Sharing the trail with the big guns

| 27 Oct 2017 | 12:24

This is the best time to hit the trail. The air you suck down in big gulps is sweet and bracing, and the view through newly bare branches deepens to infinity.

But the woods are filled with armed men looking for a kill. I’m talking about deer hunters, of course. Amid a subdued palette of gray and rust, we slip-slide past one another warily, on paths obscured by new-fallen leaves.

Tom and I are always happy to see hunters. We prefer their company to, say, the silly trail runners who expect us to leap out of their way as they barrel past without greeting, insisting on keeping a steady cadence on unsteady paths, seeing little, hearing less, and treating the woods like a gym. Hunters, by contrast, are very much tuned into nature. Their success depends on knowing how to predict the weather, read the scrapes on a tree, track a blood trail, however faint, and find their way out of any bewildering tract of wilderness. And, unlike too many other gun-toters populating the country today, hunters are trained and adhere to the rules of safety with a nearly religious fervor. The fees they pay help preserve the woodlands we love to hike.

Tom hunted for years, a city boy taught how to handle a 30-30 by our country neighbors, who invited him on their family drives. In those days, opening day was a holiday rivaling Thanksgiving, which was just another feast in a string of such days. In between drives we noshed on pickled venison hearts and smoked eel, chocolate truffles and apple strudel. The camaraderie remained hearty from the lavish pre-dawn breakfasts to the last after-dinner sips of honey liqueur. Tempers remained in check even when tracking a wounded deer down a precipitous waterfall or across the Delaware in a hastily commandeered canoe. Gunfire filled the woods from dawn to dusk, and it was a game, for those of us still hanging out on the porch, to speculate after each volley which hunting party was getting its prize. The men’s beards were supposed to tell the tale -- unhindered growth was de rigueur until they bagged their limit. But hunting parties love fake outs and head games, so I found this method unreliable.

Laws prohibit the firing of guns near trails, and I’ve never seen a hunter doing anything on a trail except traveling. Still, encountering a hunter on a regular hiking trail can be unnerving to the uninitiated. They are larger than life, packing heat, yes, but also bulked up by insulated clothing, festooned with bullet clips and ammo pouches, licences and tags, and topped off with Siberia-ready hats with soaring earflaps. Most of all, their presence is announced by the retina-piercing hunter’s orange that must be worn in a prescribed amount, a habit hikers would be wise to emulate.

Every fall we mark up our calendar with the big game seasons in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, so that we know what we’re in for. If it’s opening day in New York, say, we’ll hike in New Jersey, which starts a little later. For a week or two it’s big game season in all three states, so we’ll pick the state where hunting season is nearest to the end, when participation generally flags -- but not on the last day, when empty-handed hunters get desperate.

My hunter orange habit started with my first country year, and my 1980s-era foam insulated hat from Bass Pro Shops has never dimmed. I wear it proudly and, yes, smugly, as if endowed with magical protective properties. Fellow hikers gasp when they see my hat. It registers as a code orange emergency alert. Are you a hunter? they’ll ask, breathlessly. Is it hunting season? Are there hunters around here? No, yes, and yes, I’ll answer calmly. And that fluffy white hat with the big pom-pom you’re wearing? Hate to tell you, but it makes your head look like a whitetail’s, well, tail.

I watch the panic rise in their eyes. Some get a crazy look, like they’d swipe the neon off my noggin if they could only get away with it. Which they probably can, in the middle of the woods, when two sets of hikers face off, armed with nothing but our walking sticks.


No hunter’s orange in your closet? At Sam’s Point you can borrow a neon vest with the price of your parking ticket.

Here’s a favorite loop trail that’s especially glorious when the blueberries turn crimson against the dwarf pines:

Trailhead: Sam’s Point Nature Preserve, Cragsmoor, N.Y.

Blazes: Follow the teal blazes of the Long Path to the 360-view at High Point. Follow High Point Carriage Road to loop back to the parking lot.

Length: 8-9 miles (a shorter loop is available)