Into Harm’s Way

Or when not to walk in the woods

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It is early Saturday morning and I’m driving into our local State Park on my way to meet a hiker at a trail head for the Ice Age Trail (IAT).  It is also the first day of gun deer hunting season in Wisconsin.  Signs are posted warning folks that it is hunting season and the park is fair game, so to speak.  Large vehicles, many with trailers, are parked on the side of the road and I see men in blaze orange hiking in the woods with rifles drawn.  I feel a bit like I’m driving into a war zone.  From the deer’s perspective, I’m sure that they’d agree – for them it absolutely is a war zone.  I love hiking in this park but you could not pay me enough money to hike in these woods today.  No way.

Previously, I’d never paid much attention to the hunting seasons where I’ve lived (and hiked).  For many years I resided in a relatively urban area of Maryland near Washington DC and the hiking thus was mostly insulated from certain practicalities associated with deer hunting.  Translation:  I never really saw folks walking around with guns, looking for something to shoot.  Then, of course, I moved to Wisconsin. This presented some great hiking opportunities but as with most things in life, it came with a challenge.  And, that challenge is to avoid being mistaken for game while out in the woods.

I had sufficient warning that Wisconsin might be, well, different.  My wife was born and raised in Wisconsin and the first year we were dating, now many years ago,  I was invited to spend Thanksgiving with her family in her home town, on Sunday.   Naively, I wondered why Sunday and not Thursday.  Was this some aberration peculiar to Wisconsin?  But, no, there was a rather simple explanation – Thanksgiving fell in the middle of deer hunting season and thus on Thursday the men were off in the woods.  In all her years of marriage, my mother-in-law always had Thanksgiving on Sunday.  That particular Sunday afternoon, completely smitten by the woman whom I would eventually marry, I accepted an invitation from my future father-in-law to go with him to his brother’s cabin where the boys were gathering after their “shoot”.  It was an interesting scene.  The boys were standing around drinking Old Milwaukee and generally shooting the breeze, not the deer.  A friend of theirs from the local supermarket was serving as butcher and carving the carcasses into various pieces.  For me, it was a bit surreal.  Looking back, I am sure this whole scene was some sort of test by my girlfriend’s father to see if I was worthy of his daughter’s affection. Miraculously, somehow, I must have passed.

But, as usual, I have digressed.  Move forward 30 years and I am now happily enjoying hiking in the woods of Wisconsin.  My new state has a hidden treasure in the making – the roughly 1,200 mile long IAT that traces the edge of the glaciers in Wisconsin during the last Ice Age.  It is the only National Scenic Trail to lie solely within a single state.  I’ve slowly been exploring the trail since I moved here last Spring.  A month ago on one segment, as a hiking buddy and I were finishing up a 13 mile day hike we spotted a couple of folks with compound bows coming down the trail towards us.  I was a bit taken aback, but, not to worry, there was a simple explanation.  Deer bow hunting season, unbeknownst to me, had begun.  Although I did not know it then, this was a harbinger of things to come.

A couple of weeks later, as I was going out to some of my favorite areas to day hike, I started seeing notices informing me that gun hunting season for deer was coming and the advice was to refrain from hiking during this time.  Another sign, literally and figuratively.  This was reinforced by a friend of my wife who gave me an odd look when I talked about hiking during deer hunting season – she said flatly – “don’t do it”.

Fast forward to the first day of gun deer hunting season this year.  I still had no real idea of what was coming.  As a volunteer member of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, I’d made myself available to give hikers shuttle rides.  I was contacted earlier in the week by a person, I’ll call him “Fred”, needing a ride.  Over the weekend, he was going to knock off a 50 mile segment of the IAT and planned on “stealth camping” along the way (unlike the Appalachian Trail, the IAT does not have a well-developed set of designated camping areas).  I thought about the request briefly – didn’t this guy know that it was the first day of the hunting season?  I concluded – “of course he must – this is Wisconsin, who would not know that.  He must have some sort of special plan”.

I met Fred in the parking lot and mentioned that this was, of course, the first day of deer hunting season.  He looked at me with a stunned expression.  He didn’t have a clue!  While we were discussing this fact, another car drove into the parking area and a fellow in blaze orange got out and started futzing around with a back pack and a large rifle.  I think this served to underscore the fact that I wasn’t bull shitting Fred.

Having driven 4+ hours from Illinois to hike I could tell that Fred really didn’t want to turn around and go home but he did seem to appreciate the fact that walking in the woods for the next two days, and camping at a random location might not be his healthiest option.  A series of questions ensued – did I know if the hunters had to quit before nightfall?  Might there be sporting good shops open where he could score some blaze orange apparel, etc.  Long moments passed while he silently calculated his odds before he made the command decision to continue with his hike. So, we jumped into my car and I drove him down to another access point on the IAT for him to begin his 50 mile hike.

As I drove away from Fred I considered that it was 32 degrees, snow was falling, the wind was blowing in gusts over 20 mph, there were men (many) in the woods looking for something to shoot and I had just dropped someone off who was not wearing blaze orange to hike in these conditions!  I wondered about my culpability should something untoward happen to him.  Thank god I received an email from Fred the following evening that he had completed his hike and had arrived back home safe and sound.

I guess I won’t have any nominees for this year’s Darwin Award.

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