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On The Trail

On the Trail: Transitions

Don’t let this hot summer weather deceive you. Fall is slipping in. I have felt it for a while now, seen it in the swamps, the sumacs.

Just this week I spotted a nice, full, bitter but tasty triangular bunch of blue wild grapes, and the sight and scent immediately transported me back some 30 years to an old Williamsburg haunt that was, before the Audubon Society took over, my favorite partridge covert, also a productive spot to hunt turkeys and deer. I knew the old codgers who owned the farm, shared many Connecticut Valley genes with them and actually helped the old hunchback with chores when I caught him out in the act. Brothers in their 80s, they qualified as what used to be called hayseeds, yes they were, and I guess they “didn’t want none of them damn McMansions” built on their old scenic pastures. So today, despite the constant presence of coyotes, bobcats, fisher cats, hawks, eagles, owls and many other natural pests and predators that call it home and wreak havoc on singy-songy birds, you can’t even walk your freakin’ dogs through the mostly wooded 535-acre parcel. Yes sir, times change — and not always for the better. In fact, I’m not even sure the “protected” birds have it better.

But let’s not get wanderin’ off. It’s time to return to those wild deep-blue grapes, about the size of buckshot pellets, not the only harbingers of fall I’ve been passing daily. How about the tiny black cherries that have started to accumulate underfoot? Smaller than the grapes and probably a shade darker, they started showing up this week and there seems to be no shortage. The same cannot be said for apples, though. No, judging from the trees I pass on my daily rambles, plus the one in my front yard, in all five or six mature trees, my opinion is that apples aren’t nearly as plentiful as last year. Under trees where my dogs daily ate to their heart’s content for weeks last year, in recent days they’re lucky to find one apple during furious, competitive searches to be the first to a random green one. Yeah, I know, perhaps deer or bears or something else is beating them to the site overnight, but I don’t think so; more like apples are few and far between. We’ll see what develops in the highlands. I’d guess it’s similar, but you never know. Maybe just one of those “spotty” years.

As for hard mast, well, that appears to be a different story. Acorns have been scattered for weeks along my path, and now, this week, sporadic hickory nuts have begun appearing alongside. I would from casual observation rate the nut crop thus far as “available,” with visible butternuts still clinging to their branches. Perhaps beechnuts are clinging, too, though I can’t see them; however, I can say I have yet to see one on the ground. My guess is that those thorny beechnut husks will soon start falling. Maybe the first indication of their presence will be a flinching or limping reaction of a dog that’s stepped squarely on one in the tall grass down by the Christmas trees. So, there you have it — my bottomland assessment of the hard and soft mast crop from the fertile Greenfield Meadows.

As for the uplands, which I have visited less but prefer, I have nothing current to report because I haven’t hiked the ridges in a month or more. I’ll get up there soon, though, trust me, because I’m always looking for a good excuse to venture off to the high and mighty hardwood spines shading massive outcropping of ledge, close to heaven in my world.

But enough mast assessments, let’s catch up on a few things I’ve let linger. First, don’t be alarmed by the sound of rifle-fire in the woods near you. The first three-week segment of bear season opened Tuesday and will continue through Sept. 20. The second three-week segment opens on Nov. 3 and closes on Nov. 22, a dreadful day in American history. The 2014 harvest will depend on hunting pressure, which is never as dense as state wildlife officials would like to see it. As a result, our bear population keeps growing and spilling into places too near suburbia, which can over time become an issue to the men and women hired to manage wildlife. Unless something’s changed, the experts would like to see 12 percent of the population killed annually by hunters, who have never approached that number. Thus the burgeoning population. The problem is that bear hunters have become a rare breed, just a sliver of the ever-diminishing statewide hunter pool; that and the fact that harvesting a bear is work with a capital W, especially after the animal is dead and the successful hunter must get right to the strenuous butchering chores unless there’s a walk-in cooler available, which few have access to. Without the luxury of a cool place to hang the carcass for “seasoning,” a bear must be skinned and butchered quickly to avoid spoilage of meat in summer temperatures. And that doesn’t even address the job of dragging a large, heavy carcass out of the woods in summer weather, also no picnic when dragging dead-weight on the end of a rope.

Speaking of large, potentially dangerous beasts of the forest, we had a July 16 “downtown” Conway cougar sighting by Nancy Bovio, who lives on Elm Street. Alerted by her Scottie dog’s indoor barking, Ms. Bovio looked outside expecting the deer that had been regular visitors and was surprised to see a big tawny cat with a long tail. So confident was she of her sighting that she posted it prominently in the Aug. 14 edition of “The Visitor,” a community newsletter published by a local church, asking others to be on the lookout: “Crossing our yard near the woods was what I believe was a mountain lion,” she wrote. “It was too large for a bobcat and had a long tail. It was tan, sleek, about 6 ft. long and 3 ft. tail.”

Hmmmm? Imagine that! These local cougar sightings just keep on coming. Yes siree. Just keep a comin’. And with that, off I go … back to fascinating local history I’ve been researching but hesitate to bore you with.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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