After a few minutes in the darkness, night vision kicks in and, even through the thick, cold mist of the high ridges, the forest begins to take shape.
Trees become distinct, the depth of field becomes defined and game trails emerge through the dark line of scrubby brush on the edge of the forest in Garrett County.
A few hundred feet into the woods and the first rub can be seen -- no longer fresh, but clear enough to know that a buck of some size has paused on its travels to polish its antlers and re-mark its territory.
The sapling is 3 inches thick. The rub is wide and extends for nearly a foot, ending more than 3 feet off the ground. The buck that made it would be large -- and long gone.
There is a stillness in the pre-dawn, save for the snapping of branches high up in the wind and the muted shuffling of cleated boots on wet ground cover.
To the east, a small creek gurgles as it passes over the stony shallows of its bed. To the west, the wind lays down a low moan as a gust breaks over a ridge and swirls across the top end of a hollow.
Following the creek bed, working toward higher ground, deer tracks lead to and from small pools that are rimmed with ice, where rocks in the creek-side managed to slow the water enough for the late autumn of Savage Mountain to trap it.
Atop one rocky outcrop edged by a spare stand of small pines among the great expanse of hardwoods, the waiting game began -- wind on the right cheek and sunrise due soon over the ridge behind.
The sounds of the woods come quickly with the light, stirring birds and mammals to seek sustenance or cover, to feed or flee the scene.
Squirrels chatter as they rummage on the woodland floor for acorns and seeds. A chipmunk raises its head on the edge of the copse of pines before deciding to scurry off.
From farther down the hollow, where the bottom land opens up, come the faint remnants of the sounds of turkeys stirring near their roosts.
And below the ridge line on the far side of the hollow, a doe -- head down, but ears erect and listening -- moves slowly into range.
Without an antlerless permit, the doe cannot be taken. But perhaps a buck will follow along, moving up the hollow to bed for the day.
Two hours after first light, a spike buck moves along the far ridge line, its body obscured by brushy cover, but its head silhouetted against the top of the ridge line.
The shot is long, the conditions unsafe, and the safety stays on, while the buck is tracked through the scope -- and then slips over the far ridge.
By mid-morning, a light mix of rain and snow is falling, the wind is up, the day is growing colder. The small branches of the trees at the ridge line are coated with ice, and the wind sounds them like small chimes.
But for the wind in the trees, the upper hollow is silent, and the copse of pines is abandoned.
Working back down the hollow, the wintry mix changes over to light rain, the skim ice on the creek disappears, the day seems to warm and the sounds of birds return to the day.
Looking back up the hollow, the mist of weather obscures the ridge top, while below the land begins to open and the field of fire widens -- although the chances of encountering a buck have dimmed as quickly as the day has tried to brighten.
Rounding a series of blow-downs in the lee of the western ridge line, the ground slick with rain, a large limb used as a hand hold snaps, and spooks a buck bedding behind a fallen tree 50 yards away.
Sitting on the ground in a tangle of equipage and branches, one can only watch and try to count points as it flags its white tail and bounds away.
Pub Date: 12/08/96