My plans to take time off from work were squelched by too many year-end goings on at work. So I drove up to Connecticut last Friday night to get one full day of hunting in this past Saturday.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the highways were regularly quiet. I-95 in Connecticut is normally a slow-lurching snake of chrome and misery, so to breeze north was a rare treat. I made good time in getting to my friend Steve’s house. Steve is an accomplished hunter and he is generous enough to let me stay at his house when I go hunting.
I was up before 5:30 a.m. the next day. Hunting or running the Tunnel to Towers 5k are the only reasons a anyone should be willingly awake before 6 a.m. on a weekend. I was ready and out the door without too much problem. Unfortunately I accidentally set off my car’s car alarm in the driveway of my friend’s house, waking him and at least one member of his family.
I was the only one pulling into the small area for cars at the unmarked entrance to the Cockaponset State Forest on Little City Road in Killingworth, Connecticut. I didn’t see any other human beings for the next 10 hours and that was a good thing. I saw and heard evidence of people, but all the time outside in the daylight it was just me and my quest to take a deer home.
Spending time in and around the natural world is a basic human need. The science is in, and there are significant health benefits to spending time around more trees and fewer people. Human beings are not meant to live without experiencing some part of the natural world on a regular basis.
I made my way into the woods. It was still dark, but a bright moon provided good light. Once it was past the legal hunting time I loaded up and kept making my way quietly to my chosen hunting spot.
I got very lucky the first time I staked out this area and it and it has the natural attributes that would make it a good location to begin with. It is a natural overlook with greenery for deer to eat and water for them to drink.
But nothing doing. While I heard gunshots going off in the distance frequently and thought maybe some deer would get chased my way, nothing doing. At midday, I decided to search out someplace different. I started by making my way to my old spot, at another overlook that is an even higher perch. It was there where I took my first deer several years ago.
The area has improved, in that the stream that was dried up a few years ago is back and flowing nicely. But it has attracted other, less ethical hunters. Someone left a camping chair and their garbage on this natural overlook, a major faux pas in the hunting world. I thought it would be justified to take this chair out of the woods, as punishment to whatever entitled rube left it there along with their refuse. Instead I moved on, making my way deeper into the forest.
And as I marched through an overgrown passage between trees, I finally saw a deer. He or she was not far away, but had seen or heard me first and was on the move, picking up the pace and getting out of good range before I could even raise my shotgun and get in my sights.
I paused, hoping some other deer may come along on its heels, but no luck. I hiked a bit more and found a new spot that looked over the growth where the deer I saw would have exited into a more open area, and if any deer had some along I would be in a good position.
The last two hours of the day passed by slowly. Someone in the distance fired off a lot of rounds; they were either target shooting or had come upon some prehistoric giant mega deer that took ten shotgun slugs to bring down.
I started to make my way out of the woods towards the end of the day, hoping to maybe get lucky on the way. When legal hunting ended, I unloaded and found my way back to my car.
Another hunting trip without some game to take home, but time in the woods is always time well spent.
President’s Day weekend has developed into a great family tradition of going to Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, which is about an hour and a half drive north of New York City. People who live north of Albany may not consider that upstate but city dwellers have the right to call it “upstate” if it’s one inch north of the Five Boroughs.
Hiking and enjoying the outdoors should be done in all seasons. While it may be tempting to be house-bound during the colder months, too much time in doors will lead to a stifling madness and rotting sloth.
Among the activities there are guided hikes around the large Mohonk Preserve that surround the sprawling yet still rustic resort. Mohonk is surrounded by beautiful wooded mountains. My Father-in-Law and I went on a hike designed to track white-tailed deer. I thought maybe I could pick up some hunting tips that would serve me well later in the year.
We did see some deer tracks and learned a good bit about the eating habits and other behaviors of delicious deer, but there was a lot more to see. Our group’s guide, who is the official naturalist of Mohonk, gave us a lot more information that was useful and some that caught me by surprise. The one piece of information that struck me as particularly hopeful was this one:
When Mohonk was founded in 1869, the founders could look for miles in each direction and not see any trees. Almost all of the surrounding countryside had been clear cut. In the early 1900s, Daniel Smiley, from the family that founded Mohonk, noted the sighting of a porcupine on the surrounding woods, meaning that after 50 years of recovering, the forest was now healthy enough to support porcupines living there.
To see the surrounding countryside now one would think that it has been left in pristine condition since European settlers first came to these shores. But not so. The demands of a growing country took its toll on the natural beauty that we take for granted today, and the beauty of upstate New York is the result of a concerted effort of many years ago.
People fought to rebuild and restore these woods, many of them did so knowing that they would not live long enough to see the full benefits of their work. Today in New York State Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, larger than Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, and the Everglades combined.
It is a sign that with effort and time, we can recover and rebuild. That with enough planning and care, even a ravaged and abused land will recover if allowed. The Earth may be very troubled, but the Earth is also very resilient.
At a time when the country and world around us appears in total conflagration with unending violence and dysfunction, evidence of our ability to renew and improve our surroundings may appear to be in short supply. But the verdant areas not far outside our teeming metropolis is a point of evidence that people living in divisive times can still unite and do great things that will pay off for future generations.
I look forward to going hunting every year. Last year, after two years of getting nothing, I got a small button buck in the Connecticut woods. It gave me a great feeling of accomplishment and I returned to the woods this year with a much-bolstered sense of confidence.
But a deer was not in the cards this year. This was the first season I’ve gone hunting when I didn’t even SEE a single deer in the two whole days I was in the woods. Even in the previous hunts when I came home empty-handed, I had at least seen deer in the woods.
I saw deer while I was driving to Connecticut and back. There is no shortage of deer in the world. The woods of the suburbs and country are still sick with the beautiful beasts. And I have a good spot as well. My favorite hunting spot is a bluff that overlooks a healthy slice of woods. I’m elevated and out sight. It has given me many chances to get deer.
My friend Steve, a very experienced hunter who has taught me a lot about hunting, said the deer were moving differently this year. It was windy on one day we were out and deer don’t like to move around when it’s windy—the wind carries their scent to potential predators. Steve said that some years that’s just what happens. You can sit for hours and days not see nothing. That’s hunting.
Hunting is a noble venture, and it requires a lot of patience and discipline. And that’s actually one of the best things about it. Hunting means you have to be silent and quietly observe nature for many hours at a time.
The first day I went out this year things were cold and windy. Leaves falling from the trees and swaying branches will sometimes catch your eye. Your mind can play tricks on you and you’ll see deer in every movement of the trees or leaves. You’ll hear a sound in the distance and think it may be the sound of some game approaching. It will turn out to be nothing but the wind.
Every clump of brush in the distance could be a missed chance at a shot. I found myself scoping in on things just to maintain my aiming acuity and in case these shaded areas of the woods turned out to be a delicious venison.
The second day I went out was about a week later and it was the last day of the hunting season. Snow had fallen and the woods were blanketed with a layer of white. There were fresh deer tracks not far from my regular spot. I got there plenty early and stayed quiet. I still saw nothing. It was beautiful to see the woods covered in snow, even seeing different animal tracks in the snow made the trip worthwhile.
Steve tells me that hunting is all about time in the woods. The more time you spend in the woods, the better hunter you become.
I’ll add that more time in the woods makes you a better person as well. Everyone needs some quiet time to contemplate nature. Everyone needs hours at a time in the outdoors where you don’t speak at all. You are quiet and watching and waiting. The peaceful quiet is its own reward, and may be your only reward that day. Sometimes that’s enough.
Summer is a traditional time to go to the beach and be near the water, and New York City has 14 miles of public beaches where you can contract skin cancer while being eaten alive by horse flies. I never understood why people would want to go to a sunny place and let the sun burn them during the hottest time of the year.
But believe it or not, New York City also has woods and you would do well to spend some time in the shade this summer. There’s something immensely satisfying about going for a walk in the woods and knowing you are still within the five boroughs of New York City.
For more than 10 years I lived in Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. I was lucky enough to live right across one of the wooded sections of Inwood Hill Park, which contains the last piece of natural forest in Manhattan as well as Manhattan’s last surviving salt marsh. It is also the highest natural point of elevation in the city.
I moved into Inwood on a Saturday in the summer and the following Monday went on a jog in the park before going to work. Not familiar with the park and its paths yet, I became lost. I couldn’t believe it that I was lost in the woods in Manhattan, but I was. I eventually found my way home and wasn’t too late to work, but Inwood Hill Park remains a treasure with lots wooded paths to walk. Even on weekends in the spring and summer when the park is typically crowded, you can find some solitude in the woods.
Be careful though, there are no shortage of shady characters who know this as well, and while I was living in Inwood a young Julliard student named Sarah Fox was murdered in a wooded part of the park one afternoon while she was jogging.
Inwood Hill Park may be one of the best and most overlooked wooded parks in the city but it’s not the only place to cool off in the shade.
Now that I am in Queens, I live not far from several parks that have real woods and wooded trails.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I decided we would go to Alley Pond Park. My wife, who grew up in Queens, knew it as a place high school students would go to drink alcohol under the cover of darkness. The park is the second largest public park in Queens (Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which doesn’t have dense woodlands, is the largest).
Alley Pond Park would be difficult to reach via public transportation as it is not near any subway lines; you’d have to take the bus if you don’t have a car or can’t walk or bike there. We found a parking space in a small parking lot that looks like it overflows during busy times. We put our twin daughters in a jogging stroller and managed to navigate it through much of the wooded paths in the park. Of course, being in New York City, the paths in the park were sometimes paved and sometimes led to steep staircases that we dared not traverse with a stroller, but we were always able to turn around and find another suitable path that would let us enjoy the woods a little more.
We saw lots of birds and even a rabbit. There were plenty of mosquitoes as we got near swamp areas of the park. We came across other strollers in the woods but like Inwood Hill Park, one can achieve a certain solitude in the woods even on days that the park is crowded.
No matter what borough you reside in, there is no shortage of wooded parks in New York. It will be cooler and less crowded in the shade.
New York City has no legal places to hunt and it’s a good thing that we can’t start shooting geese in Central Park or pigeons in Prospect Park. Although one could probably bag a nice wild turkey in Inwood Hill Park if you’re patient enough, it would be a bad idea to take your shotgun on the A train.
But there are plenty of opportunities for city folk to get into hunting. I’m originally from the Big Apple, have been back in the five boroughs 15 years and I’m hooked on hunting for good now. There is fine hunting land upstate, on Long Island and in New Jersey and Connecticut.
Hunting is good for the environment and will get you fresh, free-range meat. I only became interested in hunting over the last few years. I would be hypocrite if I was willing to eat meat and wasn’t willing to go get it. If you’re willing to eat it, you should be willing to kill it.
But the first step to start hunting is to take a free hunter safety class, which you can do throughout New York City. I took both my gun hunting and bow hunting safety courses at different places in Queens.
There are gun ranges in every borough of New York City, so if you can get a gun permit (which takes some doing—New York City’s gun laws are unconstitutionally strict and permit costs can run higher than buying a firearm), you can practice close to home if you live in the Big Apple. But you can also borrow a gun or a bow from a friend who lives outside the city. I go to a friend’s place in Connecticut, which is near a state forest.
Hunting means you have to be alone in the woods with your cell phone off. You have to be very quiet and observe everything carefully. You will see notice things you haven’t noticed before and wouldn’t notice if you were hiking, camping or fishing. It requires mega amounts of patience, of sitting or standing very still for hours at a time in hopes of seeing a deer.
I went two years of hunting without getting anything and coming heartbreakingly close to taking deer. That was hours every day for several days in a row, getting lost and coming out of the woods empty handed but still loving it.
My first year, I was in a perfect position on an elevated ridge when two large deer walked by. When you first see deer that you have a chance to get, your adrenaline soars and your heart pounds furiously and you can hardly get the animal in your sites. I had a great shot on one of the deer and I was following them along. At the last second I stepped on a twig and the two deer bolted, their fluffy white asses taunting me as they ran away.
The next year, I again had a great spot when three deer walked almost directly in front of me. When I moved ever so slightly to get a good shot on one, they spotted me. One of them screamed (deer can scream and sound like the Muppet Beaker) and my chance was lost again. I didn’t see another deer the rest of that season, and got lost in the woods, three times. It was still fun.
And this year I made plans well in advance and was in the woods on the first day of the season. I was in a good position and I saw a deer only about a half hour into legal hunting. I shot at it twice, convinced I got a kill shot, but had only lightly grazed the beast. Hours later, after a fruitless search for a dead deer that wasn’t, I was confident that my day was over and was content to laze and doze on my old ridge from my first year.
Later on, early in the afternoon, at time when deer are not usually active, two more came to me. I managed to get off a solid shot on a small button buck. It went down quickly and I gave it extra time to die. I saw where he fell and waited 15 minutes. I found it, feeling proud and sad at the same time.
My good friend Steve, who got me into hunting, helped me greatly and without his help I would have come home empty handed again. He was hunting nearby and came to help and take my photo with the deer. He showed me some of the finer points of field dressing and soon I was ready to go.
The deer looked small, but didn’t feel very small while I was dragging it out of the woods. In a few days I’ll return to Connecticut and collect a hefty box of delicious venison from a butcher. Our freezer will be full for at least the first part of the winter. And I can’t wait to go back next year.