OUTFOXED BY A DEER
Published: Scarlett Leaf Review
"Are you smarter than your average deer?”. Until today's hike, Burke had never considered the question. If he’d been asked, his response would have been a dismissive, “Of course.” Now, he wasn’t so sure.
A late December storm had coated Washington D.C. with five inches of snow that was topped by a sheen of ice. Anything over two inches paralyzes the city quicker than a bipartisan proposal. Therefore, federal offices were closed and Burke had the day off from his job at the Environmental Protection Agency. The storm broke about noon and the occasional sun transformed the land into a rolling sea of shimmering white. The morning's drab winterscape was now picturesque and enticing. It drew Burke outside to enjoy the crisp air and ephemeral beauty.
He drove the slick George Washington Memorial Parkway to Theodore Roosevelt Island for a hike and to see how Teddy was surviving the winter. The densely overgrown island is in the middle of the Potomac River across from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Its ninety acres of wetlands and oak, elm and tulip forest is as close as you can get to a wilderness in the District. With the storm, chill air, icy roads and the holiday season, the Park was unusually empty. When Burke turned off the Parkway in the late afternoon, there were only three cars in the unplowed parking lot. The long pedestrian footbridge over the partially frozen Potomac River was snow covered. The slippery footing might have alerted him to be cautious in the woods.
Accompanied by the sharp crunch of boot on crusted snow, Burke circled right and followed the main path uphill to the Roosevelt Memorial. Most of the trees were bare, but scattered evergreens embraced a shawl of snow. When he reached the wide Memorial plaza, President Roosevelt was as defiant as ever. The seventeen foot high bronze statue of Teddy was shaking his upraised fist at the low-flying jets disturbing his peace as they dropped into National Airport. Burke gave our most rugged, and too often overlooked, president a salute. Then, he revisited the flanking monoliths that were engraved with quotes from Roosevelt urging a hardy life. Inspired, Burke took one of the wooded paths for an extended hike. A few steps from the Memorial, the land relaxed into a natural and messy state.
The Upland Trail is a North-South gravel footpath running along the high spine of the island. It is West of the marshy inlet bisecting the Park. Through the trees, there was an occasional glimpse of the hulking Kennedy Center glittering in the sun like a bejeweled box. Nonetheless, the Park felt surprisingly isolated for being such a short distance from bustling Georgetown. While the isle is in the city, it is not of it.
In the mature woodland, light filtered through the largely denuded canopy. However, the scattered oaks held onto desiccated leaves. Despite the sun, no snow had melted in the cold temperature. Powdered tufts were dislodged from high branches by occasional gusts and dispersed in shimmering waves. A single set of footprints had disturbed the trail. The woods were alternately bathed in the chirps of unseen birds, and the silence of Winter.
Within minutes, Burke encountered a large whitetail deer. It stood just off the trail and perhaps fifty feet away. Immobile, his neck was twisted so both liquid eyes gazed intently at Burke. As in other cities, herds of deer had invaded many parts of the District of Columbia. Deer herds in cities and suburbs looked out of place near highways and convenience stores. Not here. Roosevelt Island was both roadless and, as part of the National Park System, a no hunting zone. Therefore, it was a particularly isolated and safe sanctuary. The deer's calm demeanor seemed to indicate that it appreciated this fact.
Intriguingly, the deer was in the middle of shedding one of its deciduous antlers. Each horn had five points. The antlers were a lighter shade of brown than the thick winter fur. The left one was intact and upright. It was impressively large and forward curving. However, the right horn was dangling upside down in front of his eye. It swung heavily with the slightest movement of his head and appeared to be within minutes of falling off. Burke knew deer shed their antlers annually, but had never seen the process up close. Struck by the opportunity to pick up a trophy for his bookshelf, he decided to shadow the animal until the antler detached.
Since deer are notoriously skittish, Burke adopted a strategy to be subtle and conceal his intentions. Avoiding direct eye contact, he pretended to be fascinated by the nearby vegetation. Many of the grey trees were draped and stunted by wiry vines and English Ivy.
The stag was not fooled by Burke's stealth and watched him guardedly. His eyes were dark, large and focused. The elongated ears, with their white interior, were alert. The deer took an occasional step forward and bent to nibble on a shoot emerging from the snow. But, his attention never left Burke. Although Burke was hopeful, these limited movements were insufficient to shake the tenuous antler loose.
After standing motionless for long minutes, Burke's legs were getting cold beneath the thin cotton of his jeans. He pulled his knit cap tighter over his ears. A different plan was necessary. Burke reasoned that if he could get the deer to move faster, the motion and gravity would accelerate the natural shedding. Since the bright yellow ski parka he wore precluded a sneaky approach, Burke decided to just walk closer.
At his advance, the deer gracefully sauntered away with limited head motion. Burke followed less gracefully. Moving off the blue-blazed trail, he lumbered over downed trees and weathered rocks. Under the snow, the decomposing leaves were slick. He stepped gingerly to keep his balance on the icy ground. The buck's dainty and practiced tread was near silent. Burke's stomping in the snow, dead leaves and woody detritus was noisy and disturbed the wintry hush. About every dozen steps, the deer would stop, look casually toward Burke, take a bite from a plant, then continue his stroll. Burke shadowed his prey for several minutes without success. They were at an impasse. This was getting Burke nowhere but deeper into the woods.
He thought about being more aggressive in his pursuit in the hope of dislodging the wayward antler. However, he was conflicted. Having worked for years at the EPA, he considered himself a principled tree-hugger. A more bellicose chase might be a breach of woodland etiquette. While chewing his cud, the stag eyed him and awaited the next move. The horn waved teasingly.
After pondering the dilemma, Burke decided that continuing the hunt would be neither harassment, nor a violation of his environmental ethics. In fact, he justified the chase as a philanthropic win-win for the two of them. Burke would be helping this poor beast lose an antler he clearly wanted removed, before it punctured his eyeball. In return, Burke would get a natural keepsake. It was practically a humanitarian mission. Burke convinced himself that John Muir would approve.
Oak leaves rustled in the breeze to applaud his decision. Morally re-assured, Burke smiled at the deer. With a quicker pace, he marched toward him down a miniature ravine and then up a hillock. However, the deer didn't seem to subscribe to the new scheme. Slanting downhill, it moved slowly away. Burke followed deeper into the forest as they descended toward the bog. Was the deer intentionally taking the most difficult and obstacle-ridden route? Moving nonchalantly, his thin legs easily navigated the debris. In contrast, Burke struggled for footing on the uneven terrain and began puffing. This was friendly territory for steady four-legged creatures. It was treacherous for biped homo sapien intruders. Burke suddenly felt evolutionarily challenged compared to his wild companion. Still, he pressed on, motivated by goodwill and the tantalizing memento.
As the sun got lower, it was obscured by incoming clouds that produced a changing mix of shadow and light. The forest noticeably cooled and darkened. In concert, so did Burke's mood. The uncooperative bull was testing the limits of his altruism. Burke became convinced that his ‘friend’ did not consider himself a partner in this noble crusade. It was also apparent that the deer didn’t even acknowledge Burke as a minor irritant. The vestigial hunter in Burke became annoyed at this condescending dismissal. He decided a more adversarial course was required to shake lose the stubborn antler.
So as not to telegraph his change in approach, Burke put his hands in his pockets, looked away and rocked on his feet pretending to ignore the haughty critter. When Burke figured the deer was sufficiently lulled, he turned and charged while frantically waving his arms and yelling loudly. It had the desired effect. The deer was startled and jerked away. In a series of leaps, it pushed off from deceptively powerful hind legs and landed nimbly on his front feet. The high bounds caused the eponymous white tail to flick and wave as though he were disrespectfully mooning Burke.
Unfortunately, the blitz had unintended and deleterious consequences. In its tawny coat, the deer was effectively camouflaged among the brown and grey trees and rocks, so it couldn't be seen from a distance. However, in a high visibility jacket, that wasn't the case for Burke. As he was running down the slope and bellowing, he noticed that his screams attracted the attention of a couple on a boardwalk on the other side of the wetland. Looking at them diverted him from the footing. His boot slipped on the slick surface and gravity took its course. In an instant, his left foot shot into the air and his arms pinwheeled. He twisted, landed ignominiously with a thump, and slid ten to twelve feet downhill on the icy snow.
The hikers across the swamp must have wondered why a bumblebee-colored person was running crazily through the woods while howling for no apparent reason. They exchanged bewildered glances at each other, then the woman shouted, "Are you OK?".
Burke was as embarrassed as a politician being asked about a highly publicized dalliance. He struggled in a drift, then stood up and brushed himself off. He didn’t want to confess to being bested by a deer. Therefore, he incoherently called back, "Fine...uh...just hiking....I'm OK...ahh...slipped....th..thanks for asking.". They shook their heads and were probably happy that the swamp separated them from the deranged wanderer. Burke smiled foolishly and waved. They shrugged and continued their walk. Burke wiped his red and dripping nose and noticed a cold numbness in his uncovered chin.
He was furious at being so clumsy. More so for the bruise he’d likely find on his hip. But, like an executive who makes a bonehead move and then blames his staff, he was even more furious with the deer. After all, Burke was just trying to keep the buck from being called ‘Cyclops’ by his friends. Because of the deer's lack of cooperation, Burke held the deceptively innocent looking beast responsible for this mishap. Searching for the scofflaw, he spotted the deer partially obscured by a tree trunk and confined in a thicket where he had taken refuge. It was a tight maze of stunted trees, tangled vines and brambles. The animal was calmly watching his pursuer. Despite the animated bouncing, the ornery antler still dangled. Burke swore his rival had an amused expression. Reluctantly, he acknowledged the deer was smarter and more devious than he'd assumed. This venison-on-the-hoof was proving to be casually elusive.
Trying to regain composure, Burke took a deep breath and thought, "What would Teddy Roosevelt do in this situation?". He remembered the counsel chiseled at the Memorial, "All daring and courage, all iron endurance of misfortune make for a finer and nobler type of manhood." The twenty-sixth president certainly wouldn't quit in the face of a little adversity. Burke had renewed determination. Snow flurries had started anew. A freshening wind drove them horizontally and they abraded his skin and soul. Burke shrugged his parka tighter around his shoulders. This was no longer just a walk in the woods, or a lark for a silly antler. His Type A, Washington D.C. temperament kicked in. This was personal. A test of character. Although he was in the heart of one of the most advanced cities in the world, they were now engaged in one of the most ancient of rituals: man versus wild.
Appropriately, the overcast sky reduced the landscape to a muted palette of greys and whites. Assessing the situation, Burke had restored confidence that, despite his pratfall, his plan had potential. Given where the bull was hidden, if Burke attacked again, surely one of the densely intertwined vines would snag the tenuous bone and rip it from the deer's sorry head when it bolted. Tiptoeing toward the deer through the virgin snow, he tried to put out of his head the resemblance he must have had to incompetent Elmer Fudd stalking Bugs Bunny. Seemingly unconcerned, the deer waited as Burke got closer, apparently confident he wouldn't venture into the briar patch. Burke was equally confident that there was no easy way out of the tangled branches that wouldn't dislodge the deer’s obdurate treasure. The antagonists did one last mano-a-mano look into each other's eyes. With an adrenalin rush, Burke plunged in. This time without the raucous sound effects, but with Roosevelt-like resolve.
Surprised by Burke's willingness to sacrifice his body, Bambi turned tail and ran. In hot pursuit, Burke doggedly followed his retreat through the briars. The four legged varmint easily slithered through the obstructions like he was designed for it and had been doing it his entire life. It was not so easy for Burke. He got caught up on every branch, thorn and foot trap in the impenetrable copse. The bull did not lose his antler. However, Burke's wool cap was ignominiously pulled off. This should have stoked his anger. Oddly, the indignity gave him a perverse consolation. In an example of ‘Washington think’ reverse logic, he reasoned that the “Snag Strategy” had been proven correct, if unfortunately misplaced, since it had worked on his head. He retrieved his hat and jammed it back in place.
When Burke finally emerged from the confines of the thicket, his wily foe was standing at the bottom of the hill and twenty-five feet out into the yellow tufted grass of the frozen wetland. Burke paused in his mindless pursuit to nurse the scratches from the brambles and to catch his breath. A stiff gust off the Potomac made him shiver. The cold air bit his throat. He shook his body and he hunched deeper into his jacket. His misted breath turned slowly in the breeze before it disappeared. In contrast, the deer seemed oblivious to the dropping temperature and looked unseasonably comfortable in the crystal stillness.
Looking around, it was now twilight and gloomy. There was not a trail or a person in sight. The city traffic sounded far off. Burke realized he was deep into the deer’s territory. A sliver of doubt crept into his mind and dark thoughts tickled the edge of his brain. Was there a conspiracy in this deer’s heart? Could the antler be a lure? Was the deer after Burke’s hat as a trophy? Despite the benign appearance, evolution did not give the stag sharp horns just for decoration. And, didn’t deer travel in packs? Perhaps, he was being lead into an ambush. Burke’s head swiveled and scanned the shadows of the dark woods for accomplices. Who was the prey and who was the predator here? Burke flashed on a sudden and graphic New Yorker cartoon image of his head mounted on the wall of a cave, while the deer relaxed in an easy chair smoking a pipe.
Mentally slapping himself, Burke said out loud, “Get a grip. This is crazy talk.” Banishing the unworthy thoughts from his mind, he refocused on the unmoving beast. In one last attempt at bravado and to prove species superiority, Burke stepped to the edge of the marsh. The deer’s body tensed and eyed him warily as if ready to continue this titanic struggle. Burke took a tentative step forward to test the swampy terrain. His foot broke through the thin ice and filled his ankle high boot with frigid water. He cursed and retreated.
Burke accepted this humiliation as the final sign he wouldn’t be successful today.
He stumbled a few feet back up the slope, then turned and looked at the immobile deer. Burke growled, "You stupid beast. I hope you poke your eye out." But, it was without real animosity. While the deer got to keep his antler, Burke imagined they both had earned each other's respect in that snowy forest. He gave the deer a nod of regard as a worthy opponent. The deer chewed his cud in agreement.
Squishing in his soggy boot, Burke turned and headed for the parking lot in defeat. Passing the President’s memorial again, he noticed a Roosevelt quote he had missed earlier: “It is hard to fail. But it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Teddy’s up-raised hand now seemed to be offering Burke a high five for his worthy efforts. He smiled and told the Rough Rider that he appreciated the support. Despite his cold foot, Burke returned to his truck with spirits lifted. The adventure had been neither successful, nor completely enjoyable. But, it had been indelible.
He drove toward a warm tavern where he would play that most pervasive of Washington games and spin this sorry folly into an epic quest.