Two hours spent in a tree

I woke at 6 a.m. to the sound of steady rain on a metal roof. I’d been vaguely aware of the low rumble for several hours — it had swirled through the restless moments of my sleep. Awake, I was fully aware of the sound. I lay in place for several minutes carrying on an internal debate about the implications of that rain — which I knew was a cold one, just a few degrees warmer than sleet. Finally, I rose to dress for hunting.
The legal hunting day begins 30 minutes before dawn. Usually, I like to be in my tree stand a half hour before that, to give the evidence of my presence — imperceptible to me, but like a big neon sign to wary deer — a chance to settle back into the earth. Except for my outer layer, which I leave in the garage to minimize human scent from the house, my hunting clothes were stacked near the front door. I can wolf some food and dress for hunting in less than ten minutes. My favorite stand is just three minutes into the woods, so I only need to arise about 75 minutes before dawn to meet my goal.
But cold days and rain change those plans. I’m in less of a hurry to get to my stand. My excuse is that I can move more quietly in rain. Leaves that normally rustle and crunch underfoot and hide branches that snap now provide a quiet, plush carpet. What little sound I make disappears into the steady patter of precipitation. My scent also fades more quickly without dry wind blowing it to the nostrils of cautious animals. I can plan to reach my stand right at the start of the legal day with less fear of spooking my prey.
That’s my excuse for going out later on cold rainy days. But the truth is I don’t want to sit in my stand cold and wet for that extra 30 minutes when it is too dark to see anything and not legal to shoot even if I could.
So on this morning I moved more slowly. I stoked up the wood stove, which I had lit the previous evening for the first time this season. I ate a leisurely bowl of cereal, and set the table and put out food for my kids, who would be up in 30 minutes to get ready for school. I listened to the rain, and glanced over at the outdoor thermometer, wondering if it had inched over the 40-degree mark. Finally, I grabbed my bow and headed out.
Looking through the window, it had appeared pitch black under heavy clouds. Outside, I realized there was just enough pre-dawn light to move through the woods on familiar trails. It was, as expected, a quiet walk to my stand. Despite the cold rain, I stayed warm and pretty dry by replacing my hunting hat, which has a camouflage face net, with the insulated waterproof hood of my hunting parka, thus accepting the small risk of a deer picking out my facial features through the branches. I hooked my bow in the string hanging from my stand, climbed up, clipped my harness to the tree, hauled my bow up, and sat down to wait.
Within five minutes, it was light enough to see 30 yards into the woods. Half an hour later, and I knew that the sun had risen somewhere across the mountains. I could see as far into the woods as the leaves still clinging stubbornly to the trees allowed. It was relatively quiet. No bird sounds. No rustling of branches in the wind. No squirrels playing on the ground or in the branches.
I am ambivalent about squirrels. They are fun to watch when hunting is slow as they scamper about or chase each other through the trees or bury nuts. But on dry days they are too loud. I’m trying to listen to every sound. I want to hear that movement of deer behind me before they step out below my stand. The squirrels make it difficult.
Not that they sound like deer. Deer are nearly silent. They take one or two steps, sometimes very deliberately. Then they stop and listen, for a minute at a time. Squirrels constantly move, rustling among the leaves. At one point I had disciplined myself not to turn every time I hear their distinctive rustling behind me.
But that’s how three deer once snuck up on me. They were rustling and rooting in the leaves, looking for beechnuts, and sounding like squirrels. So for several minutes I ignored them. Then they stepped out right below me, catching me unprepared. Now I turn and look at every rustle in the leaves, despite knowing it’s just another squirrel. Or almost knowing.
Today I heard nothing but rain. Not even the squirrels, though I did watch one burying a nut. I sat in my stand for two hours, attuning myself as best as I could to the rhythm of a cold rainy day in a Vermont woods. Then I headed home for a day of work, thinking of a hot cup of coffee by the woodstove before I began doing what I need to do to earn a living.

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