Scouting for deer at the top of the world

It was a chilly Sunday morning in November, eight days before the rifle deer season opener. One hour after daybreak, Donna Rai’ and I were already a halfmile into the forest, seeking the perfect location for my first-day deer-hunting stand.

We hiked an old tram road, remnant from some long-forgotten, century-old lumbering operation, moving deeper into the woods at Boulder Hollow in the State Game Lands. The bite in the subfreezing air stung our lungs at every breath and cleansed them: bad civilization air out, good forest air in. A cold fog hung on the ridge above, adding mystery and melancholy to our moods.

Just below the trail, cutting the heart of the hollow, ran a tiny, unnamed stream that I knew from experience held colorful little wild brook trout in every pool. All around us lay the vivid forest scenery of bare hardwood trees, dark green hemlocks, moss-covered sandstone boulders, oak browse and hay-scented fern. We had enjoyed our first hour in the woods that morning but had spotted no wildlife yet.

But now we arrived at an uncommon place, the Cave Rock Pool. Here the little stream drops into a four-foot waterfall and fills a deep pool under a large boulder that’s cut away at its base, as if by some ancient Native American architect, into a chilly cave big enough for two people to build a fire, put up a dome tent and stay there overnight, which is illegal and only wishful thinking in the game lands.

D-Rai’ tossed a dollop of bubble gum into the pool, and a five-inch brookie darted from the shadows, snagged the morsel, held it in his lips for three seconds, then spit it out. We laughed and chartered a new rule: never feed bubble gum to brook trout.
I looked closer at the pool and — there — in the soft earth along the graveled edge, I noticed a deer track, a big one, with deep, curving hoof marks in the sand, the track of a buck, perhaps, that stopped here and rested, and drank.

An hour later, far up the ridge, we actually did see a buck, a fine eight-point with wide, symmetrical antlers, a heavy chest and neck and elegant chestnut coloring. By pure good luck, we stumbled upon him and sighted him before he noticed us, as we sneaked through a village of house-sized boulders along the upper ridge of the hollow. We saw him standing there in the redbrush and watched for five minutes before he scented us and bounded away. The chances of finding this same fine buck in this exact location on opening day were slim, but if I’d had to decide right then, I’d climb that boulder on the slope just above me and hunt right there the first Monday of the season.

We continued our search and I decided to lead us uphill toward the place I call “Top of the World.” I’d been there many times myself, but, before that day, I’d never taken anyone else along.
West of the Allegheny River and high above, two massive hollows run parallel toward the east and pinch together, forming a razorback ridge. We walked the single deer path that runs along the top out to the east-facing point, the pinnacle of observation in the game lands, the view that impresses me every time I visit there, and looked down upon what I consider some of the finest natural scenery in the state.

We could see to our right down into Boulder Hollow South, deep and wide and rich with uncounted thousands of leafless hardwoods and lush evergreens. To our left lay Boulder Hollow North, its walls so steep and so high, we felt as though we were peering down over the precipice of sunlit vista into the utter bottom of the north woods. Below us in front flowed the great river, sparkling in the morning sun and winding north to south in a wide ribbon of clear waters that nurtured the lands all around. Straight ahead at eye level lay the rolling high plateaus of the Allegheny National Forest, running green and gray to purple in the distance.

Donna Rai’ and I sat right down on the leaf-covered November ground. We felt the chill of the primeval earth and the warmth of the ancient sun as we peered out over a work of nature that must have looked much the same that day as it did two hundred years before. We could see for miles and miles, and there was nothing man-made, nothing artificial or civilized within view. We sat and gazed in silence at the spectacle.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, November 28, 2010

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