While back east folks are enjoying a long, languorous autumn full of bright colors and falling leaves, the season already has changed here in Western Maryland.
"A lady called the other day and asked, 'Is the foliage past its peak out there yet?' " said Mike Dreisbach, who with his wife, Jan, runs the Savage River Lodge in the middle of Savage River State Forest. "I had to laugh. I said, 'Ma'am, what foliage? It's winter here!' "
He didn't have to remind me. My boots were caked with snow and it wasn't wet snow either, but dry powder. This was Thursday and we were tromping the deep woods. My wife and I had driven out the night before from the Washington suburbs and encountered a snowstorm in the mountains that was so intense, she had to slow to 35 mph on the interstate to feel her way through.
We stayed the night in one of the lodge's 18 log cabins and listened to the wind whistling through the pines outside. Next morning the temperature was 26 degrees and snow was piled five inches deep on the porch.
I was waiting in the dim light before dawn when Dreisbach pulled up in his four-wheel drive. The plan was to go turkey hunting, it being the middle of Western Maryland's one-week fall season. "Do you really think it's worth going?" I asked, gesturing at the trees swaying in the cold wind.
"It's a great day for turkey hunting," he said, which is what diehards say no matter how bad conditions get.
Ten hours later we trudged back in, footsore and weary with nothing to show for our efforts but windburn. "We never even saw a fresh turkey track," Dreisbach correctly informed workmen putting the finishing touches on the main lodge.
We'd seen plenty of deer, though, including a big-bodied, six-point buck that stared us down from a trail crossing just as the sun was rising over a distant, barren ridge. "He can't smell us with the wind coming this way," Dreisbach whispered. His right hand was up, pointing at the deer, and he left it there because any movement would have spooked the buck.
Finally the deer shuffled off noiselessly through the snow, the first of many whitetails we'd encounter during our eight-mile, all-day hike up and down the mountains. Bucks are not quite in fall rut yet in the high country, but it won't be long before they are bulging with hormonal energy as they range through the forest looking for does.
"Sometimes in the rut they just keep staring at you even when you move toward them. That's when you wonder, 'Am I doing the right thing or is this deer going to charge?' " Dreisbach said.
But I hadn't driven three hours through the snow to learn more about the rutting habits of whitetail deer. How about those turkeys?
"Oh, they'll move today. They have to," said Dreisbach, who builds turkey calls and occasionally guides turkey hunters when he isn't working his other trades as a federal labor mediator and proprietor of an upscale lodge in the middle of the wild woods.
"They had to stay up in the trees all day yesterday in all that wind and snow," he said. "They'll come down today to feed."
His words were reassuring, but halfway through our meanderings he showed me a place that made me reassess just how keenly turkeys feel the need to move when conditions are bad. We were high on a ridge top overlooking a south-facing hillside washed in pale sunlight. Dreisbach wanted to scan the bank for a while and see if any turkeys turned up to feed in the patches where the sun had burned off the snow.
A few years ago, he told me, that same hillside harbored a flock of turkeys that got trapped in a big snowfall. With three feet of snow on the ground, he'd watched the flock stay perched in trees for seven straight days before coming down. "They had no reason to fly down," Dreisbach said. "They couldn't get through all that snow to feed and they'd be perfect targets for any kind of predators once they got on the ground. So they just sat there in the trees till enough snow melted for them to get around."
The wheels started spinning slowly in my mind. If turkeys can sit still in trees for seven days at the end of a harsh, cold winter when they're at their weakest, why would they fly down and expose themselves to danger after a freak November snow that anybody could see was bound to melt off in a day or two?
Certainly at this time of year they're fat and happy, having gorged all summer on bugs and grubs and all fall on acorns and berries.
The answer, it seemed clear, is that they wouldn't--that they'd sit in the trees and listen to the wind whistling and watch the foolish men with guns walking around underfoot, knowing full well that in a few days everything would be back to normal, food would be littered around to feed on, and those men with shotguns would be back in their work stations where they belong, staring at flickering computer screens.
"No, no, no!" Dreisbach said. "They're going to move today. They have to."
And the reason for that, though he'd never admit it, is that he and I had only one day to hunt, and if you start thinking bad thoughts on the only day you've got, you'll stop hunting and lose your chance to get a Thanksgiving bird.
So I whisked all dark thoughts from my mind, tromped the snowy woods, and got exactly what I deserved for my efforts: Nothing.
A most pleasant, rewarding nothing.