COLUMN: Oh, deer, what a harrowing experience

Columnist recounts close encounter with group of deer, including one that was on thin ice

As we slide closer and closer towards the winter season, it is always a natural wonder to see how wildlife are adapting to the changes: Some species are already well into hibernation; others have migrated to areas of greater food source; and those species that remain have had to adapt as best they can to the cold and snow.

On a recent wander through a beautiful property on the Canadian Shield, I was looking for any telltale signs of resident wildlife. On that day, the snow had yet to arrive but the fallen leaves were frozen and walking was less than silent. As I crunched along, it was not too surprising that few critters were observed. One chickadee. One red squirrel.

A fisher had run across the road in front of me on the drive in, looking much like a black squirrel on steroids. Big, fast and obviously not wanting to spend any time getting its picture taken, it quickly disappeared into the thick conifer swamp. I had hoped this sighting would be a good omen of what else might be encountered, but alas, the woodlot remained silent and empty.

I had traversed over a high granite ridge and was making my way along the shore of a freshly frozen beaver pond, straining for maybe the sight of a beaver doing some last-minute food gathering. nope. But the newly formed ice had made exquisite patterns as the surface tension had hardened overnight; a dozen or so photos were easily made.

The edge of a beaver’s pond is often quite open, as the trees and shrubs have been removed. This extra sunlight encourages raspberry canes to grow in thick profusion. This thick profusion of raspberry canes makes walking difficult and easily masters the technique of untying boot laces. I stop, again, to retie the wayward laces.

As I began to straighten up, I heard a tree falling. It was a big tree, as the roar of the branches could be clearly heard as it snapped its way downward. Hmm, maybe it’s a large red oak or some other monster tree, as it sure took a long time to fall. And, um, it’s still falling, the cracking of branches getting louder, and closer. This ain’t right!

As I looked up the slope to the top of the rocky ridge, a bevy of deer burst over the rim, running full tilt. Frozen leaves were crushed as dead branches snapped. This was no tree coming to its final resting place.

The first three deer rocketed down the slope and blew past me by only a few metres. They had barely passed by and a fourth deer tagged along to join them, again at full gallop but heading directly at me. I swung behind a protective maple tree as this one did a mid-air pivot and dashed up the next slope to catch up with her compatriots. Wow. That was way cool! But wait, there’s more.

The fifth deer to break over the ridge was also on the run, but not quite as hell-bent as the first group. Her ears of her were up and her head was swiveling to catch a sound of the wayward family. Ever see a parent in a mall looking for the kids who were supposed to “stay right here until I get back?” Yeah, Mom’s not happy.

She paused for a moment, saw me, stood for a moment, allowing me to get a good photo, and then she was off, cutting hard right to intercept the kids who were now on the other side of the beaver pond, having crossed at the nearby dam. In a blink, she was gone from sight.

Well, now, I thought, that was certainly worth the walk over the hill, and a new crashing sound erupted just down the shore a ways. Mom had leapt out onto the ice to get across to the other side in a more direct route. Bad choice. She broke through the ice with a crushing “sploosh!”

While she was in my direct line of sight, I hesitated a moment, unsure as to just what I should do. Stay here and record the struggle? Dash over and try to pull her out of it? Let her drown and hope the coyotes will take advantage of an easy meal?

I decided to stay put and let nature play itself out. No sense in two of us drowning or succumbing to hypothermia. The camera came up and the shutter quickly clicked away.

It was obvious she could not reach firm bottom to launch herself upward, so she had to break the ice a few inches at a time by hitting it hard with her front feet. The sharp hooves had a tough time hitting with enough force to break ice with each stroke; it was exhausting just to watch her.

But she made it, finally. With the pond’s bottom now shallow enough, she hauled herself up and out to the shore. I thought perhaps she would stagger or pause to catch her breath, yet with barely a shake to dislodge the water droplets, she moved upslope a little ways and those mother ears were on full alert. “When I get my hands on those little brats…” And then she was off, over the oak-lined ridge and back to the deep forest.

While sitting on a log and debriefing myself on this experience, there came the realization deer can easily survive such missteps. Their fur in wintertime is much thicker than the summer pelage, and each strand is hollow. Hollow fur (which is also a trait of coyote fur) means good insulation and, as in this case, also provides good flotation. When the deer emerged from the water, she didn’t even look wet. Pissed off, yes, but not wet.

But now I was getting chilled, and hungry. Time to hoof it back to the car and transport myself out of this rugged landscape. Glad I don’t have to bed down with that team of youngsters tonight; going to be a round of cold shoulders, for sure.

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