Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Coyote Hunt

We set up in a tree line along the Salamonie River and it was obvious my eyeglasses weren’t going to cut it. It was just after dawn and my every breath rose with its heat, mixing with the 20° air and fogging my lenses. So off came the glasses. I’d just have to deal with less-than-perfect vision as we sat, watched, and waited for coyote to emerge from the surrounding woods.
USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Creative Commons

I sat with my back against a bare maple, the tree masking my outline. Mike was thirty yards to my right, and began calling. Rifle across my lap, I let him do his work.

He wore a braided paracord lanyard that carried a half-dozen coyote calls, each made of wood or antler or bone, each with its distinctive sound: The chittering call of a ground critter that sounded, even to my ears, like something fat and juicy and good to eat. A “distressed prey” call: a pitiful wail like that of a wounded rabbit or deer. Other yips and howls and yelps intended to lure curious coyotes that might be thinking, “Hey, where’s the party?”

As Mike worked through a sequence, I scanned the fields and treelines in front of us, watching for a predator to show a triangular head or rangy body. The farthest line of trees was maybe 150 yards to our north, and without my glasses, I tried something. I relaxed my eyes and imagined them seeing more clearly, visualizing the distant trees and scrub coming more into focus. After a few minutes of practice, I opened my eyes and a strange thing happened. The far trees did seem clearer, more defined.

Was it a trick of perception? Or was my vision actually sharpening? I considered whether a human body might actually respond to being in the woods and in pursuit of prey. Maybe it flips some evolutionary circuit breaker: “You’re hunting now, are you? Okay, better tune up your senses. Stand by...”

During the week and in a workplace without walls, it’s a matter of survival to restrict one’s senses. To mask the incessant buzz of conversation, you might screw in a pair of foam earplugs or don headphones tuned to Pandora. The facility managers provide helpful tips that recommend keeping your head down and “avoiding eye contact” if you don’t want to be disturbed. 

Scents are to be avoided. If your neighbor decides to lunch on last night’s chicken tikka masala or grandma’s leftover sausage and sauerkraut, you're encouraged to pack it up and move to the next building.

In the 10,000 wooded acres that surround Salamonie Lake, the contrasts were stark as Mike and I hunted coyote in late February.

In between his sequences of calls – wails, yips, and howls – there was the silence. Or what seemed like silence until you slowed down. Rather than restricting your senses, here was the place and time to widen them. And a quiet symphony emerges.

The icy breeze makes a gentle hiss past your ears. The bony white limbs of nearby sycamores carry a few tenacious dry leaves that had refused to drop in November, and these now rattle in the breeze. Crows caw at each other as they waft overhead, black silhouettes against low clouds. Squirrels high in oak branches bark at each other with a rapid “kuk kuk kuk,” arguing about whose nuts are whose, or possible warning each other about us. The rhythm of your own breath sifts through your camouflage face mask.

We sat hidden in our tree line, feeling the breeze coming from the north. We sniffed the air for anything that might smell canine, just as we assume the coyote were circling and sniffing for anything foreign like us.

As we moved from stand to stand, we watched the ground and followed coyote tracks in snow fallen fresh the night before. From the size and definition of the prints and the texture of the surrounding snow, we judged an animal’s size, where it had been, its direction of travel, and where it might be holed up now.

The day passed in this manner. We moved locations by the hour: ridge lines, the edges of dormant bean and corn fields, river banks and woodland clearings. We saw not a single coyote. But it didn't seem to matter.

We spend our days in a world that demands we ratchet back our senses, lower the blinds, draw the curtains, and turn down the volume. We build seawalls to hold back a sensory tsunami.

Here in these 10,000 acres of woods and fields in northern Indiana, it is a different drill. You sit. You wait. You listen for the crunch of snow or the snap of a branch or the yip of a coyote responding to a call. You taste the air and feel it move across your face. You scan for movement and expect the reddish-gray form of a predator to show itself from behind a tree.

You pull back the curtains that shroud your senses, throw open the doors and windows and find yourself in the woods.

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