Virginian Deer

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )

PERHAPS no species of wild animal inhabiting Muskoka deserves to be regarded with more interest than the subject of our present chapter, the common or Virginian deer; its symmetrical form, graceful. bound, and rushing speed, when flying before the hounds, excites the admiration of every one, though he be ever so dull an observer.

The skin is of the greatest service to the wild man, and also useful to the dweller in towns; dressed and smoked by the squaw until soft and pliable it will not shrink with all the wetting to which it is exposed. While crossing Lake Muskoka during the spring of 1889 my canoe struck against a floating log and rapidly commenced to fill. It was night — the shores and islands were invisible — soon I found myself swimming for my life. The general tendency is to swim in circles, but some strange luck brought me safely to an island after being in the water about an hour. Covering the hot sand over my damp clothing I soon fell asleep. My deerskin moccasins were as soft and pliable next day as though they had been soaked in oil.

The skin of the Virginian deer makes an excellent hunting shirt and leggings, and it is the material part of the dress of many Indian tribes. Although the animal scarcely ever occupies the same bed on successive nights, it is usually found in the same range, or drive, as it is called, and often not fifty yards from the place where it was startled before. It is fond of lingering round fences and old fields that are partially overspread with brushwood, briar patches, and other cover to screen it from observation. Occasionally it lies immersed in water, the nose and antlers alone being visible. Does and bucks are fattest from November to January. The young are produced in the month of April. The doe conceals her young under a prostrate tree-top or in a thick covert of grass, visiting them occasionally during the day, especially in the morning, evening and at night. The young fawns when only a few days old are often found in so sound a sleep that on several occasions they have been taken up in the arms before they became conscious that they were captives. On one occasion I discovered a young fawn sleeping under some bushy boughs. Alighting from my horse, I lifted the pretty creature in my arms and quickly mounted. Scarcely had I done so before I heard the sound of some heavy animal following in my tracks. It was a large doe, and as she approached nearer I observed her movements were fearless and extraordinary. Proceeding at a rapid pace, she lifted high her front legs, performing a curious striking action in the air. Soon I discovered her object — she was the mother in pursuit of her young. Wishing to test her fidelity, I urged my Indian pony to a gallop, but I had not covered more than half a mile when I became aware that the pursuer was close at hand and meant mischief. The idea of danger from a deer appeared absurd, so I seized my revolver and drew in rein. Pointing at the deer's breast I fired. The bullet missed, and I escaped by a miracle receiving a blow that would have maimed me for life. The sharp hoof struck my saddle and cut it as cleanly as a knife. This was enough, so I threw my burden upon the ground. The mother, however, was not satisfied, but pursued me for a considerable distance before she returned to her offspring.

The Virginian deer when taken young easily becomes domesticated, and will attach itself to its keeper in a few hours. Some have been reared successfully by a she goat or cow. They breed in confinement but become troublesome pets they have been known to bite the heads off chickens and ducks, devour harness, and jump through windows into the house. One to four fawns are the number of the young. At Goose Creek, Mr. Audubon killed a doe with four fawns. The deer when wounded will bleat loudly like a calf, and the buck emits at night a shrill whistling sound. This deer cannot exist without water, and is obliged to visit some stream or spring every night. It is nocturnal in its habits; when first startled, without being much alarmed, it gives two or three springs, alighting with apparent awkwardness on three feet, and immediately afterward resting on the opposite side, erecting its white tail and throwing it from side to side. A few high bounds succeed, whilst the head is turned in every direction to enable the animal to detect the cause of alarm. The leaps and high boundings of this deer are so graceful that they cannot be witnessed without admiration. In riding through woods at night I have often heard them stamp their feet, the bucks on such occasions giving a loud snort, then bounding off for a few yards, and again repeating the stamping and snorting, which appear to be nocturnal habits. Deer have been known to plunge into the surf, and swim out to sea for a mile or two when heavily pressed.

The tender, juicy, savoury, and, above all, digestible qualities of the flesh of the Virginian deer are well known; and the venison is held in highest esteem from the camp of the backwoodsman to the luxurious tables of the opulent, and, when not kept too long, a fat haunch with jelly is almost as much relished as a " hunter's steak " cooked in the open air on a frosty evening far away in the dark recesses of the forest. The weight of this deer has rarely exceeded two hundred pounds.

On meeting with other males, the weaker animal has been known to be gored to death; generally, however, he flies from the vanquisher, or follows him, crestfallen, at a respectful distance, ready to turn on his heels and scamper off at the first threat of his victorious rival. In these rencontres the horns of the combatants sometimes become interlocked in such a manner that they cannot be separated, and the pugnacious bucks are consigned to a lingering death by starvation.

The following is an extract from my notes :

" Crane Lake, Muskoka, September 7th, 1902. Leaving Blackstone Lake we took a path through the bush. After walking about a mile we arrived at Crane Lake. The only event during our journey which produced excitement occurred while we were cautiously crossing a swamp on the half-decayed, slippery logs. Mac was carrying a number of articles, but stepping out in splendid form as though he had been born to bush-life. His object appeared to impress the party that an athlete was equally at home in all the departments of courage and endurance. He was walking some distance ahead of the party when suddenly he disappeared. We heard, however, he was much alive ; in fact, he made his existence conspicuous for miles around by his emphatic and uncompromising condemnation of the log he had slipped off. We were all inclined to smile when he showed his face covered with black mud, giving him the appearance of a nigger, but when he groaned out that the whisky flask had fallen out of his fur-coat the whole party made a rush for the mud and dirty water.

" When we arrived at Crane Lake we found four boats in readiness to convey us with the Indians and hounds to the happy hunting-ground. The picture presented by these hardy men clothed in their rough shirts, gaiters, and boots, with rifles and camping-kit, will not easily be forgotten. The sun was shining brightly, and on either side, so far as the eye could reach, stretched the bright green tops of the forest growth, extending to unexplored regions of dense woods, still the natural possession of bears, wolves, racoons, lynx, etc., and innumerable deer. The lake water was sparkling and clear, and the little islands with their luxuriant vegetation and romantic rocks and bays gave a perfect tone to a beautiful scene. Crane Lake and Deer Lake are still uninhabited by settlers. No rough shanties or blackened clearings deface their loveliness. Here is an ideal camping-ground, and one can picture the pioneer cutting out for himself a rude home and living. The mind tries to imagine the conditions during the cold bright days of winter — the snow-clad earth and ice-bound water. A sportsman of some refinement and artistic taste can hardly resist the temptation to put in his claim for the one hundred and forty acres and dwell here forever. We must remember, however, in our enthusiasm that lovely scenery requires the observer to be fortified with materials necessary for existence. The impression conveyed to my mind was associated with personal comforts, viz., modern clothing, modern guns, provisions, etc., guides and servants, and a college friend — food for the body, and food for the mind; but where everything must be done by one's own efforts, trees cut down, a house built, wood chopped, fires lit, food produced and cooked, etc., common sense disabuses the mind. .

My position was close to the lake. It was a fairly open spot where tall trees had long ago rotted and fallen. This swamp covered about ten acres, and on the north side the ground rose to a considerable height. The place was bounded by a few tall, handsome trees, and it was behind one of these on the south side that I took my stand about thirty-five yards from the thick bush.

My companions soon disappeared and I was left alone in perhaps one of the wildest and most solitary regions in the world. For ten minutes a deathly silence reigned, and my thoughts dwelt upon my line of action in the event of a deer crossing the swamp. My duty was to drive him back to the guns and prevent him taking to the lake. The first awakening to life was the squall of some blue-jays evidently startled by the hunting-party, and I had opportunities of observing their habits closely from my hiding-place. They approached so near to me that I could have hit them with a stone, and then, as though disgusted, they all flew off chattering. Then a large handsome kingfisher about the size of a pigeon, crossed and recrossed the swamp, giving me an easy shot and a desire to add his gorgeous plumage to my collection of birds. The presence of this bird appeared to create some stir and animation in the dark waters of the swamp.

Innumerable heads popped up, and now and then a heavy splash startled me. Suddenly there arose a hideous bellowing, started by a deep guttural voice and chorused by thousands, until I realised the fact that a deer might pass me during the din. They were huge bull-frogs, but what the bird had done to cause their wrath or alarm I could not conceive, until it occurred to me that they had only just recovered from the noise of our party. Bull-frogs are considered excellent eating. Both Mae and I pretended we liked frogs' legs, both even deceived each other by boasting we had often eaten them, both became most enthusiastic over the cooking, but drew a sigh of relief when we perceived the skinning and killing process had already been attended to. Then came the new odor of frying. Mac smacked his lips and whispered in my ear : ` I wish they had come sooner, old man ! I could eat the lot myself '—but oh! with what a sickly smile he spoke, and when he looked at me he perceived a sicklier face. Then he frowned and looked as though he would say: ` I question if he has ever eaten a frog's leg in his life.' Complaining that the smoke got into his throat, and with a cheery request to the Americans that he did not care how soon the frogs were cooked, he sat down by my side in silence. Suddenly he turned to me and whispered: ' Do you like frog's legs, Poddy?

" ` Yes,' I replied, feeling uncomfortable as a sort of fishy, fowly odor entered my nostrils. ` You don't seem very keen,' he added. After this we fell into silence, to be aroused by a jolly American bearing in triumph toward us a crowded pan of the nauseous-looking fry. How I wished inwardly he would fall and sprain his ankle, and I thought I heard a remark from Mac not too complimentary; but it may have been only fancy, as the leaves were rustling in the trees overhead. Mac was helped first, and for this I was devoutly thankful. I made an excuse that my plate was dirty, thus causing delay while I washed it in the lake, but I found Mae waiting for me patiently upon my return with his piled-up plate untouched. Probably he would have sat for an hour had not a voice whispered : How do you like them? ' He replied with the question : ` Have you tasted them yet? ' I told him I was waiting to hear whether they were properly cooked. Seizing a small leg he commenced to eat, murmuring : ` Most delicate ! most delicious ! ' and suggesting again and again how valuable they would prove for invalids. He, however, did not ask for more, and soon disappeared hors de combat. We don't eat frog's legs now, nor refer to the subject.

" Scarcely had the frogs disappeared when I heard the approach of the hounds, their deep baying sounded almost sepulchral from the virgin forest.

" Immediately I became alert, examining gun, cartridges, safety-catch, etc., and then listening intently. I gazed on all the deer-runs without making the slightest movement with my body. Once or twice I caught the sound of snapping twigs, but after waiting anxiously for half an hour I concluded that the stag had broken away.' Another monotonous silence followed, and I had a temptation to fire at a woodcock that sat upon a bough close by uttering his strange rattling notes. After a while I could not resist the temptation to leave my post and approach him. I had walked only ten yards, when I was aroused by a deep baying, and before I could regain my tree there came a whirr and a report as a bullet went whizzing through the air. Some sportsmen who have had no big-game experience completely lose their heads when confronted by a wild stag. They are unable to shoot or move. This is called the ` deer scare.' I had experienced this feeling ten years before, and had no longer a tendency to it. My plan was to remain concealed, and then rush forward and discharge both barrels.

" I had not long to wait— a brief notice of snapping twigs, and then a huge stag appeared with his head almost touching the ground, and his handsome antlers directed toward me. In a second I fired, and the stag took a bound into the air, but before I could reach him he sprang to his feet and bounded off toward the north. I shot again, but as I did so either his wound or the slippery condition of the log caused him to stumble upon his knees. I aimed between the shoulders, and his tail taking the line of sight was cut off as cleanly as though it had been severed with a knife. This incident is unique in my knowledge of deer-shooting experience. The tail is still in my possession. I found eventually that all my shots took effect. My attention was soon directed again to my post, as the noise of a heavy animal approaching drew near."

The white man conducts his hunting excursions in various modes suited to his taste and adapted to the nature of the country in which he resides. My favourite method used to be " deer-stalking." This is carried out on foot, without dogs or companions. Experience soon teaches us where to look for deer. He may be espied in his bed, or silently crept upon from behind the cover of a large tree whilst he is feeding. The prints upon the snow or path are sure indications to guide the sportsman. When studied closely a reliable estimate may be formed as to the time and pace that the deer has crossed the path. It would be impossible to write directions to would-be big-game hunters, natural instinct becomes our only teacher, and living in Muskoka's pure atmosphere the senses of sight and sound wonderfully improve. A knowledge of the movements of a deer when alarmed, when at ease, or when satisfied his pursuer has departed, are essential to successful deer-stalking.

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