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Jaywalking: On the hunt


Monday, December 03, 2018

I spent the final hour of daylight Friday afternoon leaning against an old apple tree in Colrain.

The tree was once cared for by former Greenfield High School basketball coach Bill Beauregard, who lived on a picturesque piece of land near what was once Fort Lucas, a fort used by the colonial militia during King George’s War in the mid-1700s. The apple tree had seen better days. Like all the other trees on the small orchards that were once Beauregard Orchards, the tree that I leaned against has no longer been cared for. Beauregard once picked apples and pressed cider at his orchard before passing away in 2012. His wife, Lorraine, still owns the land. Now, it’s overgrown, and many of the trees no longer produce fruit. Scrub has grown around the trees, although the guts of the orchard are still plenty visible.

That day, the tree was put to use once again as I stood as still as possible for nearly 60 minutes. It served as a blind for me. About 20 yards to my left, my father-in-law John Maguire stood next to another apple tree, resting his shotgun on a branch after a long day in the woods. We stood, listening for signs of life, deer in particular.

It was my first time ever hunting. I did not carry a gun, but was interested to see what it was all about after having written about it in the newspaper for two weeks every fall.

For much of the four hours that we spent in the woods that afternoon, the only signs of life were the occasional tracks left behind by some of the four men who spent two straight days hunting 300 to 400 acres of woods that were around Beauregard’s former orchard. The men convened at the home of Beauregard’s former neighbor, Tim Rice, he of the Rice Oil Company and Rice’s Ice businesses. After four hours walking around the woods near Rice’s home, Maguire and me trudged through the six inches or so of snow still on the ground in Colrain into the forlorn orchard for the final hours of daylight.

“Can you stand perfectly still for an hour?” Maguire asked.

“Sure,” I replied, before thinking the better of my answer, “At least I’ll try.”

I was instructed to stand next to a tree 20 yards from Maguire. He told me to stamp down the snow and scrub surrounding the tree just in case I did shift a little. I did as instructed, and then gently leaned against the tree. For the next hour, my head was on a swivel as I looked around for signs of life. Most of all, I listened, hoping I might hear the crunch of snow, the snap of a twig, or the rustle of some branches. In the distance, I could make out the hint sound of traffic I presumed was traveling along the Mohawk Trail. Snow gently fell from a gray sky, which was quickly turning dark. Various birds could occasionally be heard chirping, but aside from that, silence. It’s rare to be in a place so removed from humans that total silence can consume a person. Even if you walk into the woods, the sounds of your own movement can take away from the totality of the silence that envelopes you when you are standing still in the woods. I initially thought standing still for an hour might be boring, but instead, I found it to be the best part of the afternoon.

It was something that Maguire had alluded to prior to leaving. He explained that hunting was much more than killing to him and many others. In fact, killing an animal was the least enjoyable part of hunting, albeit a necessary one. It’s an ancient art, that is cathartic in a sense. Throughout the day, Maguire spoke about seeing nature in a way that most people don’t get a chance to. One such encounter came recently while Maguire sat in a tree stand and watched as a doe walked into view nearby. He did not have a doe permit, which are awarded via a lottery to a specific number of hunters each year. So he sat and watched the doe, which stood still for 20 minutes staring off in one direction. Eventually, it walked off in another direction. Soon, another doe walked up to nearly the same spot and stood for 25 minutes staring in the same direction as the previous doe. Suddenly, the first doe came back and the two touched noses before walking back in the direction they initially came from.

“There was something they didn’t like that way,” he said.

He has seen all sorts of wildlife since he began hunting as a child and still sees new things. One of those childhood friends, Billy Casey, who now lives in Foxborough, was also at Rice’s for the two-day event, along with his son, Brian Casey, who now lives in West Roxbury. The four men got together early Thursday morning and hunted throughout the day, and then got back together on Friday for another outing. In previous years, the four men and others have gone on the two-day hunt at the Quabbin Reservoir, but this year they did not go because the Quabbin only opened two of the five zones to hunting, which limited the number of hunters allowed in the area. Most years, the Quabbin opens four of the five zones (keeping one closed on a rotating basis each year).

“Guys weren’t seeing a lot of deer so they only opened two segments this year,” Maguire explained.

Rice said that while the Quabbin is a great area for deer, he also believes that many of the animals sense that something is awry during the two-day hunt and seem to bed down for the two days, which can make them tough to find. Because no one can enter the Quabbin during the rest of the year, the deer can get spooked at the appearance of so many humans.

“They don’t see people for 363 days and then there’s headlights everywhere for two days,” he said.

The four men did not harvest any deer during the two days, although they did see several. Only Brian had a doe tag, so the other three men had to “put antlers” on any deer they spotted, which means they had to look through their scope to make sure they were viewing bucks before they could legally shoot them. On Thursday night, Maguire spotted a doe from his stand but could not shoot it. It eventually walked off, but came back into view from a further distance away. Or at least he thought. He did not initially look back at it through his scope, but soon realized it appeared to be larger than the first deer he saw. When he looked through his scope, it was in fact a buck, but he had little time to prepare his shot, and at 150 yards away, he missed the one shot he took before the buck was gone.

On Friday, Brian Casey sat in a stand and was alerted over radio that the men had “jumped” two does that were headed in his direction. They came into view but were moving quickly, and he fired twice, but what he hit was not a deer.

“I killed a branch,” he said as the other men laughed.

That was another aspect of the day that stood out. The camaraderie of the men. You had two life-long friends in Maguire and Billy Casey, a father-son tandem, and Rice, who was Maguire’s former boss and took up hunting 10 years ago. He’s learned a lot about the sport from his former employee, who he now calls a friend. Maguire was also hunting with his son John on Saturday.

And it brought Maguire and me together for an afternoon. When we first set out after eating sandwiches and homemade chicken noodle soup prepared by Rice’s wife Elise, Maguire and me began walking and soon found a fresh set of tracks in the snow. We began to follow the tracks, stopping every so often to look and listen. Maguire pointed out rubs on small trees, which are made when a deer rubs against a tree and secretes oils from near its eyes that mark its territory. By the time we were an hour or two into our walk, I was picking them out throughout the woods.

After following the tracks for a while, we decided to give up and work our way toward the orchard, which was where Maguire wanted to end our afternoon. It left me wondering exactly how close we came to the deer we were tracking. I’ll never know.

We spotted other tracks during our march to the orchard, although most appeared to have been made in previous days since they were not down into the mud produced by that day’s thaw. We stopped several times to take in the scenery, from what was once part of Fort Lucas Road, to an old rock wall that bordered one of the old apple orchards and was constructed hundreds of years ago by a farmer clearing a rocky field.

The day ended the way it does for many of the men and women who enter the woods: Empty-handed. At least in terms of a deer.

But for someone who was on his first-ever hunt, the day felt anything but empty.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder Sports Editor. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.