Dan Vastyan | December 7, 2012
It was that time of year again. Bear season. I drove up to camp on Sunday afternoon, staring blissfully out the window. I barely noticed that the trees at the base of the mountains held as a greenish yellow hue, but faded to warmer colors as they progressively rose in elevation. The crest of the hills were shrouded by a light, stringy fog; hardly enough to raise concerns about visibility for the opener in the morning.
I knew it had snowed the night before, but thought surely it had all melted off by this point. I’d have rather had a crisp, fresh tracking snow for opening day, but I wasn’t about to complain about the damp conditions either. As long as the temperature stayed above freezing, a wet leaf cover on the forest floor would make for silent walking and excellent still hunting.
I’d staked a lot on this trip. It was an inopportune time for me to take two days off, especially with over 200 acres of corn left to shell at work, and rifle season fast approaching. My odds were slim, as they always are when trying to cross paths with a Pennsylvania black bear during season. I’ve always accepted that though, and was really hoping for good weather this time.
- - -
It was damp and dark on the outside of the log walls. Inside, Travis and Rachel were reclined on one couch, intently watching the Cowboys handle the Redskins. Mom was on the other couch next to Dad, both her and Kota fast asleep, the dog snoring just a little. Leafing through a three year old November edition of Game News, Dad was most likely reading an article on a PA record bear hunt and setting himself up for a disappointment the following day. I was settled into a big armchair, looking at the fire. Trigger is flopped across my feet, keeping them toasty warm, but always presenting the threat of getting my socks drooled on.
“Hey” Travis broke the silence when a commercial interrupted his football game. I just looked at my brother-in-law. He knew he had my attention.
“Where you gonna hunt tomorrow?”
“I’ve been thinking about that a bit,” I replied, stifling a yawn and stretching my arms. “I thought of climbing that pipeline and finding a spot on one of those rises. Or I might huff it to the top and still hunt that ridge for most of the day.”
Mom wasn’t sleeping as soundly as she had let on, and interjected, “You know they mowed that pipeline last week.”
“Oh,” The response was nearly simultaneous as Travis and I looked at each other in disappointment. The pipeline shoots straight up the mountain for more than half a mile, and is nothing less than steep. I would have thought the only piece of heavy equipment to make it up that mountain was a log skidder, not a tractor.
“All right, I think I’m headed out that loggin’ road behind the cabin. About 500 yards down I’ll head up that trail that goes off to the left and shoots up the mountain at an angle. Travis says this very matter-of-factly, as if he had given it careful consideration for a long time.
“Good enough,” I confirmed that I wouldn’t be in his way, or he in mine. “I’m gonna go all the way down to the pipeline and head straight up. It’ll be tough, but I want hunt the ridge. I know I’m gonna be the only one up there, nobody else is crazy enough.” I returned to staring at the fire and enjoying the warmth of a St. Bernard sleeping on my feet.
- - -
The scent of sausage gravy seeped under the bedroom door, inundating my room and rousting me from my sleep. After rolling out of bed I opened the door, careful to shut it promptly behind me to keep my hunting clothes from absorbing too much of the aroma. Mom was cooking, and Travis and Rachel were already at the table. It was cracking daylight, and that’s what I wanted. For still-hunting, there was no reason to be heading out before it was light enough to shoot.
An easy half-mile walk down the logging road behind camp led to the base of the pipeline. I took my time, ambling along somewhat carelessly and stopping now and again to raise my binoculars and glass. The leaves were wet. Some trees were still dripping, producing a tic – smack – tap sound on the damp leaf carpet covering the ground. “Awesome” I thought to myself. If I picked my steps, I could be virtually silent.
I finally reached the base of the pipeline, and headed up. Mom was right. What had once been overgrown with shrubs and weeds was now mowed flat. After reaching the first culvert I stopped to pull off my jacket and stuff it in my pack. I then looked up, and instantly my heart sank. The hill rose ominously before me and not far ahead it was covered in a thick blanket of fog.
In a futile attempt to keep from sweating profusely, I stopped twice more before entering the suspended water vapor. A pair of old four-wheeler tracks taunted me the whole way up. The remnants of the rarely used trail, now half washed out and grown over, reminded me just how easily I could have been at the top had I brought the Yamaha to camp.
As I made my way into the low cloud, my spirits began to sink. This pipeline was a 50 yard clear-cut from one side to the other. I was walking in the middle, and couldn’t see either tree line that flanked me.
Now halfway up the hill, a set of bear prints meandered among the various-sized deer tracks. By no means massive, they were from a bear just the same, and offered a glimmer of hope. I decided not to follow them, as they weren’t that fresh, with deer tracks overlapping them occasionally. If the deer tracks that covered them had been left there in a hurry, I’d have come to the conclusion that I had just jumped the deer as I probed the fog. Not the case. Animals in no particular hurry, crossing my path at a right angle and some walking down the hill dated the bear prints.
Upward and onward, I began to wonder what the day could bring. Would the fog lift later in the morning? It started to get colder; an icy breeze blew down the mountainside, and the fog came with it. Small plant stems had miniature, horizontal icicles clinging to them, formed by the wind blowing water molecules down past them all night. I looked at the barrel of my stainless Xbolt. It had a thin sheet of ice on it, which slid down the smooth metal as I touched it.
I was violently shaken from my thoughts when the ground erupted at my feet. Four birds exploded like feathery cannonballs, leaving a few lone pieces of plumage to float slowly back to the frosted ground. Grouse. It made my heart jump; I could feel the adrenaline begin draining from my bloodstream as I watched them disappear into the haze. This fog, it was surreal. I’d never seen it so thick in my life, and especially not at this temperature.
I kept climbing up the hill, making my way over to the left side of the cut, sticking to the tree line. The higher I climbed, the more frost covered the ground and trees. Eventually, everything was white.
I came to a familiar spot. A big rock marked the turn around spot when a good friend and I had recently climbed the hill with Trigger. Despite the fact that the rock was at a very odd angle for placing one’s posterior, we had rested there for a while to catch our breath before descending. At that time we had an amazing view of the whole valley. Right now all I could see was the inside of a cloud.
After trudging on for a while after passing the rock, the top came into view. I drank a bottle of water, wrung out my tee shirt, and stuck it in my pack. After shuffling through my gear and donning my coat, dead silence.
- - -
I headed into the woods at my right. As I did, my fears were confirmed. The whole flat, broad top of the mountain was blanketed in a noisy snow, once partially melted, and now refrozen. The glazed surface crunched every time I set my foot down. Exasperated, I stopped. I placed my pack on the ground and propped my rifle against a small oak. It had snow stuck to one side of its trunk, as did all the other trees. I began to look around, and then it overcame me.
The landscape was beautiful. Bunches of pine needles encased in ice mimicked frosted feather dusters. Trees were adorned with small ribbons of icicles, not individually hanging, but rather one attached to the next, side by side.
I grabbed my pack and took a few more steps before stopping once again. The wind had stopped, except for a few intermittent gusts that made some of the smaller trees shiver, casting their collections of ice glimmering to the forest floor.
As I stood there taking it all in, I was surprised by a rare audible treat. A nearby tree succumbed to the weight of clinging ice, falling with a thunderous crash. It must not have been far outside the 25 or 30 yard bubble that the fog allowed me to see. It was uncanny, how things moved in and out of my sight, even though I was only taking a few steps every 15 minutes. Trees faded in and out. Even standing still, the scenery changed constantly.
The sky - or lack thereof - was a bit unsettling. From between the trees and through the fog emanated a bizarre, half-light iridescence that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Pale, like the face of a glowing watch, and sort of a grainy white. There was plenty of light to see my surroundings, but it still didn’t seem like day. Extra thick wisps of mist created shapeless darker spots. It felt like a room with a low domed roof. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
I was hunting, but by now it didn’t feel like it. I was caught up in looking around. You’d have thought this was my first time in the forest after a snow. At times it felt like it.
A large pileated woodpecker drummed on a tree nearby, close enough to see. The sound resonated in the eerie stillness of the forest, like a little woodland jackhammer. His red head was in stark contrast with all the shimmering white. He’d pound once, then came to the conclusion that his efforts would be more fruitful if he tried the same spot, only upside down. He flipped around, thumped on the tree a while longer, and flew off when all the blood rushed to his head, I suppose. If he was aware of my presence, he didn’t let on.
A few carefully placed steps later I came to a few downed logs. Big beech trees, half debarked and brought down by beech bark disease, no doubt. Traversing the crisscross patchwork of logs slowed me down, and I took another look around. A chipmunk dashed across a frosted log, little tufts of snow kicking up behind his feet. The small, striped creature wasn’t more than 10 feet away. He ran my direction until a plume of steam from my nose brought him to a screeching halt. I half expected him - out of sheer surprise to swallow whatever payload filled his cheeks. He stared, but not for long. As quickly as he appeared, he shot under a log and vanished.
I continued looking around the forest, but only momentarily. A puff of snow flew up from the closest log. By the time I saw him, he was standing erect, glaring. He must have deposited his mouthful under the log; he no longer looked like he’d undergone surgery for impacted wisdom teeth the day before. I felt a grin split my face and I fought to keep from laughing out loud. At that moment, I realized how serious a situation I’d landed myself in.
The chipmunk wasn’t amused. Until now, I had no idea this was a staring match. I’d stumbled across quite a formidable adversary, and a battle ensued. We locked eyes; the rodent trying to figure out what I was and why I was in his territory, and I was wondering where this glorified mouse found the gall. It seemed to go on for minutes, until he put his front paws back on the log, and I shifted my weight. Apparently that was a sign of my surrender, and he proceeded to announce it. He hopped away, holding his tail stiffly out at a 45 degree angle, and once at a safe distance, began to squeak his disapproval of my location.
I plodded on, but no more than another few paces. Again, I just stood and breathed in the fresh air. The cold mist hung in the air and slowly wafted past me. The water vapor congregated on everything it touched. My jacket had a fine layer of dew on it, some of it beginning to freeze.
As I continued to take in my remarkable surroundings, I saw something that seemed very out of place. I walked over and took a closer look at the other boot tracks in the snow. They weren’t mine, and they weren’t very fresh. The print was significantly smaller than mine, as was the stride. The owner of these tracks walked somewhat pigeon toed, and had a slight limp, indicated by a drag mark in the snow in front of every right footprint. The wonderful feeling of seclusion I had momentarily evaporated, followed by a twinge of guilt.
How selfish of me. I’d been given a great opportunity to see a breathtaking landscape, experience some extraordinary weather conditions, and enjoy the Pennsylvania outdoors at their best. It’d be a shame if I couldn’t share that experience with at least one other person. Why in the world would I want to deprive a fellow outdoorsman of that?
Sometimes the trophy can’t be measured in inches our pounds, but rather by the moments we won’t forget.