Signs of whitetail deer near Algonquin Park

We’ve written about moose, bear and wolves – time to give a shout out to one of the fleet-footed friends of the forest – the whitetail deer.

Deer are shy and fast.  The occasional rebel struts proudly past a human – many will dart back and forth and run as fast as you see them.  I recall tracking the signs of a deer as it ran from our hound dog.  Our dog had hopelessly lost the trail of the deer when it navigated towards a fallen tree which formed a 12-15 foot high wall in the forest.  The deer had cleared the height in a  single bound – the dog had been trailing it’s smell and lost the trail at the tree.  By the time we got there, it had long escaped (a feat I admire to this day).

Signs of whitetail deer near Algonquin Park October

I can recall at least 3 separate hunts in 20 years where I have sat for 2+ hours thinking there were no animals nearby before giving up and walking away.  As I moved out of position and away from my watch, a deer bounded up and out of sight in moments.  If you get too close they will sit and wait you out until you are a safe distance away for the deer to make a bolt for it.  I imagine this distance is largely gauged based on the distance an animal running could cover but it has happened to often to discount.

Whitetail deer are proud and light in the woods.  I picture them as the Princes and Princesses of the forest palace.

Signs of whitetail deer near Algonquin Park October

Their tracks are similar to moose – however they are daintier and more reflective of their 150-250 pound frame.  Like moose, the “pointy end” of the track indicates the direction that they are going.

A small track can be 1-2 inches while a large track can be 2.5-3 inches long.  Tracks become exaggerated in soft ground (mud can make a regular track look goliath) while they can leave little-to-no sign on hard and frozen ground.

Friend or Foe – a complex relationship when hunting WITH wolves

There are at least 1 type of wolf in our forests and rumors of others coming.  We are fortunate to be graced by the rare Algonquin red wolf (there are less than 200 estimated to exist in the wild) and, depending on who you listen to, also have sightings of grey wolves.

Nature is confusing things for us in recent years as Coywolves have appeared in southern Ontario (they have roots in Algonquin to the 1920s though are becoming more frequent across the region in recent years).  A Coywolf is a bizarre crossbreed of wolf and coyote – bizarre as wolves are natural predators of the coyote.  The animals have the strength of the wolf and the lack of shyness of a coyote.  There is a lot of unknowns around coywolves and what impact they will have on us and the ecosystems in which they live.

We occasionally see sign of wolves and, when fortunate, they have been known to serenade the entire cabin to sleep (though one has to listen carefully through the rhythm of 13 other snoring men to hear them).

It was only 4 or 5 years ago when we found signs of an entire pack of wolves at the end of our driveway (about 500 yards from where we slept).  The road had been covered in tire tracks from ATVs and trucks when we went to bed – the dawn revealed a patch where all signs of human existence had been trampled by the curious feet of a pack of wolves.  Here’s a track I recently found – it appeared the wolf was tracking a small deer who left a trail in front of it:

As a hunter, a wolf offers an odd paradox.  We compete with each other while largely leaving one another alone – on the surface.  Our relationship runs much deeper than surface however – and it not one that is entirely antagonistic.

Friend or Foe   a complex relationship when hunting WITH wolves October

The most obvious relationship is that one’s success can hinder that of the other – simple explanations like this rarely resolve the complexity that nature offers us.

When we are fortunate to cull an animal in the wild, we “field dress” it.  Field dressing is similar to what you do with a fish that you catch for consumption, often referred to as “cleaning a fish.”  Remnants remain at the spot of the harvest after we leave.  It is not uncommon for all of those remains to be the feast of a pack of wolves in the following 12 hours.

There is a deeper relationship that is difficult for some to accept and I am not a scientist that can prove the claims that I write about below – I accept them as fact because of the evidence (personal observation and in Ministry researched) that the moose population in our area grew consistently for the last 30 years overall – a winter tick infestation in moose in the late 1990s and reports of brainworm in deer and possibly moose have altered that growth pattern and hunting limits are being adjusted to compensate.

I’ll attempt my fairest description of what I believe to be fact and encourage each of you to do your own research and make decisions for yourselves (J).

Let us start with an analogy.  We mentioned that a local vineyard culled up to 30% of its grapes in order to ensure the remaining could be sustained and reach maximum health.  A forest has limited food for each of it’s residents.  In the case of moose and deer, height becomes a factor.  Young animals simply cannot reach as high as adults who eat at all heights.

Hunting limits are set to cull the population to a size of reasonable growth or sustainability (as defined by the ministry).  The theory is the same as the grapes – by culling some of the herd, the health of the remaining will be promoted and encouraged.

Friend or Foe   a complex relationship when hunting WITH wolves October

Responsible hunting is intended, in theory, to keep growth rates in check.  This, when done correctly, has a trickle down effect to the wolves.  If the forest had a swelling of young (possibly weak) moose, wolves would have a buffet-in-the-making.  This could create an abundance of wolves which could lead to problems downstream – i.e. too many wolves and not enough food.  The moose population could then swell until the pendulum came back the other way – this instability could cause the forest greater chaos.

I believe, with all of my heart, that hunting brings stability to the food supply of the wolf and our shared ecosystem.

I am not an expert nor am I trying to convert/ brainwash anyone into this.  There are arguments on all sides of this explosive topic.  I am hoping that these posts are read with an open mind and respectful eye – I do not want to turn this place into an environment of argument and debate but also want to share what I see as very important parts of what we do with others.

Lunch fit for a king (or a hunter)

Monday morning – by the time you read this we will have likely been moving for hours.  The alarm will ring around 4.30AM (way too early to be practical but the energy of the camp will propel the early setting).

There will be coffee and maybe an odd snack.  Focus is sugar, caffeine, warmth and getting ready.  Hunting opens 30 minutes before sunrise and we will be in position long before that.  We want to ensure our best chance of success and that includes getting to where we want to get to before others get there.  We will likely start on crown land and make our way back to our private land later in the week – it is a strategic decision that essentially reserves our land and gives us first access elsewhere.  This is common practice amongst camps which own their own land.

We will huddle onto All Terrain Vehicles (also known as ATVs or 4-wheelers) and head into the darkened morning.  It is typically below freezing and occasionally simply frigid.  Rain, hail or heavy snow are all possible as well.

Each Hunter is assigned a spot and sits there until it is legal to load their rifle and the hunt begins.  The beginning of the hunting season is one of the most anti-climactic moments of the year.  I will quietly load my gun and then resume sitting.  And sitting.  And sitting.

Moose hear and smell very well.  They also can spot movement fairly easily.  This means that hunting is mostly sitting as still as you possibly can without moving, lighting a fire or making noise.  When a twig breaks you must slowly turn your head and avoid any movement that can startle an incoming visitor.

The silent sitting lasts anywhere from 2-4+ hours.  It’s easy at first and becomes more and more difficult with the passage of time.  There are two reasons for this:

    • Lowered Consciousness.  Falling asleep is a cardinal sin.
    • Heightened Consciousness.  Have you ever stared at the sky for a long time at night?  The longer you stare, the more stars you see.  Sitting and listening has a similar cadence – at first there seems to be little interesting to hear.  With time and patience, things become stunningly loud.  A chipmunk sounds like a freight train and a freight train 10 miles away is an invasive neighbour (my return to civilization is often jarring for several days).

A few designated walkers (aptly named “doggers”) walk through the woods after the first 60-90 minutes.  When they complete their walk, the run is over.  It’s not uncommon for us to then face the other direction and repeat the entire process with the doggers coming from a different direction after sitting for an additional 60-90 minutes.

We head to camp midday (depending on the amount of runs this is between 11:00 and 1:00).  Animals don’t tend to move a lot during the day so this is a time for some camp chores and an amazing breakfast for 14:

We’ll feature our cooking setup in a later post but imagine cooking a meal for 14 men who have been outside without food for up to 8 hours!  Miss Manners would gasp if she could see us descend on our meals.

I am not a big fan of breakfast (an exquisite irony for a guy that makes 15-20 batches of jam per year).  I would rather have spaghetti or a cheeseburger at 7:00am instead of an omelette.  When it comes to the hunt, I make a dramatic exception.  I will eat 2-3 dozen of fried eggs, toast, bacon and more through this week.  Breakfast is one of two meals a day that we get in the woods and not something to skimp out on!

Lunch fit for a king (or a hunter) wellpreservedgoesmoosehunting October

After breakfast we are back at it – off into the woods for a hunt that will end around 4:00 or 5:00.  Those who are brave (and warm) will stay out until dark and the cycle will repeat itself until we have success or run out of season to hunt.

What are your favourite breakfast meals to set you up for a long day ahead?

Tracking moose – an introduction to reading the signs

The final day before the hunt – Sunday is a day of recovery from a Saturday party and a day of final preparation and tracking for the start of hunting tomorrow morning.

It’s a day steeped with quiet traditions which appear random from the outside but have been carved from years of tradition.  There is also a slightly nervous anticipation behind the day which is constantly present.  This tension will be higher than normal this year as 12 days of hunting last year ended with nothing for the freezer.

Pork hocks will simmer on the stove, a football game will serenade those interested, others will sight in their rifles and beer will be gently coaxed into waiting throats.  Today is not a party – 4:30 in the morning will come early tomorrow.  There will be a small camp meeting once all members arrive and we will sing our traditional song with a toast to the coming season and to the hunters no longer with us (our departed friends now outnumber those participating).

Many will head into the woods in pairs to look for recent sign.  My parents (and others) have been monitoring the sign of moose for more than a month but this is the day we bear down and cram for the coming week.

Examine the photos below, what can you learn from them?:

Tracking moose   an introduction to reading the signs October

Tracking moose   an introduction to reading the signs October

The freshest is on the bottom – the oldest on the top.  Rain has dated the sign you see at the top (which is anywhere from 3-10 days old) while it has not tainted the bottom tracks (which are a few hours old at the most).  The top one is also deer sign as opposed to Moose (a trick question).

The freshest tracks are easy to spot.  Examine the trail you leave behind in the dirt some time and you’ll learn how to track fairly efficiently.  Freshness is typically indicated by the clear presence of little pieces of dirt resting in the foot print.  These are pieces which fell in place as the foot moved to its next position and have not blown away or been absorbed by moisture into the print.

Tracking is easiest after a light snowfall.  The white carpet makes seeing trails very easy and guarantees freshness.  Truly gifted hunters will see fresh sign and track an animal for a day (or even longer) to it’s resting place – ours is a different system referred to as group hunting that relies on team, knowledge of the animals and working together over individual skill.

Moose live in a relatively small area (I have heard estimated of 3-10 square kilometers) and frequently follow a pattern of moving within that area.  The ability to recognize fresh sign grants us clues to try and predict future movement though is not a guarantee.

Moose have fairly bad eyesight and strong senses of hearing and smell that give them advantages in surviving predators (including humans).  We need to see an animal to harvest it and it’s natural abilities give it a head start in avoiding being seen.

Moose and deer will also swim or walk through creeks to lose wolves or dogs who track primarily based on scent.  This can also be an effective strategy for us humans who avoid swimming in the cold that is Canada in late October and early November.

You are what you eat… (this applies to nature too)

You may want to put your breakfast down before reading the rest of this post – we’re talking about tracking animals today; specifically about some of their “droppings.”

I grew up looking down.  It is an irony that the tallest animals of the forest leave signs of their presence on the forest floor while the smallest (such as woodpeckers and squirrels) leave their signs on high.

Can you tell which animals left which droppings below?

You are what you eat... (this applies to nature too) October

You are what you eat... (this applies to nature too) October

The first pile is from a bear.  I would guess it is 5-10 days old though the exact age is difficult to tell because of the amount of rain we’ve had in Southern Ontario this autumn.  Rain erodes all animal trails (other than things like bite or nail markings in wood and antlers dropped in the forest).  Precipitation can make relatively new sign appear old in a hurry.

Note the diet of the bear has a great impact on the sign left behind – the amount of seeds and berries should be apparent with a quick glance.

The second pile is also eroded by the rain.  Fresh droppings are rarely shiny like this example of Moose Droppings from Algonquin.  These are fresher than the bear sign but are also several days old.

Moose eat more twigs and wood than the black bear – in fact a favourite snack are buds on the end of tree branches.  It’s remarkable to think that such a large animal (they can weigh 800 pounds and more) eats the delicate little ends of sticks which can be less than a centimetre (0.4 inches) in length.  I have eaten these buds with no consequence (and little nutrition) and I often snack on a few as a tradition at a watch.

Moose poo is more fibrous than it’s berry eating counterpart – as opposed to seeds you can see strands which resemble fibers like grass.

Kind of a crappy post but hoping you may find it interesting!

Off to the woods and looking for local food

Today is an exciting time for me – it is the day I head north (and off the grid) for up to 10 days.

Off to the woods and looking for local food October

I will pull into our cabin between 6-12pm this evening.  My Father and several of our camp veterans have already been in camp for several days.  My arrival will be a loud one, hugging men and celebrating the start of 10 days together and the 42nd year of this tradition.

I have known most of the men for my whole life.  Several, like my Father and I, are father and son combinations.  Most of them have spent at least one week a year vacationing with me and without their families for 15-20 years.  Some have spent this week with my father for more than 40 years.

The weekend will see a flurry of activity as well as the occasional party.  If you were perched high in a tree we would look like a busy community of ants swarming around the cabin and through the woods.  Final preparation of the cabin, scouting runs looking for signs and merriment would be instantly visible.  A closer examination would also reveal sincere exchanges of bonding and, dare I say, love as advice and wisdom on hunting, fishing and life at large are shared.

Off to the woods and looking for local food October

There will be 14 of us in the cabin this year.  Each one has his own bunk bed in a communal bedroom.  Each has his own seat at one of our tables.  We will form a micro community this week – all pulling towards common goals and all hoping, deep inside, that we partake in the pivotal moments of the hunt.

Moose season begins 30 minutes before sunrise on Monday and ends 30 minutes after sunset on the following Saturday.  We will only hunt all 6 days if unsuccessful.

I will log some moments of the hunt and share with you on my return.  I endeavour not to shock with photos of dead animals, butchering or hanging.  If we are successful I will post such articles in a way that you cannot accidentally see them or be forced to look.  We will respect that as a choice to you as a reader.

There are posts that are scheduled to appear in my absence.  Most will share perspective of the woods, animal signs and general tracking knowledge we have acquired over the years – knowledge you can use in the woods to harvest your own local meal – even if it is a mere feast for the eyes only!  We hope to share some of the bigger picture of what we do in the north, why I feel it is important and why it is that I participate.

I am not trying to convert people to hunting – it is actually something I have a very difficult time writing about (as you will likely see in coming posts).  I was trained at an early age to stay away from this topic that is so divisive to so many.

I do worry that posting about it will cause full out battles in the comment sections below the posts.  While I disdain censorship I also abhor the idea of this becoming a place where people fight for the sake of fighting.  Our comment policy remains unchanged – we ask that you leave comments just as you would as a guest in our kitchen.  I hope the posts are read with open mind, that people are willing to do their own research and come to their own conclusions without the need to beat their opinions into others.

We will also be conscious of respecting the animals that we write about and describe within these posts.  Their ultimate sacrifice (without choice) is not one that I take lightly or am entirely comfortable with.  I understand how reading those words would be an absolute abomination for some to accept.  I can only earnestly try to share my perspective and the rationalizations that form what I believe to be a conscious and moral choice that I would never force on anyone else.

I will also try to paint a difficult set of topics with a broad brush and one that attempts to go beyond my own obvious bias.  There are many sides of hunting that make obvious fodder for criticism – and many sides which go untold.  I am hoping that we may share a few of those stories in the spirit of what they mean to us and how this connects to the food we eat.

A common thread on Well Preserved is conscious eating – we are not asking anyone to agree to any specific cause or agenda.  We are simply conscious of the choices we make and hope to share with others who but thought into their food choices (regardless of whether they agree with ours or not).  It is possibly this reason that, as hunters, some of our closest bonds with other people are with vegetarians.

See you all soon and looking forward to it!

A Different Image of Hunting…

I grew up in a family which used hunting as part of our food strategy.  It was a very different way to grow up than many are exposed to and I have had my struggles coming to terms with it – as well as to terms with how others view it (regular readers will recall my 5-year boycott of red meat as an example of the real struggle and consciousness I place on this issue)..

I was trained very early to not speak a great deal of hunting to non-hunters.  It’s an explosive topic and, like politics and religion, is something that can break up a dinner party very quickly.  It’s a tough topic for me to even discuss here and my stomach turns a little at the thought of opening up about it.

Many didn’t notice when Toronto Life named Hunting as one of the top 10 things you could do to improve your approach to eating local – my head spun.  While sustenance hunting is very different than it is often portrayed, it is not something that is often portrayed in a positive public light.  Images of drunk Neanderthals driving through the woods in oversized pickup trucks while throwing beer cans from the drivers window and shooting a machine gun from the passenger side is the occasional “public face” of the hunter.

The image below is the image of hunting I grew up with – my parents out for a casual walk through the woods.  My father carries my Grandfathers shotgun as they explore the fall colors.  There is a hope to harvest a partridge but success is not measured by a death blow.  We carried this gun for 3 days over thanksgiving and didn’t see a bird until the gun was stowed away and we were driving home (a surprisingly frequent occurrence).  We didn’t firs a shot and yet we had a great hunt – time together with family sharing nature with each other.

A Different Image of Hunting... October

My experience of hunters is far different than the stereotype (though I’ve met my share).  Many, in my view, are closer to livestock farmers than rabid killing machines.  There is an odd balance of stewardship of the forest and things within it which meets an unexplainable reconciliation in the soul with culling it’s population.  Each of us justifies it in different ways – the silent majority is often washed away by the voices of the vocal minority.

I have hunted for 20 years.  In that time I have harvested (i.e. killed) 3 birds.  I have spent more than 5 cumulative months in the woods during hunts with 3- 14 men at time.  Our combined effort would be measured in years (or decades) and we have culled about 15 animals during those hunts.  Each was completely consumed, the jaws were given to the Ministry of Natural Resources to check for health of the moose population in our area and the hides were donated to our First Nation People to be used for their tradition.

I passed a slaughterhouse in Cookstown this weekend.  The pens were empty but waiting.  There was a stark contrast between the final resting place of entire herds that walked through that yard and that of the forest that we irrevocably alter.  Images like this are part of how I justify what we do (for right or for wrong – I’m not asking for support, simply trying to portray my perspective with earnest transparency).

Freezing Roasted Red Peppers: Preserving the main harvest finally slows down

Local preserving season is slowing down with the quieting of the harvest.  One can still pickle onions, beets, garlic and other cellared delights but the variety is not as boundless as early autumn.

Preserving roasted peppers typically mark the closing of the harvest for our family.  They are the easiest batch of preserving we do in a year and one of my favourites through the winter.  We usually use Sheppard peppers (which are long and red) and/ or hot peppers (often processed separately) but anything fresh and local will do.

Freezing Roasted Red Peppers: Preserving the main harvest finally slows down Preserving Recipes Peppers (Bell) October Bell Pepper [Read more...]

Signs of life near algonquin park…

Look at the image below closely – what do you see?  There are no animals visible – but there are clear signs that one had been in the area…

Signs of life near algonquin park... October

Here’s a closeup of the tree on the right of the photo above – any idea yet?:

Signs of life near algonquin park... October

If you watch nature closely enough, she will teach you how to eat in the wild.  This animal is showing you a tricky path to one of my favourite forest snacks.  Here’s another try:

The final peak:

Congratulations to those of you who got it – for those who are still guessing, these are claw marks of a black bear on a beach tree near Algonquin Park.  Bears climb the trees to get to the elusive nuts that hang high above (they are edible by us humans as they drop to the ground as well).

A black bear can practically run up a tree as fast as you can run across the flat ground.  I was with friends a few years ago when we watched a small cub dart up a tree so fast that the majority of those peering through a cottage window at it gasped in shock.

Bears live in peace with us at the cabin – they are typically as scared of us humans as we are of them.  We see plenty of sign but have only seen 2 of them in 40+ years of our cabin.  We do not actively hunt them although some of our hunters carry a license during moose season.  Those who would consume the animal carry the license – the others simply choose not to hunt the animal whatsoever.  It’s a cardinal sin at our cabin to hunt anything you do not consume and something we simply do not tolerate.

We have never partaken in the traditional spring bear hunt that was terminated a few years ago.  The effects of the stoppage are still paying out in nature – we see more bear sign than ever before and there does seem to be a change in the living patterns of the moose in our area.  An example of the change is the lack of moose sign in a small swamp near our cabin that was frequented by moose for 20+ years.  The change begain about 4 years ago when a nearby hill became the new residence of a black bear (likely the one that left the marks on the tree in this post).

Whether you support the spring bear hunt or not, there is no denying that when we change how we interact with nature, she makes adjustments of our own.  The end of the spring bear hunt means there are more adult bears in the woods – they compete for the same food that other animals do and this can potentially add a strain to the overall habitat.  The population patterns in our are seem to be affected as 20-40 years of behavior has suddenly changed – but I am hardly a scientist who can prove the correlation.  We have also heard stories of adult moose living in harmony and close proximity to bear.  I saw a cow (female adult moose) within 100 yards of the one black bear I actually saw in the forest.

I just wish I could get at the beach nuts myself – they are delightful snacks and a rare treat when a branch (or tree) falls to the forest floor after heavy winds!

Something to be thankful for: WellPreserved

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving – a day of reflection, harvest and quiet thanks for all that we have.  It’s an exciting day for me and one that I get great enjoyment of.

The last year has been wonderful to us.  Beyond the most important delights (good health, great family, lovely friends and more), we have been surrounded by so many people and things to be thankful for.  Dana started her own company, I received International recognition (thanks to and along with my team at work), we have learned much and met so many great people. [Read more...]