My beautiful blond wife is more lithe and flexible than I on snowshoes. She falls less frequently, too, but I contend that is because the dogs step on my snowshoes more often than hers, a trick that always sends me sprawling and seems to entertain them enormously.
A walk in the winter woods
Finding a shed antler is an unexpected treasure on a woodland walk in February. This miracle of antler growth amazes me; fifteen pounds of bone-hard horns grown over the course of six months, used in mating combat three months, and then dropped with no more fuss than a ten-tear-old kid losing a molar.
This annual shedding of antlers that took much energy and nutrition to grow seems a strange evolutionary adaptation for the deer. Although I suppose it is no more bewildering than any of a hundred other animal behaviors as the North Country goes through the survival testing time of winter: the squirrel burying its cache of walnuts, the bobolink migrating 12,000 miles to Argentina, the woodchuck hibernating deep underground.
But stumbling upon a shed antler with four points and heavy beam has a special fascination for me, maybe because it is evidence that the grandfather buck I have been watching the past three years has survived another hunting season and will sire more fawns carrying his grand genetic strain next fall. Or maybe because it is a symbol signifying the cycle of life goes on, and with the coming of spring there will be renewal of all things wild – antler growth included.
We are not avid hunters of antler sheds, but there must be a couple dozen on the shelf, tokens we have collected in our woods over the course of thirty years. All have been surprise finds, something we encountered unexpectedly on a walk while we were most engaged in breaking the boredom of a winter week or reveling in the first explosions of fecund green growth in the spring.
This most recent find was the former. After a few shut-in days we were determined to burn off some restless energy, ours and the dogs’, with a hike though the draw on the east side of the farm.
The foot-deep snow base was not the best for a cross-country trek on snowshoes, but a warm front and a half-inch of freezing rain was forecast for the afternoon, to be followed by three of four days of near-zero temperatures, which would convert this favorite snowshoe path to an Olympic-surface downhill ski run. When we can avoid it, we choose not to compete in the snowshoe slalom events, especially when the flags marking the turns on the course are four-inch elm trees and there are several moguls.
The skies were clear, the sun was bright, and there was just a whisper of wind as we started down the wooded slope, a steep limestone bluff that borders the driveway. For a few hours the skies would be clear, the sun would be shining brightly, and there would be just a whisper of wind. The snow was not deep enough for us to walk over fences and downed trees; those obstacles would require some nimble twists and turns, maneuvers accomplished much better by my beautiful blond wife who is more lithe and flexible than I. She falls less frequently, too, but I contend that is because the dogs step on my snowshoes more often than hers, a trick that always sends me sprawling and seems to entertain them enormously.
Another downside of snowshoeing with dogs is that you seldom see much wildlife, which goes into hiding with the noisy approach of a couple French spaniels plunging through crusty snow. But this was a day for exercise, not observation.
We were studying deer trails and following a set of coyote tracks along the bottom of the draw when I looked ahead and saw Abbey, our two-year-old spaniel, nosing something through the snow. She tentatively picked it up and looked back at me, wondering whether she should fetch it in or carry it along for the rest of the walk. The debate was resolved when she and Sasha, age twelve, began to dispute possession.
“Quit squabbling and bring that here!” I said. And the two of them brought to hand a gleaming four-point antler.
The buck must have shed it only hours earlier. The white surface of the knob where it attached to his head was still fresh, and also quite aromatic according to Abbey and Sasha. There was not a trace of ice or snow in any of the scrapes or fissures, and more important there were no pits from mice chewing on the mineral-rich bone. If an antler has been on the ground even for a day or two the mice are invariably at work on it.
Glistening in the sun, heavy and unbalanced in my hand, three long tines and one short one, the beam about half the width of my wrist, this was one of the bigger shed antlers we had found in the past few years. We located the buck’s tracks and followed them a quarter mile, hoping to find the second antler. We gave up the hunt when his trail showed he had turned east and gone up a steep slope toward our neighbor’s cornfield at the top of the draw. We talked about back-tracking and finding his bedding place from the night before, but we have seldom found a matching set of antlers when they were not within a few yards of one another.
Another quarter mile through the woods to the base of our driveway, and bit longer trudge up the drive with snowshoes slung over our shoulders and we were back in the warm kitchen enjoying cups of coffee and homemade cinnamon rolls. So much for burning off some holiday-accumulated fat with exercise.
Winter came roaring back that night, thirty mile-per-hour winds driving freezing rain and snow. We watched the storm blow itself out by next evening, leaving us several hours of work with snow shovels and ice chippers, followed by hauling buckets of sand to scatter on the walkways and driveway; on icy weeks, our driveway is a challenge even for four-wheel drive vehicles.
But that is tomorrow. Tonight the antler lies on the table, beautiful in its own right and even more beautiful, on this freezing night, as a reminder that after the storm we will have more days of halcyon weather in February and March for winter walks.