When opening day of deer season rolls around, my hunting buddies and I are no different from many others.
We are traditionalists.
While that word may mean different things to different people, to us it means something pretty simple.
We go back to the cozy stand of woods that we hunt every opening day — or at least every opening day when youth hockey games or work or other facets of real life don’t require our attention — and we hunt.
I sit. Billy and Chris walk. They see signs of deer. I see signs of leaves falling off trees. And signs of squirrels. And (if I’m lucky) signs of woodpeckers.
Then, hours later, we meet up, talk about all the things we saw (or didn’t see) and go our separate ways.
In the seven years we’ve hunted together, this has been our tradition.
So has this: No deer have participated in our opening day festivities.
Tradition is great, isn’t it?
But every tradition can use a bit of a boost now and then, and this year we arrived at the appointed place (Otis) at the appointed time (way too early) determined to forge a new, more productive tradition.
A more deer-inclusive tradition, you might say.
At least that was the plan.
This year’s deer-season opener presented an enjoyable change of pace for our hunting party: The weather was finally crisp and Novemberish, rather than balmy and Septemberish, as it has been in some past years.
How crisp it would be (or how long I’d decide to sit in my chilly tree), I couldn’t really tell. Therefore, it was essential to do everything I could to remain comfortable.
Not that I’m a wimp, mind you. It’s just that I’ve learned that it’s hard to sit still when you’re shivering and your teeth are chattering. Hunters brighter than me have told me that sitting still is important.
Therefore, I brought out the secret weapon.
Not to shoot. To sit on.
When I received the secret weapon as a gift a couple years back, I immediately chuckled, thinking there’d never, ever be a situation when a hardy Maine hunter like me would resort to such a device.
The first time the mercury dropped below 30, however, I carefully read the attached instructions and followed them to the letter.
I took the gel pack out of the seat cushion.
I tossed it in the microwave.
I nuked it for five minutes.
Then I quickly tucked it into my pack before anyone saw it and made fun of me.
Yes, I own a microwaveable hunting seat. And I use it.
OK. Maybe I am a wimp.
But on Saturday, as the wind blew and the deer ignored me and I sat in my cold tree stand, I was a warm-rumped wimp. And there’s something to be said for that.
While deer don’t participate in my hunts very often, other critters do. In fact, you could say it’s a bit of a tradition.
In China, last year was the Year of the Pig.
In Otis, it was the Year of the Woodpecker. Each day I was on the stand, a few would fly through and provide a bit of percussive entertainment for me.
I’m now pretty sure that the woodpeckers were in cahoots with the deer, and were creating a diversion as bucks and does danced past me.
Every other year I’ve hunted those woods has been the Year of the Red Squirrel.
This year, apparently, is no different.
As I sat on my toasty-warm seat Saturday morning, it didn’t take long for my old pal Red to show up.
At first, there were footsteps in the woods. Years ago, I would have assumed those cracking branches were caused by a deer.
Now, I’m a real hunter. I know better. And from the moment I sat down I knew it would be just a matter of time before Red stopped by to taunt me.
It didn’t take long.
My second indication that I had a visitor was the sound of tiny claws clambering up my tree.
A few minutes later, after he’d found a nice perch far above my stand, the little beast began his barrage.
Bark fell on my head. Then twigs. Then more bark.
Red was here. And he was mad. Bark-throwing, twig-tossing mad.
A while later, he scurried across a branch and made a perfect dismount to the forest floor.
A half an hour later, he was back to reiterate his message.
This time, he was loud … and mad.
I heard the whisper of tiny footfalls on the tree. My tree. Or, perhaps more accurately, his tree.
Then, as I peered to the side, looking for (nonexistent) deer, I caught a flash of movement just above my head.
Red was four feet above me — a couple feet higher than I could reach — staring me in the eye.
I glared. He glared back.
Then he began to scream in my face like a … well, like an angry squirrel.
Not long after that, Red called it quits and climbed out of the tree. Soon enough, so did I.
Real life beckoned. I had things to do, and places to go.
As I trudged back to my truck, I heard a red squirrel. He wasn’t chattering. He wasn’t screaming.
This time, I swear he was laughing.
All of which made Saturday just another traditional opening day in my favorite deer woods.