by Bryce M. Towsley - Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Just like the final scene from “The Wizard of Oz,” it seemed like everybody had been there to see me earlier that day. They did not witness my best moment. As I looked around the diner I saw lots of familiar faces. I thought back on the events that had unfolded and got that deer-in-the-headlights feeling. I never imagined my first sika deer hunt would cause such shame.
Sika deer are native to Asia and in fact are not deer at all, but elk. Little elk to be sure: The stags run about 90 pounds and the females about 70 pounds. They bugle like elk but with a different pitch, and they live in swampy areas. Somebody turned some sika deer loose on the Maryland coast years ago, and they are thriving. I always wanted to hunt for them, so a couple of buddies and I applied for permits on a public area along the Eastern Shore.
After spending the first morning of our trip scouting, Dave Henderson and I parked in the early afternoon in one of the designated lots. I was loading my pack with DEET and Thermacells as Dave laughed at me.
“It’s late October for cripes sake, you don’t need that stuff,” he scoffed.
I didn’t argue, just wished him luck and headed down the only trail out of there. I worked slowly down the trail for about a quarter-mile, and when I rounded a bend there was a guy in an elaborate treestand giving me the stink eye. He had the stand right on the only trail out of the designated parking area, so anybody walking by had to exit the trail to go around the ladder.
I thought perhaps he should have moved back into the woods a little bit because it was pretty selfish of him to claim the trail as his exclusive domain. There were thousands of acres of land, but only a few primary trails to access that land. To my mind, moving off the trail would have been good manners and good hunting. It wasn’t until later, after several more similar encounters, that I decided most of the other hunters were likely scared of getting lost in this thick, wet, featureless swamp—something I later proved to have a knack for doing.
I tried to be nice and waved as I passed. He waved back with a much different message. In fact, he only used one finger. Not wanting trouble, I just walked on by. I was thinking I’d just go down the trail, find a place to set up well off it, and when I came back by his spot after dark he would be gone. Problem solved.
About 50 yards past his stand I came to a big, deep river. I tried to move along the bank, but the vegetation there gave new meaning to the word “thick.” I realized my only option was to turn around and go back up the trail. I didn’t want to, as it was a bit embarrassing to return in defeat. The guy in the stand on the trail waved with both hands and two fingers that time.
I found an old road that had grown up to a faint path, but it allowed me to move deeper into the woods. By now it was raining (of course) and a warm front had moved in to raise the temperature into the 60s. But the rain helped cover my movements and sound, and as I sneaked around a corner I saw a dark streak running through the brush. No chance for any kind of a shot, assuming my muzzleloader would have even gone off in that rain and humidity, but I had seen my first Maryland sika deer.
The empirical evidence suggests they are identified as a small, black streak of movement. These are spooky little critters living in some of the toughest terrain to hunt.
By the end of the hunt I knew that was correct. I saw a few more, but they were just too spooky to still-hunt in the thick swampland, and they all ran off before I could even think about shooting. Most, I think, while giving me the same one-finger wave as that hunter.
A bit farther on I found a high spot where several trails converged. It was a little more open there, and visibility in some directions could be measured in yards rather than feet. I found a comfortable tree to lean against and sat down to wait out the rest of the day.
An odd buzzing was growing louder. I thought that maybe the rain had shorted my hearing aids. I was messing with them and looking for fresh batteries when I noticed it suddenly got darker, like a cloud had covered the sun. Except on this gray, drizzly day there was no sun.
That caused me to look up and what I saw was something out of a B-grade horror movie. There was a wall of mosquitos about to overrun my position. Panicked, I started emptying my backpack, not caring where anything landed. Some stuff landed in puddles, some hung up in the brush and some just disappeared. Food, water, reloads—none of that mattered. I needed DEET and lots of it, and of course that was on the bottom of the backpack.
A few minutes later I was smothered with DEET and had two Thermacells glowing. I was wearing leather gloves, hip boots and a Gore-Tex jacket, and my hood drawstring was so tight I couldn’t breathe. I was hot and sweaty, but the tight hood left only a very small target around my eyes for those bloodthirsty jerks, one I could defend.
Despite the hard rain washing the air, I was a little dizzy from all the DEET fumes, and I tried to take my mind off the bugs and think happy thoughts. That usually leads to food and it made me realize I was hungry. When I found my granola bars they were all sunk in the black, slimy mud and looked pretty inedible.
As you already guessed, no sika deer showed up that night. When I got back to the truck, Henderson was in the front seat looking suspiciously dry and mud-free.
“I will never admit this,” he said, his face showing pain. “But, you were right.”
We have been friends for 30 years, and until then I had never heard him say those words.
He continued, “I didn’t last half an hour with those mosquitos. I have been here listening to the radio most of the afternoon.”
The next morning I parked in another designated area and headed out on the lone trail from there. My plan was to still-hunt and scout for the morning in hopes of finding one or two good locations to make a stand that afternoon and perhaps the next day, our final one of the hunt.
This trail went on for miles through the swamp. Most of it was submerged and I was constantly wading through water halfway up my hip boots, which was exhausting. I was moving east and the rising sun was right in my face, all but blinding me. My legs were getting tired, but everything was covered with water and there was no place to sit down. If I kept my head low, the short brim on my hat blocked the sun, so I slogged on with my head down. Finally, I found a log that had fallen across the trail, and I sat down on it to rest. I had pulled out my phone to call up Google Maps to see if I could figure out a better strategy when I heard a whistle. Over my head was a guy sitting high up in a tree. Feeling like a kid caught playing in his mom’s underwear drawer, I waved and continued on. I was sure he would be telling his buddies about the moron who walked right past his stand without seeing him, then sat on a log in the middle of the trail and started playing with his phone.
I was again a little peeved that a hunter had his stand on the only trail through this swamp, but I continued, determined to go deeper. A couple of hundred yards farther along there was another guy in a tree. Past him, a guy was standing beside a tree, then another in a treestand, and so on every few hundred yards for a mile or more. They all seemed to know the one-finger salute.
I didn’t want to reverse course and walk back through that gauntlet of hunters. It wouldn’t improve my mood and to be honest, I realized I was the outsider here, probably violating some unwritten protocol of sika deer hunting, and I would prefer not to bother them anymore. My thought was that sooner or later I’d find a good place to wait and I’d come out after dark. It was a long hike, but I didn’t mind. I had a couple of good lights with me. It might be enjoyable.
But as I slogged on, the miles piled up behind me and I realized going back would take a very long time. I had not seen a hunter in a while. Nor did I find any good places to make a stand. I saw some high spots, which I was told are good places to hunt, but I couldn’t get to them because of the water. So, I walked on.
In the early afternoon the swamp gave way to an open bog. I saw plenty of sign so I stopped at a few spots to glass and rest. Then I moved along the trail as it bisected the bog. Google Maps said there was a road ahead that was much closer than the one where I had started. I decided to try to make the road, then regroup and find an evening stand.
Of course I came to a river, but it was small enough to find a place to cross, and I only flooded one hip boot. I climbed up what serves as a bank on this low-lying land and propped my foot on a tree to drain the boot. Most of the water flooded my backside, so then I was wet to my shoulders. I slogged on, one foot wet and soggy and my jacket dripping muddy water. The trail had ended, so I used a compass bearing to find the road that Google Maps claimed was there.
It went along pretty well for a while, except it was a much longer walk than I thought and I was getting very tired. Finally, using a bino, I saw cars going by and knew the road was less than a mile away. I grinned, which was a big mistake because my next step broke through the moss. My dry leg dropped into the soupy bog until my face impacted and that grin was filled with mud, moss and bugs.
After some effort I extracted my leg and moved on again, but it quickly became evident I had entered a bad place. The ground was floating. It bounced and undulated with each step. I was walking on a floating carpet of ancient moss, and like any old carpet there were thin spots. Every few steps another foot broke through and I instantly sank to my crotch. Trying to catch myself only resulted in my arms breaking through and sinking in the bog, too, which pinned me in place and planted my face in the mud. Extracting my carcass was difficult as everything was wet, soggy and soft, and there was nothing to push against.
I rolled around in the slime, flopping like a beached whale. I kept expecting hordes of flip-flop-wearing tourists to come and pour water on me. Time and again I would almost be upright when my hands would break though the crust and I would fall back on my face.
My nostrils were clogging with mud, my teeth were caked and my mouth tasted like cheap, peaty scotch the morning after. I was beginning to think that somehow drowning in a muddy bog was probably my fate all along.
Hours later I had lost count of how many times I fell, but it was a lot. I was soaked with mud, tired, hungry and miserable. I had lost all thoughts of hunting and I really hated sika deer. I struggled to my feet, shook it off and immediately landed on my face again in the mud. Rage didn’t help, prayers went unanswered and foul language only served to help spit out the mud. It seemed to be getting worse and worse as I went on, with little solid ground that would support a 230-pound man with a backpack and a waterlogged muzzleloader.
I could see the road, perhaps 200 yards away. Going back was no longer an option as it would take me all night, and I didn’t think I had the energy. My only option was to keep picking my way across this floating hell, trying to find a path to the road. Of course I fell many more times, but I did make some progress. Eventually I was perhaps 30 yards from the road, with a helpless rage building in my core. I was blocked from the pavement by a river that was impossible to see until I was nearly standing on its banks. Clearly it was too deep to cross with hip boots. But I tried anyway, which led to more thrashing, rage and bad words.
I climbed back up the slick, muddy bank, and as I was standing there staring at the water and feeling lost, both feet broke through the bog and dumped me hard in the muck.
I was covered with mud, wet to my bones, completely exhausted and frustrated beyond description. I’ll deny it now, but I may have laid there sobbing for a long time. Then I remembered my phone. (I’m glad it had a waterproof case.)
Henderson didn’t answer of course; he is good at that. After a dozen tries, Kevin Mittleman picked up. I told him where I thought I was and half an hour later he drove up.
Kevin is about 9 feet tall, and I figured his waders would cover me like a giant sack, which would allow me to cross the river. But how would we get them to my side? I told Kevin to throw them, but he thought it was too far. We had come up with and rejected a dozen other ideas involving rope, pulleys, support structures, garbage bags and many other things we didn’t even have when a green truck pulled up and stopped.
I will admit to deep-seated authority-figure issues, but still, the last thing I needed was a game warden. I got this, I was thinking. No drama, no help needed.
I really wanted to keep it low-key and unnoticed, but clearly that ship had sailed.
The warden pretty much repeated the same ideas Kevin and I had already rejected before all but ordering me to go back the way I came. When I said I didn’t think that was possible, he got in his truck and drove off.
By now we were drawing a crowd, and of course everybody thought they had the solution. We argued back and forth across the river for some time, again rejecting every idea, and I was getting agitated.
I hollered across to Kevin that I was going to toss my backpack to him and then swim the river in my hip boots, carrying my rifle. Several people thought that was a bad idea, but I didn’t care. It was time to end this. I thought of Drago in “Rocky IV”: “If he dies, he dies.”
Then the game warden pulled in again. With him were more cars; we were gathering quite a crowd.
Great, I thought, let’s just invite some hot dog venders and a camera crew. Does anybody know any clowns we can call to entertain this circus?
It was becoming so crowded that traffic was starting to back up. Parking was becoming an issue. I had no doubt this was going to end up on YouTube. I couldn’t imagine any scenario in which I fared well.
Then I saw the game warden waving a truck to the side of the road. I spotted a canoe in the back and now I was thinking, This game warden is my new best friend. I need to get his number. I’ll bet he will answer the telephone when I call for help.
When I made it across nobody would let me pay them, so I thanked everybody over and over before Kevin and I headed out to retrieve my truck.
I figured it was over, until we went out to a local diner to eat that night. We managed to finish dinner unnoticed, but as we were leaving somebody yelled across the room, “Hey, aren’t you the muddy guy with the funny hat that was stuck across that river today?”
“Yeah, that’s him,” said another.
“I was there.”
“So was I!”
A couple of guys left their seats to say hello, and I realized they were the man with the canoe and his son. I thanked them again and worked my way to the door, thinking about Dorothy’s confusion and understanding completely. (I regret not paying for their dinners, but at that moment I was embarrassed and just wanted to get out of there. So, guys, if you are reading this, I owe you a steak!)
The last day was uneventful. Well, I did shoot a small sika stag. But other than that it was just a boring day of hunting. Nothing to report except that the meat is excellent.
We are planning a rematch with the sika deer, but I think maybe we will hunt private land the next time. I really don’t have a compelling need to chase fame on the Internet.
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