By John Blankenship
November and wind are as inseparable as my spirit and the places where I can sit and savor the rush of feelings they can bring. It’s that transition time of not yet winter, but no longer the gentle period that separate the seasons. It’s the smell of wood smoke, old friendships rekindled and new ones made. And, through it all, there’s the sense of ritual.
I can spend a whole year and not listen, feel or taste the wind. November is different. I hear the rustle of a few dead leaves at the top of aspens and birches, which can both sadden and yet exhilarate me. They seem to mourn the passing of another season, dried bones rattling on nature’s wind chimes. For a big-game hunter, they can keep the senses alive when they mimic the sounds of approaching hooves.
Life as many know it ceases during the week of Thanksgiving in the Mountain State. And not just because of family gatherings and roast turkey dinners.
It’s also the opening of buck firearms season across the state, and if this has to be explained to you, you probably won’t understand it anyway.
“A lot of people out here plan their lives around the deer season,” said Mason Hensley, a full-time maintenance and repair man with a local appliance store. “If you need your chimney cleaned, a plumber or your car tuned up,” he said, “you get it done before the deer season opens, because after that, a lot of guys disappear.”
Though it has become something of a cult event, the opening of deer season can inflame the passions of the hardcore woodsman/hunters in southern West Virginia and beyond.
So what drives these passions is obviously not the kill, but the hunt: the hopes, the search, the detective work, the friendships between hunting partners, always while exploring wild places.
Prospects in many areas are only fair at best for the opener and the week that follows, according to game biologists. In trying to solve the mystery of where deer go when they seem to disappear during hunting season, researchers have come up with some startling information — they really don’t go anywhere.
An unusual phenomenon takes place after the first week of deer season — the whitetails that boldly stood in wheat and bean fields in the early evening all autumn have vanished. Deer that were once everywhere are now nowhere. It’s a phenomenon so baffling that hunters assume the local whitetails have simply migrated to some mythical refuge guarded by a ring of No Hunting signs and a landowner who hand-feeds the local deer herd. The truth is far less mysterious.
And the answer is simple, but it’s one that may surprise, and even disappoint, most hunters: They don’t go anywhere. According to numerous studies conducted by biologists throughout the country, deer become completely different animals once you and your army of hunting buddies enter the woods. Their daily patterns shift, and they have become craftier, and the bucks that have already survived one or two seasons know exactly where to hunker down and wait out the cover of darkness.
Harvesting a mature whitetail buck is exciting, to be sure, but so are the hunting challenges and the experience of being one with nature, of simply being alive.
In November, I’m forced to feel the wind and embrace its challenge as it looks for nooks and crannies in my armor. It blushes my cheeks and brings my sense of touch alive once more.
And, there are times when I could swear I smell its essence, as if it were a living creature that surrounds me.
At other times, the wind carries smells of cedar, hemlock and moss dredged up from the floor of hidden valleys beyond the next ridge.
Or, perhaps it carries the scent of lakes and marshes where, with autumn’s chill, it has churned up the water. It has a faint scent of fish and vegetation.
November’s winds are a hunter’s winds: one part sadness for the understanding that all life passes; one part joy at knowing that you’re truly alive in the moment. And for me, that’s November deer season. Tread softly and safely, my friends.
Top o’ the morning!
— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org