Hunters are so fortunate. They witness, close up, hidden dimensions of the natural world that few non-hunters will ever see. They experience nature fully and richly and are marked by what they encounter. The hunter/naturalist is compelled to return to wild places hoping to experience what I call the rare privilege of the hunter.
Who but a duck hunter could ever have an experience like this one told to me by friend and hunting buddy, Dale Davignon? The pond where he hoped to get a few ducks was also home to a family of beavers. Wearing waders, flashlight between his teeth, he slogged out to the beaver lodge and spread out a few decoys in the darkness of early morning. Then he climbed atop the lodge and lay down under camo to await dawn and ducks.
Mist on the water swirled around him. Lying on his back he could see brilliant stars, light years away. And yet looking out over the pond he couldn’t even see a few yards through the mist to the decoys which had been in his hands minutes before. The mist and stars and the stillness were so dream-like he began to wonder if his decoys were ever there at all.
Muffled peeps and squeaks drifted in the mist. They were sounds he had never heard before. He scanned around straining to get a glimpse of the mewling creature so close to him, but invisible. He heard a soft grunts and gnawing from right below him. Then the coin dropped. He finally got it. He was hearing beavers inside the lodge as their young awoke. He wondered how many people had ever heard a young beaver cry out upon waking. He knew he was likely the only person on the planet, at that moment, listening to the chatter of beavers at breakfast. He felt like he’d won a lottery. It was a rare privilege that he remembers more fondly than any of the ducks he harvested. But, if he wasn’t a hunter he wouldn’t have been there. Who but a hunter would ever go to a place like that in the magical pre-dawn mist?
On a grey December afternoon I had climbed into a gnarly apple tree in an overgrown orchard to bow hunt deer. At the edge of the bush, two brilliant red smears appeared against the background of white snow and grey woods and seemed to dance. They came towards me at a trot and at seventy yards I knew I was looking a pair of red foxes. At forty yards I was wondering how much closer they would get. At fifteen yards I knew they were the loveliest creatures I had ever seen in the wild. Their splendid tails were nearly as long as their bodies and their red coats, in winter prime condition, glowed with their own light.
They hadn’t detected me and began cavorting under the tree like a pair of brawling puppies. They yipped and nipped and lunged at each others necks. They chased each other in tight circles cornering like cats on a shag rug. They rolled on their backs in the snow and leapt over each other. I had never seen a finer show.
Like flipping a switch, they suddenly got serious. They cocked their ears and crept in predatory silence listening for mice scurrying in tunnels below the snow. By sound and scent they located mice. Then they jumped high into the air above them crashing down through the snow head first hoping to snatch them in their jaws. There were a lot of misses accompanied by furious digging to catch up with their fleeing snack. I saw one of them come up with a mouse. The fox flipped its head back tossing the mouse into the air and caught it again. I suspect the fox was repositioning the mouse for easy swallowing but it seemed like he was showing off just for me.
I was truly sad when they circled down wind and ran into my scent. They hit it like it was a wall and recoiled back. It stunned them for a millisecond that a human was so near. I don’t think they ever saw me but they weren’t long getting it into high gear, sprinting for the bush, kicking up puffs of snow.
The red fox is not rare but it is secretive. The most we ever see of them is a vanishing flash of red or road kill. Watching their antics for fifteen minutes was a rare privilege.
Of course we are all free to sit in apple trees in December or lie on beaver lodges in the darkness, but usually, only hunters do such things. And to hunter/naturalists come the rarest privileges. Maybe this is why hunters are leaders in conservation.