Something was different at Lake Natoma on Sunday.
It wasn't just that the grass had gotten a lot taller, though that certainly had a huge effect on my weekly hike. The wild oats were up to my waist in places, and I could hear from the way they rustled in the wind that they had already started to dry out - a first step toward painting the hillsides gold for the summer.
I was more than a little bit nervous as I tried to find my deer trails in this stuff - it's plenty warm enough for rattlesnakes to be a concern. So I abandoned all attempts at stealth and made as much noise as possible to avoid catching one by surprise. I hear that never ends well.
The funny thing was that despite making all kinds of noise, I kept catching game by surprise.
When I rounded a corner at the top of one hill, there were two toms with enormous, ground-scraping beards about 20 yards ahead. They boogied into the grass and down the hill, their blood-red heads bobbing through the grass so obviously that I could have killed them both easily, had I been able to carry a shotgun.
A hundred yards beyond that, I startled a hen turkey, though she was further ahead than the boys, and she hightailed it out of my range pretty quickly. Fifty yards beyond that, I startled a dove that sat on a well-worn path just a few feet in front of me - how could he have let me get so close?
And so it continued. This was obviously the day we should have gone turkey hunting with our friend Evan, not last weekend. Something was definitely in the air.
For the final stretch of my hike, I connected to a well-traveled asphalt bike path and I hadn't gone more than 100 yards when a shape under an oak tree caught my eye. A turkey shape. Ten yards away.
I stopped and stared. It was definitely a hen turkey. Her wings drooped a bit and her eyes were closed.
Then she took a step, very slowly, eyes barely open. Then another.
Something wasn't right. To test my theory, I stepped off the bike path into the shade of the oak, maybe seven yards from her now. She didn't move. I sat back on my heels and watched.
Something was really wrong - there's no way a hen turkey would let me get this close. She looked like she had been poisoned. Who would poison a turkey? I didn't think turkeys would even eat the kinds of poisons that people leave out for mammalian vermin.
I watched some more.
That's when I heard the sound to my right. I instantly had a pretty good idea what it was. Most sounds come from a single point, so when you hear a sound that comes from many points along a line all at once, what you have is a snake in the grass.
I looked away from the turkey and quickly zeroed in on a part of the body slithering past me - away from the turkey, toward a pile of branches next to the bike path, almost close enough to touch.
Body: Not huge.
Head or tail? Saw the head first, its tongue flicking rapidly.
I was pretty sure I recognized it, but I'd need to see the tail to confirm. Wait, wait, wait ...
Yup, rattler. Not the biggest I've ever seen, but I counted five or so beads on the rattle, so it was pretty mature. And did I mention how close it was? Yeah, close enough that it could've struck before I knew what happened if I had provoked it, intentionally or unintentionally.
So I just sat there and watched.
And then I wondered: Was it fleeing the scene of the crime?
I can't imagine a 5-year-old rattler choosing a turkey for a meal. But here I had a turkey that looked like a victim of poison, and a poisonous snake slithering from the scene.
And it upset me. Watching that hen was like watching an animal I've just shot: I put myself in her head, fighting the losing battle. "Sweetie, you are doomed," I thought, sadly.
Then I wondered whether she'd laid eggs yet. I'd come across lots of empty shells during my hike, so I knew birds of some sort were hatching (or being stolen and eaten). If she had laid eggs already, would this rattlesnake have cost her her whole family's life?
That got my maternal instincts going. "Protect babies, at all costs." That's serious genetic coding right there. Not that it did anyone any good.
It was easy to see, in that moment, how non-hunters view us and what we do. I knew, rationally, that if in fact that rattlesnake had bitten this turkey, that it was just how life works. We all feed off of each other. We all cause pain.
But no amount of logic was going to keep me from taking sides, because one animal in front of me was suffering, and the other was not. Despite the fact that if I had encountered this hen in the fall in a place where I could hunt, I might be celebrating having killed her instead of mourning the end of her life.
I don't know that there's any grand message to take away from this. It is what it is.
Perhaps it's just a simple reminder that, to many people, even to those who intellectually understand and accept what we do, we hunters are the snakes in nature's life-and-death struggle.
Does it mean we shouldn't continue playing a role that we have played for hundreds of millenia? Nope. We are what we are.
I guess it just means we shouldn't be surprised by how others see us.
© Holly A. Heyser 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
Something was different at Lake Natoma on Sunday.