By Merisa Sherman
It’s crunchy season. A gorgeous afternoon, with the shining sun strong in the sky, but the ground beneath is the loudest it will be all year. A few inches of beautiful snow had melted back to reveal snowy patches alternating with leaves frozen on the ground. It was like a chorus of white and brown crunchiness. But it is the perfect time to see where snow will gather — and where it most definitely will not. The time to go exploring and learn new sections of the Vermont forests and get a good taste of what will be in the weeks and months ahead, once winter finally awakens.
We walk these woods in every season, marveling at how stark the differences are. Right now, everything is dead except for a random piece of grass sticking up from beneath the leaves. It is a luxuriously bright green and is in direct contrast to the dullness of the late autumn woods. It is the time of year where you can see for what feels like miles, the leaves having fallen to the ground and clearing the view.
One would think in all these newly discovered vastness, that the crunchy sounds would echo through the valley but there is just enough snow to absorb the sound. My hiking partner is wandering in the woods only a quarter mile away, and I can only hear him when he makes our traditional whoop calls. For the most part, I am alone in these woods. Well, except for the massive amount of deer tracks that are, apparently everywhere.
I have never been a hunter. It’s not something that I consciously decided not to do; it just wasn’t something that my father passed down to me. It’s actually something that I would love to learn how to do, but it always seems so elusive even though it is so easily accessible. In my travels in the hunter’s woods, I stop and take notice of all the possibilities around me. I try to notice the different tracks, the rub marks of antlers on a tree or the well worn bed of a happy moose.
Sometimes when I’m out looking for good skiable terrain, I grab a thick stick and pretend it’s a rifle. My old chef once told me that that was how he trained his black lab to hunt for grouse during the off-season. I hold my stick with a two hand carry, the imaginary barrel laid across my left forearm and train myself to look and listen for the sounds of scrambling hares, and I have been shocked by the accidental flushing of a nest of grouse. I might be hunting for ski trails, but I’m still trying to be aware of my surroundings.
A large open field marks an ideal place for spotting a deer — or a great powder stash — and up in a tree I spot an old tree stand. I smile, patting myself on the back for finding the spot before the tree stand. I don’t know if I would be a good hunter, but I am definitely getting better at finding some pretty good hunting spots. And judging by the fact that there is also plenty of snow lining the ground, it will be a pretty good skiing spot as well!
Marking the location on my map, I keep moving on through the woods. On my autumn mission, I am also trying to make the woods safer for those winter explorations. I see a big ugly stick and move it out of the way, adding it to an already existing pile of ugly sticks. Trust me, no one wants to have the tip of their board lift up the stick and shove it into the gut. Being a little scared is part of the excitement of skiing the woods, but no one wants to figure out how to get to safety with the internal organs skewered.
I call this part The Unveiling. I walk through the woods quietly cleaning up fallen debris from the snowy patches and moving them onto the leafy ones like I am organizing the woods into piles of go and no go. I don’t bring pruners or a chainsaw, I just take the time to do a bit of tidying. Like Marie Condo — will this stick bring joy to me and others in this location? Or could it possibly cause severe injury? If the answer is unhappiness, I help build a shelter for smaller animals by adding it to an already existing pile of icky sticks.
Maybe I am simply making excuses to take meandering walks in the woods during hunting seasons. But if there is one thing I cannot stay away from, it is the Vermont woods — beautiful no matter the season. So, I’m donning my hunter orange, grabbing my imaginary rifle and going out doing my own form of hunting — for skiable terrain.