21 November 2007

Hiking solo at my favorite research area on November 18

This past Sunday (Nov. 18) during the last couple hours of deer hunting season here in Illinois, I hiked alone into my favorite "research area." It is a densely wooded area on public property so I thought I would find where the deer were hiding out from the hunters.

It was late afternoon on a gray foggy day with a light rain. As I suspected, due to the inclement weather nobody else was parked along the dead-end access road so I had the woods to myself. My plan was to hike some 20 minutes east to the edge of the public property where it borders a private hunting club. My destination was where my kids and I were standing this past July 22 when we heard a series of wood knocks coming from the private hunting club area.

With most of the leaves down, visibility was now much better in the woods and I hoped to see and photograph deer along the way. I really enjoy hiking in the woods during a light rain and don't seem to get the opportunity often enough. As soon as I got out of my car, I started hearing the noise of a barking dog far off in the direction I was going to hike. I've heard a barking dog in these woods before but have not seen any dog tracks or a loose dog running around. I hoped the sound was coming from much farther away and was only carrying well across the quiet woods.

I discovered that the rain had softened the fallen leaves and that if I stepped carefully I couldn't even hear myself walking. As far as photographing any deer, it was a bust. I had seen none driving along the dead-end access road, and I found none hiding in these woods that afternoon.

About halfway back to my destination, I heard a single whack or clack to my right (south). I stood still for a long time waiting to hear anything else. All I could hear was the rain falling on the leaves. I eventually convinced myself that I must have imagined the sharp noise. I reached my destination on the bluff above a flowing creek and could see a long distance into the woods on the adjacent private hunting club. From my vantage point, I looked for tracks in the muddy banks of the creek. I saw nothing unusual and heard nothing more than the light rain and the water flowing in the creek below.

I returned to where I parked by continuing to follow the trail loop around. Halfway back to my car, I again heard a single whack or clack to my right (north this time). Both of the sharp noises had come from the denser and deeply ravined area encircled by the trail loop. It was now getting noticeably darker as I made it back to my car. At this point I heard 3 gunshots from the direction of the private hunting club-- somebody taking their last shots during the closing minutes of the deer season that day.

Thinking about this afterwards, I'm wondering whether the noise of a barking dog I had heard when I first got out of my car was a signal from a sentry creature up in a tree which either saw me or heard me close my car door. The first sharp noise (which I ignored and kept on hiking) could have been an alarm when I crossed into an area being defended and the second sharp noise could have signalled me leaving the area.

The absence of any deer, birds or even small animals throughout my hike should have also been a clue at the time. Usually when I hike in the woods during a light rain I get to see a lot more wildlife. (One time I witnessed a rabbit playfully jumping back and forth over a water puddle-- I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself.)

I now realize that the increased visibility in the woods works both ways. Whereas I thought it gave me an advantage of seeing a longer distance into the brush, likewise these creatures could keep track of where I was and stayed out of sight. I should have anticipated that they would have taken up temporary residence in the woods on public property while hunters were prowling around the private hunting club. They were probably keeping an eye on me the whole time.

I am glad I wasn't wearing "blaze orange" and carrying a rifle-- from the reports of hunters in such situations I may have been confronted or escorted out of the woods.

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