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As I lifted one snowshoe and placed it in front of the other through the thick powdery snow, I found myself venturing deeper into the wintery woods. With the smell of fresh pine dancing through the cool air, this had to be heaven.

You take a moment and close your eyes then breathe it in, you are absolutely surrounded by the darkness of the coniferous forest which contains all of its mysteries that nature has to offer, far away from all that is logical to the rational mind. The time had come, I found a hare lead and began to navigate further into the thick brush, with large amounts of snow falling upon my shoulders but I kept on pushing ahead.

It did not take long before I found fresh tracks and green droppings, I was close but I could not see any black pearl eyes yet. I knelt down and got closer to the forest floor and focused on the hidden dark areas. I felt a strong presence, something was watching me but I could not yet see it. I took two more steps forward and glanced to my left, there he was the white ghost in the darkness with his black pearl eyes. Neatly tucked away behind some spruce boughs.

A true treasure of the Canadian wilderness, staring right at me with the utmost intensity, nature is cold and ruthless but contains some of the most incredible images, those not always understood by the rational mind.

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It Exists


The snow was not very deep only coming up half way up my shin-bones. My socks were soaked with sweat and both had slipped down further into my boots. My leg hairs on the front were getting ripped out with my skin irritated from the rubbing of the lips of my boots with laces that were also soaked.

I was breathing heavy from all the pushing forward in the snow and I took a much-needed rest. It was the middle of the month of March and I had been tracking snow shoe hare leads while attempting to harvest the illusive varying hare.

Two hours had passed since the beginning of my hunt as I was moving in and out of snow-covered pine and cedar trees chasing my quarry. There was no shortage of coyote tracks along with fresh droppings and I knew there was more than one dog because coyotes normally form groups when hunting.

When I am out alone in the woods, especially during the winter, I try not to allow my fear or imagination to run wild concerning wolves, bears and coyotes. My awareness and respect for nature work as a guides and allows me to push a little further, deeper into the wilderness but I am not reckless.

By mid afternoon the snowy woods had become an incredible wilderness scene worthy of a painting but the shadows between and under the evergreen were getting darker. Now that I was rested, I continued my push deeper into the woods and there I found more coyote tracks with fresh urine, droppings and under a pine tree to my left or north, I found a cow skull with bits of flesh left on the cheek bones.

I stopped in my tracks, looked around and very carefully looking through the condensation of my breath. I was overcome by a very strong sense and deep within my gut telling me to stop and turn back toward the farm.

In front of me there was a wall of evergreen which separated me from the trees was an old farming fence composed of rotten wooden posts and wire. Behind the trees was total darkness, I could feel something almost like eyes were staring at me but I could not see a thing. I pumped the action of my 870 and loaded a shell into the chamber and pushed the safety on and brought the shotgun butt into my shoulder and completed a half a circle scan and then slowly moved backward and headed back to the farm.

That day I never fired a shot nor did I harvest a hare but I know to this day that I was not alone out there. There was an energy, aura of a sort and knew that it time to leave the wilderness for the day.

We are living creatures and I know that we give off energy and other animals can sense it and we can in hand sense them. The Mayans are known to have harnessed this knowledge in aiding them to hunt deer.

R.D Lawrence writes the following in his book: Paddy, Chapter 2, page 46. “Wild things, especially young ones, are acutely sensitive to mood and are able to pick up “sense waves” from that aura which, like some intangible breeze, seems to be given off by all living creatures. This is a phenomenon of life that defies comprehension at this stage of human enlightenment, but it does, nevertheless, exist-of this I am sure.”

I too know it exists.

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A flock of Red-winged blackbirds and a few European starlings were chanting and flying around from tree top to tree top, through the pine and cedar woods to the north. Then following a strong breeze that blew in from the west, they would fly over to the nearest barn, as if they were being scooped up by the wind. You could hear their claws gripping the aluminum sheets on the roof as they slipped down its side. And then down they went to the lower brush to the east changing direction in flight with incredible agility allowing them to land directly where there was grain spread out on the muddy ground.

It was a beautiful day out in the country and the temperature was at about sixteen degrees Celsius with a strong breeze coming in from the west bringing along with it some dark grey clouds, that would momentarily hide the sun. Once the clouds had passed you could feel the heat on your face again, the sky then had a light blue color to it. The change of colors in the fields as the clouds cleared was stunning with the sun breaking through and this is a very important time to try and spot game.

On the drive in to the farm, I had noticed quite a few groundhogs all along the highway on the earth mounds on each side of the road and in and around the barns scattered over the countryside. I knew that the “Siffleuse” were active. In Quebec groundhogs are also known as the “Marmotte Siffleuse” because it stomps its feet and whistles if you get too close or when danger lurks.

After having spent the most part of an hour talking to the farmer about the local news over a nice hot cup of coffee, I decided to sight in my rifle scope taking a few shots into a safe shooting pit using a target that I built using Styrofoam. Using a modified sighting technique similar to that which Stephen Archer demonstrates on his Internet instructional video. Now that my grouping was nice and tight, I was ready for the days hunt. The fact that there was no varmint activity beside the cluster of barns to the east, made me change my plan and move toward the larger field to the west staying close to the northern tree line.

The farm consisted of a total of six barns and the network of holes all around them including the very large rock pile to the east had seen no groundhog activity for the past few weeks.

So I set off and was still-hunting for about thirty minutes to the west, until I came up to the wired fence, so I unloaded my rifle, jumped over the small creek and then got down on one knee and lifted the wire with my left hand and pushed my unloaded rifle under the fence and then using my right hand I pushed myself underneath the wire to the other side making myself as low as could.

On the other side of the fence there was dark mixed forest vegetation in the shape of an island between the east and west fields. Immediately to my front was one of the largest hay fields split in two by a ravine and at its top there were clusters of rocks with a network of groundhog holes where I had harvested some varmint last summer.

I also remember seeing some groundhogs hidden on the tree line on the other side of the field toward the south. So, once I made it past the wired fence and stood up in a standing position, I started to still-hunt across the field, loaded my rifle and placed it on safe. About half way across the field I noticed the groundhog sun-bathing on one of the largest rocks on the south side of the tree line.

He was looking right at me and had a great field of view to the north. So, I crouched down and moved across the field in the low ground. At this point I was almost kneeling and it was hard work making it across the field without my head and shoulders going over the crest. I was studying the trees to see which one had the widest trunk, so that I could use it to close in. I found a tree just wide enough to conceal me from the groundhog and I was able to close the gap between us. I would stop quite frequently get down and move slightly to my right towards the west as I was now heading south and I could still see the varmint sun-bathing on the large boulder just inside the tree line.

Once I reached part of the distance for my shot and was just meters from the cluster of rocks, I placed my left hand on the damp ground and moved forward some more than placed the rifle stock using my right hand onto the ground ensuring my movement was stealthy. I then moved into the prone position and started inching forward using the leopard crawl, placing myself in the perfect shooting position.

My heart was racing for several minutes now and I was practically out of breath from all the movement across the field, meanwhile the whole time I was also watching out for the cattle herd and its large bull just over the crest of the ravine.

Now in position behind the rocks on the edge of the forest only twenty-one yards out with my T-Bolt stock and barrel facing the large boulder in the south. Even though I was in position, it did not feel quite right and I had to reposition myself without setting off the groundhog into a whistling alarm causing him to retreat into his den.

So, I moved back inching myself backward using my entire body, I was practically slithering almost lifting myself off the ground using my forearms and the ball of my feet and then moving myself forward back into what I thought was the best shooting prone position.

I started to take my deep breaths and hold my breathing for a few seconds and then release and then breathing in again, this way I was controlling my chest movements. I did this three more times and on the third breath I released half of the air and steadied the Browning T-Bolt like a solid rock.

Once I reconfirmed my cross hairs were perfectly lined up with the groundhog’s vitals, I slowly released the trigger with the tip of my finger and the shot rang out “Snap” then I heard the thump and the varmint tumbled off the boulder near its den entrance.

This was the first groundhog harvest of the season, within minutes of returning to the barn to show the farmer my harvest, all the cattle started moving toward the boulders and rock formation and soon the entire herd filled the western hay-field.

I know that cattle are naturally curious animals but I have never fully understood why the cows always come over to the spot where I just harvested my groundhogs as long as there is no obstacle preventing them from doing so.

It was a great day to be a Varminter indeed!

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My watercolor painting of a Canadian trapper in winter.

Several weeks ago, I met up with my trapper friend in the woods, while hunting the elusive snowshoe hare. He had just bought a new snow-machine and was out checking his traps.  His machine was a real beauty; we had a nice conversation about the local news as well as hare hunting and he suggested I come out for half days instead plus later in the afternoon. This would increase my chances of seeing game. And I knew that animal activity was busy in the early mornings and later in the afternoon nearing dusk.
 
So, on Sunday I came out to my favourite hunting grounds and the trapper was absolutely right. He also knew that I was coming out soon, so he took his new snow-machine and drove through the woods and formed a very large trail in the shape of a circle, just like cross-country ski trails in some of our parks. This way it would be easier for me to hunt and walk in the thick snow but also use the trail as a guide to find my way back.
 
It was a perfect circle alright, a circle of friendship.

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Setting off on a hunt in farming country is quite different from hunting in the woods, especially in an area where you have never been before. While I am hunting I do not want to spend most of my time trying to figure out where I am.

Imagine your phone suddenly rings and a friend asks you to meet them for drinks or maybe you are telling them a story and you wish to share with them the information about where it took place.

This type of communication exchange takes place almost every second around the world, and there is always one thing in common; we share directions. This is accomplished with the use of points of reference, such as street names or that of a restaurant, maybe even a nickname for your favorite hangouts. Physical descriptions such as features are also used as an example -where there is a very large tree found at the entrance of the pub.

Your ultimate goal is to choose an exact geographic point, in which everyone is familiar with, thus making it easier to meet or imagine during a story telling. Several nights ago I had a chat with my neighbor and he talked about his grandfather and where they grew up; one of the things he remembers the most was the fact that during their walks on their land his grandfather had a constant awareness of his whereabouts.

At times choosing a meeting spot in an urban setting or even describing directions could be challenging, now imagine having to do so outside the city. How does someone know where they are, especially in the woods?

Having such a level of comfort and constant awareness of your whereabouts makes it easier to enjoy your hunt as the territory transforms itself into something familiar. Last winter I was alone in the woods hunting the elusive snowshoe hare on my friend’s property and I had noticed a lot of coyote tracks in the area.

There were two tracks in particular which caught my attention and they were both heading west near a lake that I named “Goose Lake”, I had noticed fur clumps and a cow skull several yards away under the largest pine tree in this part of the woods.

At the end of my hunt, I met up with the farmer and described what I had seen before heading home. He knew exactly which spot I was referring to. It was quite amazing to be able to talk about a single point in the woods as if we were talking about a very specific coffee-house found on a well-known street corner and we both knew exactly where it was.

When I set out on a hunt, I always let my family know where I am going along with instructions to call the authorities and provide them with the spot on the map of where I will be, if ever I fail to return at a specific time or to contact them. This is one precaution that can be taken, so that you are found if you ever get lost. But what I ask myself is: What can be done or learned for the actual hunt? If you are hunting with an outfitter, you can ask for a guided hunt. Myself, I like to have a map of the area where I will be hunting; I also use my GPS along with my Bushnell Backtrack tool. But I know that there is much more to it then this.

I am a strong believer that farmers and the older generation of hunters have a lot to teach us about recognizing very specific points of reference and land features also possibly following the position of the sun and using it as a guide or similar knowledge.

I have had the privilege to be able to hunt on the same property for several years now and here are some practices that I use to know my whereabouts:

1) While I am standing at my departure point, I will set my Bushnell Backtrack with a return point back to my vehicle. I also study my map of the area.
2) I set my Garmin GPS with waypoints and enter prominent names.
3) I use my compass and aim at a prominent object such as a very distinctive large tree or lake even a building and record my current and back bearings.
4) I look at the position of the sun and use it as a guide.
5) I find prominent features such as lakes, creeks, strange-looking trees, fields and cliffs and use them as reference points and provide them with names.
6) I also use trail maker tape (Quite often orange) or I use sticks and make markings on the ground or on the trail.
7) I also familiarize myself with the dominant winds in my region which tend to be North-easterly winds and then I use the cloud movement as a guide or the movement in the trees.

I shall continue my endless search of tips and tricks about knowing your whereabouts, so that myself and many others may enjoy our hunts without losing time trying to figure out where we are and do so with a positive sense of direction.

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The first hare lead that I decided to track on this particular day was without a doubt one of the toughest this winter. Even though it had been much warmer over the past couple of days and it had also rained, the most recent snow fall had left the nearby field and swamp with waist deep snow rendering my progress slow. There was a slight overcast in the sky and the temperature was three below zero. Once in a while as the clouds would clear the sun would break through and momentarily warm my face and hands.

I had no choice but to leave the car parked at the main entrance of the property and set off on foot in an easterly direction down a small slope onto the frozen swamp. The snow was just too high on the road. The swamp was located on the northern edge of the main country road and the trees nearby created a natural canopy of pine and cedar mixed in with straw sticking out of the snow and the area was littered with tracks.

Right away I noticed a trail that looked like it belonged to a mink or even a fisher. It had very distinct claw marks in the snow similar to that of raccoons. So I pressed on until I hit the western edge of the hay-field on the northern side, still following the lead. I took advantage of the change in vegetation to stop and catch my breath also to observe. On my left there was a large pine tree, surrounded by smaller bushes. I was looking left and right looking for any sign of snowshoe hare activity. This is when I spotted several more tracks and noticed some fur and then a blood trail.

The ravens above me were being very loud and kind of gliding just above me like turkey vultures. At the base of the tree there were carrion remains and a large skull. It was not a sight for the faint of heart as there was some muscle and fat tissue still attached and all its teeth were intact. A farmer had told me that the hide alone could weigh in at around one hundred pounds and that it would take several coyotes or wolves to drag that away but it was nowhere to be found. I had wanted to hunt hare in the morning and then try for rock dove after lunch, but after a sight like this and being in the bush alone my instinct was telling me that maybe I should move on.

There were canine tracks everywhere in various sizes and the tracks that I found were only a few hours old. I then decided to move north back to the eastern side of the quarry, where I had harvested my last hare and continue to search for more leads. As I left the swamp and the wood line near the road across the field to the south, I saw additional tracks and followed them some more and this is when I found large droppings as well as a well-traveled trail filled with paw marks. There was set in particular that was very large. There wasn’t just one canine with me in the woods like there was a few weeks ago, it was now more like two or three.

The paw tracks were almost too large to be that of a coyote, perhaps a timber wolf. So, I followed the trail some more because there were also fresh hare tracks nearby leading to the creek. When the forest cover got too thick and the snow was still knee-deep, especially with carrion around, I did not dare venture deeper into the darker part of the wilderness.
There were scattered pockets of evergreen, old wooden planks resting up against a barbed wired fence, offering plenty of cover. By this time I was now experiencing a strong feeling, that I was no longer alone and I also felt I was not necessarily a wanted presence.

I slowly turned toward the heavily travelled trail full of paw marks to the west and took several photos before heading back to the car for lunch. You know, a couple of days have passed since this feeling that came over me in the woods and yet while I am sitting on the bus going to work a part of me that is truly curious wanted to seek beyond the darkness in that evergreen.

By mid afternoon, I had made my way to the farm and met up with the farmer who was tending to his cattle and he had granted me the right to attempt to harvest some rock doves that were eating his grain. He had scattered some feed for his cows and then brought several buckets of water to the calves that were taking shelter in one of the smaller barns. He had mentioned to me that the rock doves were clearing out the grain on the ground and that it could start getting expensive. So, some assistance with this would be appreciated.

Even though rock doves are the same bird we see in the city, out in the country their behavior is quite different and this is to be expected. They see very well and if spooked they do not just fly a short distance away to safety then come back. Sometimes they will fly away over the forested ridge and not come back for several hours or not return at all.

For me there was a flock of five birds in my sights. One of the strangest occurrences that I had experienced was several weeks prior I set out to harvest the farm pigeons. I made the mistake of pointing to them and talked about my approach with another hunter out loud and the birds immediately flew away and did not return for two days according to the farmer.

This time it was going to be different, very different. I started by walking over to the car and continued to talk to the farmer and not pay attention to the birds at all. They were sitting on the trim of the barns roof. And a precision shot was out of the question. I had only packed my 870 with me and did not bring my .22.

Down on the southern ridge there were two older barns and the rock doves had made their nest inside. So, I slowly walked up to the gate at the cow enclosure and the opening to the southwestern field.

I stood there for a moment watching for rock dove activity. Sure enough within a few minutes a group of three flew in and landed nearby. I slowly moved back to car to get into a better shooting position but failed and spooked them and they took off circled in the air and descended to the second barn on the southern ridge.

It was very difficult to move about and align a shot. The birds were easily spooked and I could not shoot at the barn roof, I had to watch for the trucks, tractors and finally the cattle.

I slowly re-positioned myself and used an old tractor for cover and managed to get down the slope and enter the first abandoned barn from the northern side. There was a small window and a door on the southern edge and I had a clear shot on the pigeons, but there was one problem. I was carrying my 870 and I could shoot the roof.

With my .22, I could have taken a clear shot through an opening in the barn without exposing myself. This would have been a great shot under total concealment but this was not a possibility. I asked myself: What kind of approach could be used without scaring them? The only option was to jump shoot them, so I stood at the doorway and leaped outside, this seem to work since they hastily bounced into flight.

I took aim at the last one of the group and fired a shot, the bird swerved and dove and broke into an even faster flight and all three disappeared into the tree line to the east. It was a miss. Dang! I had to wait another forty minutes or so for them to come back, so I climbed the ridge and went back to the main gate.

Sure enough two rock doves flew in from the east heading west straight between the two smaller barns and over the gate and settled in the snow nearby. I quickly went down to my knees and crouched my way around the barn to the north and staying as low as I could I positioned myself in a kneeling position on the north-western side of the barn to my right.

The two birds were still feeding but never kept still, once the birds were not in the line of sight with the cattle, I rose my 870 and in one single motion, stood up and sent the rock doves into flight, Vlam! The shot rang out and I had harvested my first pigeon of the season.

Rock dove may not compare to big game trophies but it is most definitely an exhilarating hunt and great practice for the waterfowl season.

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Snare2

Snare2

The early morning air that surrounded me in the woods was crisp and cold. It was almost like time was standing still and every sound in the forest was amplified. The trees had a pure white coat on them after a light January snow fall at dawn.

The temperature was thirty below and the twenty gauge wire that I was working with for my snares was burning my hands as they slowly went numb. I had been tightening the wire around a broken support branch that I had placed overtop my hare lead at its narrowest section.

After carefully placing twigs creating a funnel cone toward the opening of my snare, it was now time for me to tie up my trail marker tape identifying the second snare spot. I was only on my second setup and my goal was to have five more completed by mid morning.

At about eleven o’clock all my snares were in place and had been inspected. A friend and veteran snare hunter had taught me that after the holidays around mid January it was a good idea to adjust your snare openings. Making them slightly larger than the size of your fist and instead of having the wire around five-finger widths from the ground, he suggested it be around three.

Satisfied with my snares, I packed away my gear and prepared myself for the drive home; the anxiety for the next morning’s potential harvest was slowly consuming me. As an avid hunter my excitement level was about the same as someone would experience while waiting to open their gifts on Christmas day. It was now time for nature to take the lead no pun intended.

For those who are familiar with nature, especially North American animals there is a belief that badgers have an interesting relationship with coyotes. This relationship gets even more interesting when they are hunting for food together. Let us imagine they were pursuing a ground dwelling rodent, the badger would attempt to dig him out. The coyote on the other hand would simply wait at one of the escape holes and grab the rodent as it escapes.

Now it is also a known fact that coyotes are smarter than foxes. The question is then: Is it just smarts or is it simply theft? Another interesting fact about this relationship is why the badger doesn’t just kill the coyote that is stealing or trespassing during the combined hunt. Opportunistic or instinct, is it theft or just survival?

The following morning had come and the temperature on the thermostat was showing twenty-four below zero. My goal was to get to the site before nine in the morning, check all my snares and then plan to be home in time for lunch. So I loaded up my gear and headed out to the woods, which was about an hour drive north.

My first snare was intact and although there were fresh tracks in the new snow, they did not lead to my opening, so I slowly removed the wire and marker and placed it in my pocket and prepared myself to move to the second snare. I had put on my yellowish tint shooting glasses, which offer such a visual advantage during the winter when sifting through pine and cedar. I also brought along my .22 bolt-action Savage in the event that a hare may break into a full chase, so with this in mind I decided to stalk between my snare spots.

When I got up to my second snare, I instantly noticed the scattered blood droplets on the white snow and branches. There were obvious signs of a struggle, I also saw several droppings scattered on the fresh snow and there were tuffs of fur stuck on the branches and the log nearby.

My shiny twenty gauge wire had been torn and was still tied off to the main log. I tirelessly looked for a blood trail around the leads but the hare had just vanished and although there were three other leads heading up the ridge there was no sign of blood.

I did however notice prints in the snow heading north-west that looked like coyote tracks; they were headed directly into heavy cedar underbrush and into an area that was quite dark even in daylight. I spent the next forty-five minutes searching the area around the second snare site but did not see any sign of my hare. I gathered up my remaining snares and prepared myself for a challenging season.

The tell-tale signs indicate that I had successfully snared my first hare this year but ended up getting badgered by the local coyote. This most definitely adds a more positive spin to my snowshoe hare and small game season this winter because I now have an added challenge ahead of me.

I do not wish to be badgered again.

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