Stephen King Deer

“It’s opener there in the wide, open air.” ~Dr. Seuss

July 11, 2016 was an odd and oddly fantastic day for wildlife encounters.

The boys and I find fresh snow awaiting us as we start our run on Brundage mountain. Not just a dusting of hail that hasn’t melted yet, but snow. Slippery and slushy, an unexpected treat, delightful to run on mid-summer. The boys take several playful bites of snow as we move up the trail. The wildflowers look forlorn and surprised by the mid-July freeze, and even the sun struggles to break through the gloomy fog, but the boys and I are thrilled with the strange weather.

wildflowers and snow
Lupine startled by fresh snow in mid-July.

After several miles, heading back down the mountain and about a mile from the end of our run, we enter a forested section of trail. Tall pines and firs on both sides, with low shrubs covering the ground. There, we encounter…Stephen King Deer, so named later because our interaction is like something out of a horror movie.

dogs on trail
The boys on the trail where we encountered the deer, but several weeks later.

First Finn spooks a young deer beside the trail and chases it quite a distance despite my yelling at him to “Leave it!” and “Come!” Conall, the dog who actually listens and generally doesn’t chase animals, stays with me on the trail as we anxiously await Finn’s return. I’ve learned the hard way that dogs who leave the trail to chase something will always return by following their nose to the spot they departed from, so it’s best to stay put and wait for them there.

After what seems like forever but was probably only two or three minutes, Finn eventually comes back exhausted, panting hard, tongue hanging from his mouth. Deer are fast and Finn would have been running for all he’s worth, leaping over downed trees and limbs, crashing through shrubs in his effort to keep up. As soon as Finn pops back onto the trail, Conall pounces on him playfully as if to say, “You fool, they’re too fast!”

We’re all together on the trail again and ready to resume our run when another deer makes itself known, having waited undetected by me or Conall in the trees and undergrowth just yards away. Initially, I’m able to convince Finn, standing a couple feet from me, to “leave it” but then the deer taunts him, walking closer to all three of us, within 15 feet, snorting and challenging us! Finn can’t resist and another chase is on. Arrgghhh!

dogs and deer
The boys and some white-tailed deer giving each other the stink eye at home in April, 2016.

Conall stays on the trail with me, watching the deer and Finn disappear through the trees. Conall seems wary, sensing this isn’t normal deer behavior. He’s alert, ears listening for Finn, eyes scanning through the trees looking for movement. I rely on Conall’s body language to tell me where Finn is because he’s gone so far off, I can no longer hear him or the deer as they crash through the trees and undergrowth.

As Conall and I wait for Finn to return, yet another deer approaches, this time within five feet, just a couple tree trunks between us. How many are there hiding in there, and why didn’t they scatter when we first approached? This deer stares directly at Conall, then me, ears forward and blowing air through its black, shiny nostrils, before turning to bound off through the trees. Conall and I trade looks: What the hell? I have no answers. I’m dumbfounded. This is definitely new wildlife behavior for me.

Finn is taking much longer to return this time, and I’m worried. Are the deer wearing him out on wild chases so they can suddenly turn on him and pummel him with their hooves? Has he injured himself in the chase? These deer seem that intent on mayhem, and who can blame them? Having an Aussie chase your young deserves some payback.

Finn eventually returns to the same spot Conall and I have been standing this entire time, but before I can snap the leash to his collar, yet another deer approaches within a few feet, the fourth one, purposefully challenging Finn, and the chase is on again! I don’t even yell at Finn, despite my mouth hanging open in shock. Maybe Finn thinks he’s protecting me from the deer, rather than just chasing them for fun? This is so bizarre! It feels like we’re in some surreal horror movie that isn’t going to end well. In all the years I’ve run with dogs in the forest, frequently encountering deer, nothing like this has ever happened.

dogs and deer
Finn wishing he could chase a deer I nicknamed Nemesis because he kept approaching the fence, taunting the boys, knowing they couldn’t get to him, in May 2016. The deer encounters at home were a prelude to what happened on the mountain in July.

Finally, Finn comes back to the trail for the third time, breathing hard from exertion, barely moving. Conall gives him a close sniff, and I look to make sure there’s no blood flowing anywhere. He seems all in one piece, but definitely tired. I’m able to put the leash on him, and we make it back to the car without encountering any deer.

I’m certain we unwittingly disturbed a group of white-tailed deer with young fawns. Does will aggressively protect their young fawns against dogs and predators. That so many deer remained near me and Conall as we waited on the trail for Finn tells me that one or more fawns likely remained hidden in the undergrowth nearby. The deer who remained were doing their best to either convince us to leave, or distract us by dashing away, creating a wild goose/deer chase away from the fawns.

Lesson learned: don’t mess with white-tailed does protecting their fawns. They’re fierce.

Featured photo: the boys in a field of snow-covered wildflowers on the early part of our run on July 11, 2016.

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