Three inches stacked on the back porch railing before it dark. Another inch fell over night. The elk and deer rifle seasons are done, aside from Private. The woods would be clear of orange. 8,500 ft; the edge of cottontail and Abert Squirrel habitat. More snow would have fallen here. Anything more than 6″ and things are on lockdown until it settles. These animals don’t get around well in deep snow. Snowshoe Hares are better equipped for that. Mother nature has an answer for everything.
First tracks. Everything that has happened since the snow stopped is speaking. Any movement in the last 5 hours is logged. The wind was up. Branches littered the floor. Tracks of both rabbit and squirrel. Coyote, deer (a pair – doe and yearling) and several unknown birds.
More sign. Bows of Ponderosa on the ground. A squirrel was just above me while it was snowing, and afterwards as evidenced by the one deeper in the snow. Abert’s eat pine bows in winter; as many as twenty a day.
Their numbers have a tendency to fluctuate over the years largely due to snowfall. Too many days of deep snow and they suffer. These past few, have been light in snow so I am seeing more around. Enough to justify a few shots taken.
The hike was easy. My steps; the only human tracks in the area. There isn’t much reason to go into the woods this time of year apparently. I have yet to see another squirrel hunter in my woods. I’ve been here for over twenty years. I am hiking above a draw that extends several hundred yards. Below is a fen edged with tracks of deer visiting for water, even though its long frozen. To the east is a field that I would expect to find pheasants in if it were in the Midwest or eastern slope. There aren’t any here aside from penned birds. Few make it through the winter and those that do are taken quickly by coyotes, bobcats and raptors. There are no tracks going from wood to meadow. This is a place of death for them. Little cover and easily seen from above.
While breaking down the tripod I hear a squirrel from an area I was just in. I wait and hear another chatter. Camera and tripod stowed I go back over my steps to find him dropping down a tree and bouncing to another. Their tracks always make straight lines. Squirrels rarely linger like rabbits do. They travel with purpose. I watch. Too many times I’ve chased them through the woods only to lose them. Animals have an innate ability to put as much cover between them and you. Whether it is a flushing grouse or rabbit or squirrel. The only ones that don’t fit this paradigm are the bigger ones. Elk and Bear. They mow down pretty much anything they can. Earlier this year I spooked a bedded elk in a grove of thick aspen saplings. It left me in a straight line. I could see it only because the saplings were mowed. Eventually the woods closed in and I could only hear crashing. I never did see that elk again.
The squirrel was gone. I followed its tracks to a Pine. I girdled the tree and found no exit tracks. The squirrel was up there. Somewhere. I moved back a few paces and hung my gear on the limbs of an oak tree. I would wait it out. It would eventually get skittish and move. Same thing with rabbits. They don’t have the patience bigger animals do. I knocked the snow off a downed tree and sat.
I shoot old guns. Most are older than me by several decades. The one I carry today is a model 1906 Winchester .22 lr manufactured in the late 1920’s. These were parlor guns and most that are still around have lost their rifling. This one is still accurate which is one of the reasons I shoot it. My father passed it to me before he died. The other reason.
Ten feet from the trunk. A twitch. He’s looking at me. Been looking at me the whole time. Watching me wax about this gun. There is always a moment of sadness when I see game to kill. Many times I pass on the shot. This time I do not. You can only go into the woods so often and not kill before it becomes simply hiking well armed. Moreover, I am a hunter. A meat eater. A lover of the woods. Part of this badge requires death to maintain my own honesty as a carnivore.
So be it.
The shot was swallowed by the snow and the bullet passed through.
Across the meadow was a raven. This happens often. Corvids will check in when I am in the woods, to see if I’ve killed anything. Shots fired will bring them also. It dropped off the snag and hovered just above the meadow to the edge of the woods.
The squirrel was skinned, quartered and cooling in my bag in ten minutes. I was two miles in. The woods grew quiet after the shot. It always does. The crow too, typically raucous, was waiting for me to leave.
I moved back to the field and walked its middle. No tracks, save for a deer moving before sunrise. Crust was kicked from each step. The rest was soft from melt. Back to the powder of the woods and growing shadow. The squirrel was no longer warm to my thigh. Day is lost quickly here. We are at the apex of winter. The coldest hours. Those that have made it, have reason to see spring. Less a few taken by crow, weasel, lion or man. The Winchester will be cleaned and oiled promptly. The knife will be sharpened and lubricated. Both will cut flesh. As long as I can be burdened.