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Claybrook Mountain Lodge
December, 2016

December was the beginning of what could be an “old fashioned winter. Early in December we got significant snow and temperatures to -20F. In the winter of 78-79 we had -20F on Christmas day and our house wasn’t insulated. We awoke on December 30 this year to 32 inches of fresh powder piled high on everything.

The first two weeks of December are open for hunting deer with muzzle loaders. In my opinion it is the best time to hunt, since the rut is well along, snow is more likely and with colder conditions, bucks in remote places move down off the hills. Snow came early and by the time the muzzle loader season started I took my snow mobile twice to check for tracks coming down from the hill tops. On the second trip, there were only old tracks. It appeared as if most of the deer came down soon after the snow with few stragglers. I hunted the places I usually find deer gathering in December and there was plenty of sign. Again, I saw lots of antlerless deer but no bucks. It was the best amount of sign I have seen since 2008. I used my tree stands as often as I could and there were deer moving in sight of them often but if there were any bucks they came after dark or when I was not there. Each evening when I came home from the hunt there were does and fawns looking for apples. I ended the season unsuccessful.

The Sunday after the muzzle season ended I looked out at the chicken house apple tree to see a handsome, trophy size, 10-point, buck. It took me a moment to realize it was “George”. When I have seen him after season in earlier years, he had already dropped his antlers. I called Pat to see him, and she was as excited as I was to recognize the little ugly duckling turned king of the forest. We had not seen him for a year, yet there he was waiting for his grain as if he had never left. I fed him and in a couple of days we had seven regulars and occasionally as many as thirteen. I got some great photos and short videos of George from the chicken house. Ron came for a weekend visit and while I was working on the chicken house he shoveled snow from the roof of the lodge. George came in and Ron got a nice photo from the roof. He wanted to get a close up so we decided that Ron would wait in the chicken house early in the morning at feeding time. We saw him walk by before daylight, but when he came in a half hour later he had no antlers. I knew they must be nearby, and sure enough, I found them under the apple tree as if he just laid them gently together in the snow.

On the first Saturday in December the Highland /Lexington Snowmobile club had their Christmas party at Claybrook Lodge. It was, as usual, a fun and friendly gathering with lots of homemade food and a Yankee swap. Wright Pinkham, the longtime leader and trail master for the group, was honored for all his years of great work. Clifford Norton from Kingfield has assumed Wright’s job. Something I noticed in all the reverie was that no young people attended. Snow mobile trail systems all over Maine have been built and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers and the work they have done is outstanding. It is also time consuming and labor intensive. Registration fees paid to the State provide some funding but the time and labor are mostly volunteer. Without a core group of young, physically able individuals to do the work, I wonder what the future of our trail systems will be. There are a lot of unsung heroes out there who have created this system and I want to thank them all.

The Drummond family had lots of Christmas celebration with all the grandchildren here at once. Papa and Yaya have such a great time with the boys but in the sudden quiet after they leave it seems as if we just went through a hurricane. It is so much fun and we wish there was more time to spend with them all. My family came for Christmas dinner and that was also a warm and friendly gathering. My nephew Chad Blethen doesn’t get a chance to attend often so we were surprised to see him. He survived a traumatic fire at his home and was hospitalized after being overcome by smoke. It could have had a tragic ending and we were all relieved to see that he is recovering well. We have so many things to be grateful for.

The big storm at the end of December was very much like what we were used to as kids growing up in the 60s and 70s. I don’t think we have had that much snow in one storm since 1970 or 71. I noticed that the dooryard deer disappeared (except George and an orphan fawn) the day before the storm. If snow levels like this come gradually deer are able to move to their best winter cover and break trails to establish a network that helps them move to feeding stations and to find browse. If it comes all at once they become trapped in isolated groups and trail breaking causes extreme exhaustion. Our local trails run through a lot of traditional winter habitat providing access to the fragments of cover that are still adequate. The biggest feeding stations are located in traditional deer yards, with these trails (both ski and snowmobile) running through or nearby. For several days after this storm people were so busy just getting roads and driveways cleared that trail work was delayed.

George and his fawn were stuck in a little area that had a spring to drink from. They would eat their grain, get a drink and bed all within a few yards of our dooryard. The fawn is having some serious anxiety but if he stays near George he will learn a lot. George is a master at conserving energy. I moved my skidder across the field to plow snow and George utilized the track to get out to the road. He moved slowly and once on the road stayed in it, heading toward Old County Road until he was out of sight. He was back with the fawn in the evening. When the groomer came through creating a trail to the Roundup Road George disappeared.

The snowmobile trail allows the deer to move south where they can access better cover and join larger groups of deer at the feeding stations. The burden of breaking their winter trails is then shared by more deer. The next storm created a crust that held coyotes but made deer movement as difficult as it gets. This all occurred before deer had time to gather and get a trail system open. It became a perfect storm for deer mortality and we are already seeing the result. Pat and I saw a big buck trying to cross Long Falls Dam Road. He was so exhausted he didn’t want to leave the road and he swayed as if to fall when he walked. Coming home from work the next day I saw what appeared to be the same buck lying dead about 100 yards from where we saw him. According to rumor, three deer were killed in that same area by coyotes. This is just the beginning of winter. Without some major change (like a solid crust that holds running deer) this could cause the greatest mortality since the 70s. I hope I am wrong.

I am looking for something to be optimistic about to start the New Year but it isn’t easy. I believe we have elected a President who is mentally unstable. It seems a lot of us will be having serious regrets. Again, I hope I am wrong.

                                        “Gang Warily”,
                                             Greg and Pat

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