December 3rd, 2007

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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The Last Walk
By Richard A. Taylor

PROLOGUE:

Most everyone can recall at least one defining moment of emotion or sentiment that's lodged deep in their memory.

One that -

Touched their heart.

Stirred their soul.

Lives on forever.

This may be one.

The Last Walk

It started about seven or eight years ago, with rumors that our hunt club land lease might be subject to some future logging by a local well known company. Shortly thereafter, we were informed that a small portion of the eight hundred plus acres would be clear cut; but, not to worry because it would be on the far back side of the property that wasn't hunted by very many members.

I had joined the club the year we first moved into the area, having been invited by my neighbor, who was a charter member from the clubs inception a few years before.

The past twenty-seven years were filled with many memorable times shared, first with my oldest son, and later on with my brother-in-law and a few friends. While deer hunting was our main chosen pastime, squirrels and sometimes turkeys also had our attention from time to time.

Work began in earnest that year and we could first hear and soon were able to see the logging operation at the rear of the highest hillside. An early scouting trip that year revealed exactly what a clear-cut operation left in its wake. Virtually nothing except slabs, chips and scarred earth that turned to muck in the first hard rain.

Rumors again spread of the future outcome of the operation and it was soon verified that our lease would be terminated the following year and, all but the steepest ravines would be clear-cut and supposedly replanted with harvestable pines. The large local company, we were told, now had a fourteen or fifteen year lease on the property from the out-of-state landlord.

The following year brought the clear cutting operation about half way towards its goal and most of the hunt club's membership had already abandoned the property in anticipation that hunting opportunities this last year would be sparse or even nil.

I just couldn't give up without one last season on the mountain that had provided so many pleasant memories for the past twenty-seven years.

The next to last day, a fairly warm November Friday, found me by myself in the woods. My brother-in-law and I had always hunted the first three days of the opening deer season, which was past by a week or so and my son was away at the time.

Climbing to almost the pinnacle of the property, I decided to traverse around a steep shale bank and set up half way down a hillside that had proved fruitful for us many times in the past. We always referred to the shale bank in sort of a joking way; but, the truth was that none of us desired to try the two to three hundred foot roll to the bottom should we accidentally stumble while traversing the narrow trail around it.

It was fairly quiet walking as long as you didn't dislodge any debris; but it required the very careful placing of one foot directly in front of the other. It was really nothing more than a narrow deer trail around the ridge. When transporting a deer along it the rule was simple. Whichever person stumbled and fell, he'd better get a good grip on the antlers or legs, because the only guarantee he wouldn't be taking the long bumpy trip to the bottom was that his partner was supposed to immediately fall to the butt down position and try to dig in his heels. There was scarce brush on the shale bank anyway and any attempt to grab something wasn't likely to work.

Having negotiated the bank once again, you then entered a small pine thicket that shortly branched out onto a short level shelf and you were back into a good stand of hardwoods.

I set up on the shelf and was able to see down to the bottom of the large ravine in front, about two hundred yards across to a power line right of way and to the two thickets at either end of the ravine.

Nothing but squirrels stirred as the morning turned from darkness to bright splashes of sunlight filtering down through the remaining leaves.

About 10:00 am, the slightest rustle of something moving through the leaves was barely perceptible across the ravine towards the right side of the power line roadway. It was difficult to see in that direction, because of the direct diffuse sunlight, and virtually impossible to see through my riflescope.

Slowly, very slowly a huge deer appeared out of the thicket behind the right of way and started making his way down a trail that I knew traversed the entire ravine from top right to bottom left.

The only way to see him fairly decently was to shade my eyes with my right hand held beside my cap bill. Not having my binoculars that day, this was the only alternative.

My .270 rifle was sighted in for a hundred yards; but, it was equipped with a "compensator" scope that could easily be dialed for a point of impact out to about five hundred yards by simply rotating a knob on the top. So, the two hundred yard range at first sighting wouldn't have been a problem. My big problem was the scope wasn't set on "see under" mounts; so, I couldn't use the open iron sights in place of the scoped one. Because of the sun in the scope problem the only way to get a decent shot was to try and inch forward and stand up next to a medium sized tree about ten feet in front of me.

As the deer barely moved along the trail it was apparent that something was bothering him. Then, it finally dawned on me. He and I both probably suffered from the same malady, arthritic knees. He would only walk a short hobbling distance before stopping and slowly looking around. Something else stood out on his left side just behind the shoulder; about a foot long light colored streak. Perhaps a scar from an old battle, fence scrape or a bullet graze.

As I edged to the sunless side of the tree and put the scope on him, his magnificent rack finally came into full view. It appeared that one could literally sit down between the beams and not be stuck in one's "sitter." His muzzle was as gray as my beard and we both had a full face of whiskers. It wasn't really cold by this time of day; yet, his breath plumed out in short clouds from each nostril. His breathing seemed labored even though he had yet to move at other then a slow shuffle. His life cycle seemed about to come full circle in the not too distant future.

If he stayed on the trail, I knew that he would be fully exposed in a small clearing just before the briar thicket at the bottom of the ravine and it would cut our distance by almost half.

He started his slow deliberate walk once again, and approaching the last clearing, stopped in it just short of the thicket. A streak of sunlight penetrated the forest and illuminated his upper body, glinting off his antlers. With some effort he swung his head up towards me and I found myself looking once more at this majestic animal.

Then it occurred to me.

This was probably the last walk he was taking.

I lowered the rifle and placed it against the tree.

He turned and was lost to the shadows.

EPILOGUE:

The following year I had occasions to pass the road at the bottom of the mountain many times on the way to fish a nearby stream. The clear-cut progress was visible more each trip as it marched over the crest and denuded the mountaintop and spread ever lower. I had found another hunt club by now; however, every trip and view of the old one was painful.

There is no Sunday hunting allowed in my state. But, one Sunday I found myself between muzzle and rifle season with a desire for one more look at the property. As we were about in the middle of the "rut" the chance of seeing some deer might also be possible. This time I remembered to bring the binoculars.

A drive to the base of the road leading to the mountaintop revealed the gated entrance open and I decided to drive through as there wasn't a "No Trespassing" sign affixed to it.

Passing the few lower homesteads, previously sold from the original tract, the cutting operation was soon in view.

The term "clear cutting" really does mean clear! There was not a sign of anything green as far as I could see except for the areas that were too steep to get the machinery into. Driving to the topmost area, I parked and walked over the debris and decided to see how far down into the big ravine they reached.

They had cut almost all the way to the bottom by coming around the upper end of the ravine and entering that way. After surveying the mess I promised myself this would never happen to any woods that I might be privileged to own someday. I don't care what management processes are deemed desirable or not.

It was time to go for the last time.

I looked once more towards the bottom and saw a small movement at the edge of the uncut woods. Bringing the binoculars up, a good-sized doe came into view. She was soon followed by about four or five more of similar size all working their way along the cut. Soon, they all turned and began looking towards the way they had come.

First a foot, then a little of the white chest and finally the entire fore front of a large buck appeared. The "rut" really was in full swing and he had already gathered a harem for the season. From the size and antler mass he would be passing along some really good genes this year. They all continued working the edge and moved towards the lower end of the thicket. Soon all but the buck filtered into the woods and he stood there for a moment. He half turned, his left side exposed, and then was gone in two steps.

Wishing I'd parked at the bottom of the hill, I went back to my truck and drove off the mountain.

There was a short light-colored streak on the bucks left side just behind his shoulder.

Neither of us had taken "The Last Walk" yet. ~ Richard A. Taylor, Oct. 22, 2007


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