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A Little Brother to the Bear by  William J. Long
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HUNTING WITHOUT A GUN

[241]

T
HE man who hunts with gun or camera has his reward. He has also his labors, vexations, and failures; and these are the price he pays for his success. The man who hunts without either gun or camera has, it seems to me, a much greater reward, and has it without price. Of him more than any other Nimrod may be said what a returned missionary from Africa said of his first congregation, "They are a contented folk, clothed [242] with the sunlight and fed by gravitation." Hunting without a gun is, therefore, the sport of a peaceful man, a man who goes to the woods for rest and for letting his soul grow, and who after a year of worry and work is glad to get along without either for a little season. As he glides over the waterways in his canoe, or loafs leisurely along the trail, he carries no weight of gun or tripod or extra plates. Glad to be alive himself, he has no pleasure in the death of the wild things. Content just to see and hear and understand, he has no fret or sweat to get the sun just right and calculate his exact thirty-foot distance and then to fume and swear, as I have heard good men do, because the game fidgets, or the clouds obscure the sun, or the plates are not quick enough, or—beginning of sorrows!—because he finds after the game has fled that the film he has just used on a bull moose had all its good qualities already preëmpted by a landscape and a passing canoe.

I have no desire to decry any kind of legitimate hunting, for I have tried them all and [245] the rewards are good. I simply like hunting without a gun or camera better than all other forms of hunting for three good reasons: first, because it is lazy and satisfying, perfect for summer weather; second, because it has no troubles, no vexations, no disappointments, and so is good for a man who has wrestled long enough with these things; and third, because it lets you into the life and individuality of the wild animals as no other hunting can possibly do, since you approach them with a mind at ease and, having no excitement about you, they dare to show themselves natural and unconcerned, or even a bit curious about you to know who you are and what you are doing. It has its thrills and excitements too, as much or as little as you like. To creep up through the brûlée to where the bear and her cubs are gathering blueberries in their greedy, funny way; to paddle silently upon a big moose while his head is under water and only his broad antlers show; to lie at ease beside the trail flecked with sunlight and shadow and have the squirrels scamper across your legs, or the [246] wild birds perch inquisitively upon your toe, or—rarest sight in the woods in the early morning—to have a fisher twist by you in intense, weasel-like excitement, puzzling out the trail of the hare or grouse that passed you an hour ago; to steal along the waterways along on a still dark night and open your jack silently upon ducks or moose or mother deer and her fawns,—there is joy and tingle enough in all these things to satisfy any lover of the woods. There is also wisdom to be found, especially when you remember that these are individual animals that no human eyes have ever before looked upon, that they are different every one, and that at any moment they may reveal some queer trick or trait of animal life that no naturalist has ever before seen.

[247] Last summer, just below my camp on Matagammon, was a little beach between two points surrounded by dense woods that the deer seemed to love better than any other spot on the whole lake. When we first arrived the deer were close about our camp. From the door we could sometimes see them on the lake shore, and every evening at twilight they would steal up shyly to eat the potato and apple parings. Gradually the noises of camp drove them far back on the ridges, though on stormy nights they would come back when the camp was still and all lights out. From my tent I would hear cautious rustlings or the crack of a twig above the drip and pour of raindrops on my tent-fly, and stealing out in the darkness would find two or three deer, generally a doe and her fawns, standing under the split roof of our woodshed to escape the pelting rain.

The little beach was farther away, across an arm of the lake and out of sight and sound of our camp, so the deer never deserted it, though we watched them there every day. Just why they liked it I could never discover. [248] A score of beaches on the lake were larger and smoother, and a dozen at least offered better feeding; but the deer came here in greater numbers than anywhere else. Near-by was a great wild meadow, with dense hiding-places on the slopes beyond, where deer were numerous. Before the evening feeding began in the wild meadow they would come out to this little beach and play for an hour or so; and I have no doubt the place was a regular playground, such as rabbits and foxes and crows, and indeed most wild animals, choose for their hours of fun.

Once, at early twilight, I lay in hiding among some old roots at the end of this little beach, watching a curious game. Eight or ten deer, does and fawns and young spike bucks, had come out into the open and were now running rapidly in three circles arranged in a line, so, oOo. In the middle was a big circle some fifteen feet in diameter, and at opposite sides were two smaller circles less than half the diameter of the first, as I found afterwards by measuring from the tracks. Around one of these small circles the deer [249] ran from right to left invariably; around the other they ran from left to right; and around the big middle circle they ran either way, though when two or three were running this circle together, while the others bounded about the ends, they all ran the same way. Ad they played, all the rings were in use at once, the two small end rings being much more used than the big one. The individual deer passed rapidly from one ring to the others, but—and here is the queerest part of it all—I did not see a single deer, not even one of the fawns, cut across the big circle from one end ring to the other. After they were gone the rings showed clearly in the sand, but not a single track led across any of the circles.

The object of the play was simple enough. Aside from the fun, the young deer were [250] being taught to twist and double quickly; but what the rules of the game were, and whether they ran in opposite circles to avoid getting dizzy, was more than I could discover, though the deer were never more than thirty yards away from me and I could watch ever move clearly without my field-glasses. That the game and some definite way of playing it were well understood by the deer no one could doubt who watched this wonderful play for five minutes. Though they ran swiftly, with astonishing lightness and grace, there was no confusion. Every now and then one of the does would leap forward and head off one of her fawns as he headed into the big ring, when like a flash he would whirl in his tracks and away with a bl-r-r-t!  of triumph or dissatisfaction. Once a spike buck, and again a doe with two well-grown fawns, trotted out of the woods and, after watching the dizzy play for a moment, leaped into it as if they understood perfectly what was expected. They played this game only for a few minutes at a time; then they would scatter and move up [251] and down the shore leisurely and nose the water. Soon one or two would come back, and in a moment the game would be in full swing again, the others joining it swiftly as the little creatures whirled about the rings, exercising every muscle and learning how to control their graceful bodies perfectly, though they had no idea that older heads had planned the game for them with a purpose.

Watching them thus at their play, the meaning of a curious bit of deer anatomy became clear. A deer's shoulder is not attached to the skeleton at all; it lies loosely inside the skin, with only a bit of delicate elastic tissue joining it to the muscles of the body. When a deer was headed suddenly and braced himself in his tracks, the body would lunge forward till the fore legs seemed hung almost in the middle of his belly. Again, when he kicked up his heels, they would seem to be supporting his neck, far forward of where they properly belonged. This free action of the shoulder is what gives the wonderful flexibility and grace to a deer's movements, just as it takes and softens all [252] the shock of falling in his high-jumping run among the rocks and over the endless windfalls of the wilderness.

In the midst of the play, and after I had watched it for a full half-hour, there was a swift rustle in the woods on my right, and I caught my breath sharply at sight of a magnificent buck standing half hid in the underbrush. There were two or three big bucks with splendid antlers that lived lazily on the slopes above this part of the lake, and that I had been watching and following for several weeks. Unlike the does and fawns and young bucks, they were wild as hawks and selfish as cats. They rarely showed themselves in the open, and if surprised there with other deer they bounded away at the first sight or sniff of danger. Does and little fawns, when they saw you, would instantly stamp and whistle to warn the other deer before they had taken the first step to save themselves or investigate the danger; but the big bucks would bound or glide away, according to the method of your approach, and in saving their own skins, as they thought, would have [253] absolutely no concern for the safety of the herd feeding near by.—And that is one reason why, in a natural state, deer rarely allow the bucks and bulls to lead them.

The summer laziness was still upon these big bucks; the wild fall running had not seized them. Once I saw a curious and canny bit of their laziness. I had gone off with a guide to try the trout at a distant lake. While I watched a porcupine and tried to win his confidence with sweet chocolate—a bad shot, by the way—the guide went on far ahead. As he climbed a ridge, busy with thoughts of the dim blazed trail he was following, I noticed a faint stir in some bushes on one side, and through my glass I made out the head of a big buck that was watching the guide keenly from his hiding. It was in the late forenoon, when deer are mostly resting, and the lazy buck was debating, probably, whether it were necessary for him to run or not. The guide passed [254] rapidly; then to my astonishment the head disappeared as the buck lay down where he was.

Keeping my eyes on the spot, I followed on the guide's trail. There was no sign of life in the thicket as I passed, though beyond a doubt the wary old buck was watching my every motion keenly. When I had gone well past and still the thicket remained all quiet, I turned gradually and walked towards it. There was a slight rustle as the buck rose to his feet again. He had evidently planned for me to follow the steps of the other man, and had not thought it worth while to stand up. Another slow step or two on my part, then another rustle and a faint motion of underbrush—so faint that, had there been a wind blowing, my eye would scarcely have noticed it—told me where the buck had glided away silently to another covert, where he turned and stood to find out whether I had discovered him, or whether my change of direction had any other motive than the natural wandering of a man lost in the woods.

[255] That was far back on the ridges, where most of the big bucks loaf and hide, each one by himself, during the summer. Down at the lake, however, there were two or three that for some reason occasionally showed themselves with the other deer, but were so shy and wild that hunting them without a gun was almost impossible. It was one of these big fellows that now stood half hid in the underbrush within twenty yards of me, watching the deer's game impatiently.

A stamp of his foot and a low snort stopped the play instantly, and the big buck moved out on the shore in full view. He looked out over the lake, where he had so often seen the canoes of men moving; his nose tried the wind up shore; eyes and ears searched below, where I was lying; then he scanned the lake again keenly. Perhaps he had seen my canoe upturned among the water-grasses far away; more probably it was the unknown sense or feel  of an enemy, which they who hunt with or without a gun find so often [256] among the larger wild animals, that made him restless and suspicious. While he watched and searched the lake and the shores not a deer stirred from his tracks. Some command was in the air which I myself seemed to feel in my hiding. Suddenly the big buck turned and glided away into the woods, and every deer on the shore followed instantly without question or hesitation. Even the little fawns, never so heedless as to miss a signal, felt something in the buck's attitude deeper than their play, something perhaps in the air that was not noticed before, and trotted after their mothers, fading away at last like shadows into the darkening woods.

On another lake, years before, when hunting in the same way without a gun, I saw another curious bit of deer wisdom. It must be remembered that deer are born apparently without any fear of man. The fawns when found very young in the woods are generally full of playfulness and curiosity; and a fawn that has lost its mother will turn to a man quicker than to any other animal. When deer see you for the first time, no matter how [257] old or young they are, they approach cautiously, if you do not terrify them by sudden motions, and in twenty pretty ways try to find out what you are. Like most wild animals that have a keen sense of smell, and especially like the bear and caribou, they trust only their noses at first. when they scent man for the first time they generally run away, not because they know what it means but for precisely the opposite reason, namely, because there is in the air a strong scent that they do not know, and that they have not been taught by their mothers how to meet. When in doubt run away—that is the rule of nose which seems to be impressed by their mothers upon all timid wild things, though they act in almost the opposite way when sight or hearing is in question.

All this is well known to hunters; but now comes the curious exception. After I had been watching the deer for some weeks at one of their playgrounds, a guide came into camp with his wife and little child. They were on their way in to their own camp for the hunting season. To please [258] the little one, who was fond of all animals, I took her with me to show her the deer playing. As they were running about on the shore I sent her out of our hiding, in a sudden spirit of curiosity, to see what the deer and fawns would do. True to her instructions, the little one walked out very slowly into the midst of them. They started at first; two of the old deer circled down instantly to wind her; but even after getting her scent, the suspicious man-scent that most of them had been taught to fear, they approached fearlessly, their ears set forward, and their expressive tails down without any of the nervous wiggling that is so manifest whenever their owners catch the first suspicious smell in the air. The child, meanwhile, sat on the shore, watching the pretty creatures with wide-eyed curiosity, but obeying my first whispered instructions like a little hero and keeping still as a hunted rabbit. Two little spotted fawns were already circling about her playfully, but the third went straight up to her, stretching his nose and ears forward to show his friendliness, and then drawing back to [259] stamp his little fore foot prettily to make the silent child move or speak, and perhaps also to show her in deer fashion that, though friendly, he was not at all afraid.

There was one buck in the group, a three-year-old with promising antlers. At first he was the only deer that showed any fear of the little visitor; and his fear seemed to me to be largely a matter of suspicion, or of irritation that anything should take away the herd's attention from himself. The fall wildness was coming upon him, and he showed it by restless fidgeting, by frequent proddings of the does with his antlers, and by driving them about roughly and unreasonably. Now he approached the child with a shake of his antlers, not to threaten her, it seemed to me, but rather to show the other deer that he was still master, the Great Mogul who must be consulted upon all occasions. For the first time the little girl started nervously at the threatening motion. I called softly to her to [260] keep still and not be afraid, at the same time rising up quietly from my hiding-place. Instantly the little comedy changed as the deer whirled in my direction. They had seen men before and knew what it meant. The white flags flew up over the startled backs, and the air fairly bristled with whistling h-e-e-e-yeu, he-u's  as deer and fawns rose over the nearest windfalls like a flock of frightened partridges and plunged away into the shelter of the friendly woods.

There are those who claim that the life of an animal is a mere matter of blind instinct and habit. Here on the shore before my eyes was a scene that requires a somewhat different explanation.

Though deer are the most numerous and the most interesting animals to be hunted without a gun, they are by no means the only game to fill the hunter's heart full and make him glad that his game bag is empty. Moose are to be found on the same waters, and in the summer season, if approached very [261] slowly and quietly, especially in a canoe, they show little fear of man. Last summer, as I stole down the thoroughfare into Matagammon, a cow moose and her calf loomed up before me in the narrow stream. I watched her awhile silently, noting her curious way of feeding,—now pulling up a bite of lush water-grass, now stretching her neck and her great muffle to sweep off a mouthful of water-maple leaves, first one then the other, like a boy with two apples; while the calf nosed along the shore and paid no attention to the canoe, which he saw perfectly but which his mother did not see. After watching them a few minutes I edged across to the opposite bank and drifted down to see if it were possible to pass without disturbing them. The calf was busy with something on the bank, the mother deep in the water-grass as I drifted by, sitting low in the canoe. She saw me when abreast of her, and after watching me a moment in astonishment turned again to her feeding. Then I turned the canoe slowly and lay to leeward of them, within ten yards, watching every significant motion. The calf [262] was nearer to me now, and the mother by a silent command brought him back and put him on the side away from me; but the little fellow's curiosity was aroused by the prohibition, and he kept peeking under his mother's belly, or twisting his head around over her hocks, to see who I was and what I was doing. But there was no fear manifest, and I backed away slowly at last and left them feeding just where I had found them.

In curious contrast was the next meeting. It was on the little beaver stream below Hay Lake, a spot as wild as any dream of Doré, and a famous feeding-ground for moose and deer. I was fishing for trout when a mother moose came up-stream among the bilberry and alder bushes. I had stopped casting and sat low in my canoe, and she did not see me until abreast of me, within twenty feet. Then she swung her huge head carelessly in my direction, and went on as if I were of no more account than one of the beaver houses on the shore. Ten steps behind her came a calf. The leaves had scarcely closed on her flanks when he put his head out of the bushes [263] and came plump upon me. With a squeal and a jump like a startled deer he plunged away through the bushes, and I heard the mother swing round in a crashing circle to find him and to know what had frightened him. Ten minutes later, as I sat very still in the same spot, a huge head was thrust out of the bushes where the calf had disappeared. Below it, pressing close against his mother's side, was the head of the little one, looking out again at the thing that had frightened him. He had brought her back to see, and was now plainly asking What is it, mother? what is it?  though there was never a sound uttered. And there they stayed for a full minute, while none of us moved a muscle, before they drew back silently and disappeared, leaving only a double line of waving, quivering bush tops, like the trail of a [264] huge snake, to tell me where they had gone. On the same stream I got the famous bull of the expedition. I was paddling along silently when I turned a bend, and a huge dark bulk loomed suddenly out of the water dead ahead of the canoe. In front of the dark bulk two great antlers, the biggest I ever saw in Maine, reached up and out. The rest of his head was under water groping for lily roots, and my first exultant thought was that one might drive the canoe between the tips of those great antlers without touching them, so big and wide were they. Instead I sent the canoe swiftly forward till his head began to come up, when I crouched low and watched him, so near that every changing expression of his huge face and keen little eyes was seen perfectly without my glasses. He saw me instantly and dropped the root he had pulled up, and his lower jaw remained hanging in his intense wonder. Not so much who I was, but how on earth I got there so silently seemed to be the cause of his wonder. He took a slow step or two in my direction, his ears set [267] forward stiffly and his eyes shining as he watched me keenly for the slightest motion. Then he waded out leisurely, climbed the bank, which was here steep, and disappeared in the woods. As he vanished I followed him, close behind, and watched his way of carrying his huge antlers and lifting his legs with a high step, like a Shanghai rooster, over the windfalls. Of all the moose that I have ever followed, this was the only one whose head seemed too heavy for comfort. He carried it low, and nursed his wide antlers tenderly among the tree trunks and alder stems. They were still in the velvet, and no doubt the rude scraping of the rough branches made him wince unless he went softly. At last, finding that I was close at his heels, he turned for another look at me; but I slipped behind a friendly tree until I heard him move on, when I followed him again. Some suspicion of the thing that was on his trail, or it may be some faint eddy of air with the danger smell in it, reached him then; he laid his great antlers back on his shoulders, moose fashion, and lunged away at a terrific pace [268] through the woods. I could fancy his teeth gritting and his eyes at squint as some snapping branch whacked his sensitive antlers and made him grunt with the pain of it. But the fear behind was all-compelling, and in a moment I had lost him in the shadow and silence of the big woods.

It was that same night, I think,—for my notes make no change of time or place,—that I had another bit of this hunting which fills one's soul with peace and gives him a curious sense of understanding the thoughts and motives of the Wood Folk. I was gliding along in my canoe in the late twilight over still water, in the shadow of the wild high meadow-grass, when a low quacking and talking of wild ducks came to my ears. I pushed the canoe silently into the first open bogan in the direction of the sounds till I was so near that I dared not go another foot, when I rose up cautiously and peered over the grass tops. There were perhaps thirty or forty of the splendid birds—four or five broods at least, and each brood led by its careful mother—that had gathered [269] here for the first time from the surrounding ponds where they had been hatched. For two or three days past I had noticed the young broods flying about, exercising their wings in preparation for the long autumn flights. Now they were all gathered on a dry mud-flat surrounded by tall grass, playing together and evidently getting acquainted. In the middle of the flat were two or three tussocks on which the grass had been trampled and torn down. There was always a duck on each of these tussocks, and below him were four or five more that were plainly trying to get up; but the top was small and had room for but one, and there was a deal of quacking and good-natured scrambling for the place of vantage. It was a game, plainly enough, for while the birds below were trying to get up the little fellow on top was doing his best to keep them down. Other birds scampered in pairs from one side of the flat to the other; and there was one curious procession, [270] or race,—five or six birds that started abreast and very slowly, and ended with a rush and a headlong dive into the grasses of the opposite shore. Here and there about the edges of the playground an old mother bird sat on a tussock and looked down on the wild unconscious play, wiggling her tail in satisfaction and anon stretching her neck to look and listen watchfully. The voices of the playing birds were curiously low and subdued, reminding me strongly of some Indian children that I had once seen playing. At times the quacking had a faint ventriloquous effect, seeming to come from far away, and again it ceased absolutely at a sign from some watchful mother, though the play went steadily on, as if even in their play they must be mindful of the enemies that were watching and listening everywhere to catch them.

As I rose a bit higher to see some birds that were very near me but screened by the meadow-grass, my foot touched a paddle and rattled it slightly. A single quack, different from all others, followed instantly, and every bird stopped just where he was and stretched [271] his neck high to listen. One mother bird saw me, though I could not tell which one it was until she slipped down from her bog and waddled bravely across in my direction. Then a curious thing happened, which I have often seen and wondered at among gregarious birds and animals. A signal was given, but without any sound that my ears could detect in the intense twilight stillness. It was as if a sudden impulse had been sent out like an electric shock to every bird in the large flock. At the same instant every duck crouched and sprang; the wings struck down sharply; the flock rose together as if flung up from a pigeon trap, and disappeared with a rush of wings and a hoarse tumult of quacking that told every creature on the great marsh that danger was afoot. Wings flapped loudly here and there; bitterns squawked; herons croaked; a spike buck whistled and jumped close at hand; a passing musquash went down with a slap of his tail and a plunge like a falling rock. Then silence settled over the marsh again, and there was not a sound to tell what Wood Folk were [272] abroad in the still night, nor what business or pleasure occupied them.

Formerly caribou might be found on these same waterways, and they are the most curious and interesting game that can be hunted without a gun; but years ago a grub destroyed all the larches on which the wandering woodland caribou depend largely for food. The deer, which are already as many as the country can support in winter, take care of the rest of the good browse, so that there was nothing left for the caribou but to cross over the line into New Brunswick, where larches are plenty and where there is an abundance of the barren moss that can be dug up out of the snow. Better still, if one is after caribou, is the great wilderness of northern Newfoundland, where the caribou spend the summer and where from a mountain top one may count [273] hundreds of the splendid animals scattered over the country below in every direction. And hunting them so, with the object of finding out the secrets of their curious lives,—why, for instance, each herd often chooses its own burying-ground, or why a bull caribou loves to pound a hollow stump for hours at a time,—this is, to my mind, infinitely better sport than the hunt for a head where one waylays them on their paths of migration, the paths that have been sacred for untold generations, and shoots them down as they pass like tame cattle.

To the hunter without a gun there is no close season on any game, and a doe and her fawns are better hunting than a ten-point buck. By land or water he is always ready; there are no labors for effects, except what he chooses to impose upon himself; no disappointments are possible, for whether his game be still or on the jump, shy as a wilderness raven or full of curiosity as a blue jay, he always finds something to stow away in his heart in the place where he keeps things that he loves to remember. All is fish that [274] comes into his net, and everything is game that catches the glance of his eye in earth or air or water. Now it is the water-spiders—skaters the boys call them—that play a curious game among the grass stems, and that have more wonderful habits than the common balloon spiders which sometimes turned Jonathan Edwards' thoughts from the stern, unlovable God of his theology to the patient, care-taking Servant of the universe that some call Force, and others Law, and that one who knew Him called The Father, alike among the lilies of the field and in the cities of men. Now it is an otter and her cubs playing on the surface, that sink when they see you and suddenly come up near your canoe, like a log shot up on end, and with half their bodies out of water to see better say w-h-e-e-e-yew!  like a baby seal to express their wonder at such a queer thing in the water. Now it is a mother loon taking her young on her back as they leave the eggs, and carrying them around the lake awhile to dry them thoroughly in the sun before she dives from under them and wets them for [275] the first time; and you must follow a long while before you find out why. Now it is a bear and her cubs—I watched three of them for an hour or more, one afternoon, as they gathered blueberries. At first they champed them from the bushes, stems, leaves and all, just as they grew. Again, when they found a good bush, a little one with lots of berries, they would bite it off close to the ground, or tear it up by the roots, and then taking it by the stem with both paws would pull it through their mouths from one side to the other, stripping off every berry and throwing the useless bush away. Again they would strike the bushes with their paws, knocking off a shower of the ripest berries, and then scrape them together very carefully into a pile and gobble them down at a single mouthful. And whenever, in wandering about after a good bush, one of the cubs spied the other busy at an unusually good find, it gave one a curious remembrance of his own boyhood to see the little fellow rush up whimpering to get his share before all the bushes should be stripped clean.

[276] That was good hunting. It made one glad to let even this rare prowler of the woods go in peace. And that suggests the very best thing that can be said for the hunter without a gun:—"The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for him," for something of the gentle spirit of Saint Francis comes with him, and when he goes he leaves no pain nor death nor fear of man behind him.


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