We labored in the
snow, but no more so than the only other mammal much in evidence, the
white-tailed deer. There were a lot of deer trails and they were cast in an odd
pattern—four small holes, where their narrow hooves had disappeared, were
divided by a shallow trough, the mark left as they dragged their bellies
through the snow. Generally, the deer were wandering from one big tree to
another. On the lee side, where the snow was shallower, they would sniff for
edibles—dried grass, shoots, acorns—and if they found them they would paw away
Frequently a deer
would pop up no more than 10 or 15 feet away from behind a log or tree where it
had been attempting to feed or escape the wind. It would make a few lunges
through the drifts in a kind of token escape effort and then stand heaving and
exhausted, staring at us dispiritedly, much more concerned and bothered by the
winter than by two silent snowshoers.
A rap against
snowmobilers has been that some of them, finding deer in these situations, have
delighted in chasing and harassing them. Besides being plain ornery, this can
be destructive of deer. They are incessantly searching for sufficient food to
fuel their body-heating plants. Anything—like escaping a carousing
snowmobiler—that requires them to burn up a lot of extra fuel, diverting it
from the main job, decreases their chances of making it through the winter.
Fortunately, this sort of cruel and stupid hazing is not as common as it was
when motorized sleds were more of a novelty. Now when such jackassery is
encountered, it is treated harshly, not only by game managers but also by other
When we met deer
at close quarters we passed by very quietly and carefully, trying to reassure
them that we had no hostile or antic intentions. Like them, we were essentially
concerned with survival.
One of the tenets
of pop natural history, conservation and ecology is that all creatures have
evolved so as to be perfectly fitted, if man will let them alone, for the
niches in which they are found. Tidy as this theory is, it is often not true,
as the problems deer have in winter demonstrate. Whitetails are, in fact, badly
equipped for a Black Forest winter, a niche which they are often in and with
which they must cope. They cannot travel through the snow like hares; they
cannot rise above it like squirrels; they cannot store food like beavers or
tunnel after it like shrews; they cannot sleep through the cold like bears or
worked," said Sam, staring at a deer obviously depressed by the cold and
virtually immobilized by the drifts, "they would grow and shed snow-shoes
instead of antlers."
Only in the very
long range does the situation of the deer make sense. The fact that deer, like
a lot of the rest of us, are not well equipped to deal with fairly ordinary
environmental conditions is the bottom-line control on the size, location and
activity of populations. Worry about this is very fashionable these days, but
as yet no environmentally dominant beast has been invented. Each in our own
way, we all remain dependents.
Our plan was to
follow, for as long as we could bear it, the Susquehannock Hiking Trail, a
blazed footpath that makes an 85-mile loop through the Black Forest. The blazes
were prominent enough, being mostly above the drift line, but the trail itself
was indistinguishable from any other part of the forest. Nevertheless, for a
time we stuck with the submerged path because if it offered no better route
than any other, it was no worse. In the afternoon we came down the
Susquehannock Trail off a long-flat ridge and began to descend a narrow ravine.
There the blaze line slabbed along the side of the slope and the footing was
miserable. The snow was so powdery that our downhill-side shoes were constantly
giving way and we would either toboggan or fall. If you are alone and go down
into a drift wearing snowshoes and a pack, getting up again can be difficult.
If you have really sprawled, it usually means baring your hands, fumbling
around in the snow and unfastening the shoe harnesses, then wallowing upright
and, while standing waist deep in the snow, putting the shoes back on
your-boots. Invariably it leaves you colder, wetter and much madder than you
were before you fell. If you are traveling with a partner and he is still
standing, you can usually claw your way upright, using him for a handhold.