BANGOR, MAINE -- By dawn, most of the men have finished breakfast at Nicky's Drive-In or the Broadway Coffee Shop. Their Rangers and Blazers and Broncos are parked along roads leading to Hermon, and Levant and Etna.
That is where to find the best hunting, they say, and hunting is as much a part of life here as rocky soil and thick, black flies. This year, the state, with a population of slightly more than 1 million, issued nearly 240,000 hunting licenses. But in this part of Maine, where schoolboys take to the woods with their first rifle before early-morning classes and many workers go shooting at lunch, nothing has been the same since "the accident."
Two years ago last Thursday, on a crisp, blustery day, Karen Wood, 37, a mother of twins, was shot to death in her backyard by Donald Rogerson, a local hunter who said he mistook her white mittens for the underside of a deer's tail.
Armed with a Remington .30-06 rifle mounted with a high-definition scope, Rogerson was 63 yards from Wood's suburban home when he fired the fatal bullet. His trial and acquittal last month on charges of manslaughter have wrapped this region in a shroud of bitterness and confrontation that go far beyond the rights of hunters to pursue Maine's favorite sport.
"The man who shot Karen has been portrayed as a sweet, hometown boy," said Frederick J. Badger Jr., lawyer for Wood's husband, Kevin, who has moved to the Midwest. "He grew up here, people knew him. She was one of the invaders, coming in here from out of state, part of the new suburbia. She stood for everything that scares them."
Battle lines were drawn within days of the shooting. The Bangor Daily News referred in deferential terms to Rogerson, 47, produce manager at a local supermarket. One headline said, "Hunter charged in death is scoutmaster." The editors, saying the word "backyard" conjures images of lawn chairs, required reporters to describe the scene of the woman's death as "the woods near her home" or "wooded property behind her house."
Efforts after the shooting to tighten rules on hunting in populated areas were defeated with ease. A proposal that hunters be at least 600 feet from a residence, rather than the 300 allowed now, never made it to the floor of the state legislature. In Hermon, the city council voted down a proposal to establish a memorial to Wood. Even many of those who said jailing Rogerson would serve no purpose expressed astonishment that he was acquitted.
"We are ashamed of a state with laws that have no value for human life," began one recent letter to the editor. "I am appalled at the verdict in the Rogerson case," said another, from Jonathan M. Edwards, a military rifle instructor at Loring Air Force Base.
Rogerson, who has vowed to never hunt again, is by all accounts well-liked here, a decent man severely chastened by the incident. Church groups raised money for him, and customers stood in line to offer condolences and shake his hand. People wondered often and aloud why Wood was wearing a dark blue coat at the time instead of the blaze orange that has become a ubiquitous uniform here during hunting season in November.
Rogerson declined to discuss the incident, but in an interview after the verdict, he described himself as an unlucky symbol of the state's clashing values.
"She was as much a victim of circumstances as I was. . . . ," he told the Daily News. "Maybe in the month of November, is it such a great infringement upon your freedom to maybe put away that white coat or a tan coat . . . ?"
Many here share that view, whether or not they agree with the verdict.
"I have lived here my entire life," said a woman named Paula whose boss specifically has refused to let employees discuss the case with the media. "You don't go into the woods from Labor Day until it's time to get your Christmas tree. No exceptions." Others said that, for years, little was heard about hunting accidents, that they happen less often now and that other types of accidents are rarely given the same attention in newspapers.
"I always have hunted," said John Wallent, a local resident wading into the woods, rifle in hand. "What happened was horrible, no question. But it was an accident, and they do happen. Are we going to end something that gives pleasure to millions because of one accident?"
The current tension has arisen largely from the changing demography of eastern Maine. The old Bangor, with its 31-foot, two-ton monument to Paul Bunyan, that exquisite symbol of the city's woodsy heritage, largely has been pushed aside in the rapid sprawl of suburbia.
Towns such as Hermon, where the Woods lived, were situated 15 years ago in pristine forests, prime hunting territory. They have become villages filled with neatly divided condominium complexes surrounded by long stands of saplings and spruces.
Eager to escape urban crime and noise, thousands of young families have moved here in those 15 years, and one of the first things many do is "post their land," warning off potential hunters. Bright orange-and-yellow "no trespassing" signs paper the landscape.
"At this point, you can't really be too careful," said Peggy Elmer, the Hermon City Council member whose proposal for a memorial to Karen Wood was rejected. "I grew up here, and I never thought about the danger of hunting before. Now, I can't stop thinking about it. I go to friends' houses in the woods or a tree-lined street, and I think, 'Sure am glad I don't live here.' "
Few people expect hunting to lose its appeal, and officials here say more residents than ever are wearing orange. Hunters also appear to be moving farther into the woods to seek their bounty. Last year, more than 21,000 deer were killed in Maine, and this year the number almost certainly will be greater.
"We are talking about a culture that has been around for damn near 200 years," said Bud Leavitt, a retired outdoors columnist from Bangor. "And it's going to be around for another 200 as well."