s affinity for crisp northern nights and his preoccupation with filching laps of scotch from his Master’s unattended glass mortared a friendship only strengthened over years in the field.
Of course, the memories I perceived pouring from my father’s pensive eyes were imparted to me only as stories. My relationship with Tucker was different. He was introduced to our family just months before I; and we shared a common age. It was he who provided much of my early transportation, dragging me about the wood floors of our Fluvanna home by the stocking feet of my pajamas and hauling my saucer sled over fresh coats of powder by a leash fashioned as a harness. I hunted over him—rather, pointed over him, with my training cap shotgun—as a young boy; but most memorable was his playful, omnipresent attitude that established him as a childhood friend and lifelong companion.
We entered the fourth in a chain of linked, riparian corn fields when we made the decision to turn back. Our halt lit the flame under the hooves of a 12-point buck bedded on the field’s edge. The first solid words of the morning were uttered in reflexive excitement.
The shadow that had loomed over us soon returned. Our hunt was half over.
Tucker’s attention was diverted to the tangled riverbank, where, after nosing about, he uncovered a magnificently large turtle shell. I dusted it off and found it a place in my pack.
It was New Year’s Day the last time Tucker yielded me a prize of his own industry—a chukar taken on the wing from a game preserve in Southside Virginia. That was a different hunt, one filled with camaraderie and joy. Tucker zig-zagged cover unrestrained, ears bouncing loosely in the sun, feet treading deftly, on track to a bedded bird. At dusk, we collected our party and turned back. Tucker plodded exhaustedly in the lead, but caught our immediate attention when he froze mid-step, convulsing briefly. His movements that followed were a series of drunken, left-handed arcs. A nervous silence ensued.
As we approached the truck by the river, the clouds seemed to lift. Conversation colored our packing and unloading as a statement of burdensome acceptance. With the setting of the sun yet another grouse season would expire in the mountains. But we were not hunting for grouse. In fact, there is no grouse season this far east. We were hunting for a memory. All three in attendance recognized that the brain tumor that was steadily revealing itself in our beloved companion with every soulful step would make this season a concluding one, and this hunt, a last chapter—an epilogue worth writing and cherishing, forever.
I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.
And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.
Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.
Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.
Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.
Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.
A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.
I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.
I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.
So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.
Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.
As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.
Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!