Gerald Almy: A buck on the Massanutten Range

Gerald Almy

Do you remember your first deer? This week, and next, I will tell the story of mine, taken many years ago in the woods above the cedar cabin where I lived on the banks of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River as it swept hard against the steep gray flanks of the Massanutten Mountain Range. It was my third year of hunting, but I had yet to draw blood. I was still searching for that first successful hunt that would remain vividly etched in my mind decades later.

The day is but a promise as I wrench my weary torso out of the tangled green blankets, pour smoking coffee down a parched throat, and methodically drape on the accoutrements of the deer-hunting ritual. The long johns, the multiple layers of socks, Icelandic sweater, wool coat and overalls, topped off with blaze orange vest and hat.

It is the second day of deer season in Virginia. The year? Let’s just say late in the Twentieth Century.

As yesterday, and in seasons past, I will hunt the hollow down the trail behind the cabin at the base of Powell Mountain. It is a gullet rich in deer, steep and forbidding in terrain, ignored by other hunters perched on stands closer to roads transecting the George Washington National Forest.

The Massanutten Mountain Range juts sharp and defiantly out of the fertile valley farmland, towering over the storied Shenandoah River as it winds like an ancient silver serpent towards Harper’s Ferry and the Potomac. The hollow I am watching within that range is a whitetail highway.

The agile deer travel nimble-footed down its sheer gray slopes in the evening. Then at the first pale-orange flush of dawn, they angle up to the safety of the ridgetops. In the lowlands they dine by moonlight on corn, wheat, clover, the mast of fecund white oaks, and tender green forbs sprouting from the moist black soil. On the ridges they rest and watch from their daylight sanctuaries.

It is a pattern that I have learned from three years of pursuing these deer. But learning their comings and goings does not ensure the success of the hunt. Again, as the day before, the morning proves fruitless. A snort of lung-hot air through whiskered nostrils, stomping of hooved feet on the brown, frozen earth, and wild crashing up the mountain greets my best efforts to circumvent the deer and ambush them from above.

I hunt the morning through nonetheless, shivering in the cool dampness of dawn before the sun gradually burns the white frost from the brown oak leaves. By 10 a.m. it is almost balmy. But I know the deer movement through this transition corridor is finished for the morning.

“Afternoon is the time,” I tell myself. That is when I will take my first deer.

The day before had proved the worth of my strategy of diligently watching this travel area. At 3 p.m. the squirrels that had been frolicking leisurely above my makeshift stand on a fallen tree trunk suddenly froze, then began barking angrily.

Had I moved? Blown my cover? No. I knew I hadn’t Sitting immobile, like a stone carving, on an uncomfortable perch is an arduous task. You know if you’re doing it right. I was.

It was deer that had spooked the squirrels. Soon they were visible, angling in single file down the gravelly slope–a large doe, followed by two younger animals, likely that spring’s fawns.

The old gray-coated doe with the long Roman nose sensed something was amiss. But still she approached, unsure of what the odd form on that fallen tree was. Finally, a swirl of wind sent my human scent her way. In a flash they were gone, a flurry of dark forms stomping up the brown ravine in a branch-crashing panic.

Next Week: Part II, The Hunt Concludes.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.