A Stand-off in the Woods

Oct 2009

DeerAs I struggled my way up the forested slope I was becoming fatigued and began scouting the area for a place to make camp.

I had been hiking in dense bush for almost two and a half hours and my energy was waning fast. This was a remote and secluded area of Central Ontario and for quite sometime I had seen no signs of a human ever passing this way. Likely, this was due to the ruggedness of the terrain, and as a result, the substantial difficulty in accessing this area. An excursion into this area is not what one would consider your average ‘hike in the woods’ due to the multitude of thick undergrowth and numerous downed trees which had to be either climbed over, crawled under, or walked around. The difficulty of all this navigation was compounded by what I would have guessed to be about a 12 to14 kg backpack which I carried.

It was the third week of September and the weather was beautiful and reasonably warm, ESPECIALLY under the forested canopy. I had not counted on it being so warm on the shaded forest floor and I was sweating heavily, so heavily in fact that I was being blinded by the sweat dripping into my eyes. It seemed that no sooner had I wiped my face, more sweat would pour down. I pulled some paper towel from my pocket and used it to continually wipe my brow. The towel soon became saturated and useless. I only had one large canteen of water and I was going through it like a guy stranded in the desert. I knew that if I didn’t make camp soon I was going to exhaust my water supply.

It was at this point, as I wiped the sweat out of my eyes for the thousandth time, that I realized I was standing almost right on top of a ground dwelling nest of Yellow Jacket wasps. I backed up quickly and chose another route, luckily without getting stung. While I continued along thinking about my recent close encounter, the potential seriousness of the situation began to sink in. Disturbing a nest of wasps in this location could be very serious indeed because I would not have been able to escape the swarm. Rather, it is more likely that the wasps would have been all over me by the time I managed to get a few meters. The thought was so unsavory I again concentrated on finding a spot to pitch my tent.

I reached the top of the slope and stood on what could best be described as a bluff. The thick woods I had been struggling through about 50 meters below, had gradually given way to an open mature forest with large trees (predominantly beech, maple, oak and ash) and the forest floor was clear except for small plants, saplings and fallen branches. I found a relatively flat spot and proceeded to make camp.

Leaning my backpack against a tree, I began to unpack. As I unloaded my gear I surveyed my surroundings; my home for the next couple of days. The sun was now well into the western sky and although just above the trees, was beginning to cast golden beams of angled light towards the ground. It was a beautiful sight and I was happy with the spot I had found. In these open woods atop this bluff I had a fairly unobstructed view for about 100 meters around my tent. It was quiet, and except for the bear claw marks in a beech tree not far from my tent, all was good. The only sounds to be heard were from the occasional Pileated Woodpecker, a few Hairy Woodpeckers, Chickadees, and a Loon on a lake a half kilometer or so away. The silence was not what the average human being is used to. You could have heard a pin drop, and that’s when it happened.

While kneeling down in front of my pack I heard a disturbance in the bush behind me.
Whirling around, my eye caught sight of a brown and white form streaking fast through the bush just beyond the clearing around my campsite. I could only catch brief flashes and split – second glimpses of this animal, and for a second I suppose my imagination got the better of me and I wondered if I might not be looking at a Puma/Cougar. I was soon to find out that I was wrong.

Just minutes passed after this initial sighting when the silence was shattered with one of the loudest snorts I have ever heard. It was also aggressive and very serious sounding. The only thing I could compare it to at that moment was that it sounded like the snorting of a Bull Bison who is very agitated and ready for a fight. I don’t mind saying I was a little nervous. I could hear the ground being stomped, and coupled with the snorts, it was pretty intimidating. I remembered that I had heard this snorting before, some years earlier, and now understood that I was dealing with a dominant buck,…a White –Tailed Deer.

He was angry that I was in his territory and he was letting me know it in no uncertain terms. He carried on with the snorting and stomping for about twenty-five minutes and all the while I tried to ignore him as I continued setting up camp.

Then, without me really noticing, things again got quiet. I was relieved and assumed that the buck had left. By this time I had my tent set up, along with sleeping bag and wool blanket unrolled and in the tent. The unpacking, unrolling, and set up of all this gear and my food made very little noise and I was confident that I would hear anything that might make an attempt to come up behind me. I was wrong,… again.

I had begun to organize my food rations for dinner. I plucked these from my pack and as I turned to place them on the rock where I was planning to have my campfire, something caught my eye. I looked up, and there not fifteen meters away was a doe, and she was walking towards me. I stood absolutely still thinking that even my slightest movement would send her springing off into the woods.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, she stopped only a few meters away, swishing her tail about, looking directly at me with an almost inquisitive look, as if to say, “what are you? , I haven’t seen your kind here before.” The doe then proceeded to graze around my campsite and look up at me occasionally as I slowly grabbed for my camera to click a few shots. She continued to hang around and lazily graze for another ten minutes while I quietly went about my business. And as silently as when she had first appeared, she quietly departed, drifting back into the deep woods, and I never saw her again.

I was in awe. In all the years that I have spent time in the woods, even in remote areas, I have never had this happen. I wondered if this was what it might have been like in this area 200 or more years ago before there were larger populations of humans inhabiting this region.

No sooner had the doe disappeared, the snorting and the stomping started again and continued for the next hour. All the buck did was pace, snort and stomp around me, just out of sight.

To be honest, after about two and a half hours of this tirade and posturing I was becoming a little agitated myself, so I decided to use a little animal psychology.

I decided to walk behind my tent to where he was and confront him in the best way I knew how. We were going to have a snort and stomp contest. I know this sounds ridiculous but hey, sometimes you have to relate to another animal on its own terms. I did not relish the idea of being up all night with this guy snorting in my ear while I was trying to sleep.

As I walked out to meet the buck I only had a rough idea of where he was. He did not want to show himself. A few seconds past as I continued walking slowly towards the wall of bush when he snorted and stomped again. I now had a fix on his exact position, although I still couldn’t see him. The sun was setting and I guessed that I had about ten minutes to spare until dusk. Clearly, if I was going to do anything about this situation there was no time like the present.

The buck repeatedly snorted and stomped in my direction and I then did the same, attempting to mimic, to the best of my ability, his snort. As fast as I responded with a snort and stomp he would do the same back at me with gusto.

At last I finally saw him as he came out of the bush to meet me. He was a spectacular buck, large, and appeared to be in excellent condition. I am guessing about a twelve pointer. However, under the circumstances, I was in no position to drop my guard and start counting antler tips, instead, and more to the point, I was scoping out the nearest tree in case I might need to dive behind it. I could not guess his weight accurately, but he was big and full of testosterone.

He continued to snort and stomp but he also did something else which surprised me; he flailed his head from side to side as if wanting to show me that his antlers were powerful weapons. I didn’t doubt him or them for a second!

We continued the stand-off for another few minutes and as fast as I snorted and stomped he was responding the same way. However, when I increased the speed and volume of my snorting he began to back off. Within minutes he was gone and I was never challenged by him again during my time there.

I actually felt sorry for him since he was only trying to protect his territory, his doe’s and their young, which were, in fact, his offspring.

I wished we could have communicated so that I could have told him that I was not a threat; I meant him and his herd no harm, and that I would be gone early the day after tomorrow.

At least now I can confidently say that I can snort and stomp with the best of them,…but unlike Dr. Doolittle, I have yet to master the art of really being able to talk to the animals!

What an interesting camping trip.


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