It was obvious he was a hunter. I had never met Doug Larson before, but his lean, alert stature hidden in dark camo instantly gave away his identity (ironically). It was for my benefit — I had forgotten to ask what type of car he would be driving or any other identifiable qualities, but it did not matter. When I pedaled into the gravel parking lot on that hot, June evening, he was the only person covered head to toe in faux-forest fabric. For the deer munching on Brookdale’s luscious wetland greens, watch out.
I felt slightly unprepared as I greeted myself; I was only wearing a cotton tee-shirt (which was soaked with sweat), dingy Carhardts, and a pair of questionably-water-proof hiking boots. I would have been sorely unprepared if I attempted to navigate the sodden soils of the Brookdale Preserve solo, but with Doug as my interviewee and thankfully, informal guide, I never found myself hip deep in muck, cursing the echelons of biting insects greedily descending on me. No, I was in safe hands; Doug has possibly scoured every inch of the preserve for the past five years, scouting for prime hunting sites in the warmers months while hunkering down in his metal tree stand during the months that most men would be watching football. And he also has been hunting since he was a kid, making him one of the most experienced hunters and woodsmen in our region. . “I was fourteen [when I started hunting],” Doug explained to me as we walked down a conveniently mowed pathway to the edge of the woods. “I grew up in Northern Wisconsin. Hunting is something that is automatic there; that’s what you do. My dad [taught me how to hunt]; he still has a hunting cabin up there in Northern Wisconsin. I have been here [in New York] since 1982, so 29 years.”
For the past 29 years, Doug has left boot prints in open places all over New York, seeking white tailed deer to fill his freezer and, in the last few years, turkey. But with all of these potential hunting grounds available, Doug has his heart set on one place, the Genesee Valley Land Trust’s Brookdale Preserve: conveniently located a few miles away from home and strictly available for bow hunters. So you with the twelve-gauge, don’t even bother; Doug also happens to be the Genesee Land Trust steward for the preserve, which means he is in there quite often during the hunting seasons. “I have hunted back there for around five years,” Doug explained to me as we were driving to a different entrance of the preserve. “The first couple years that I hunted back there, I volunteered but I really wasn’t active with the Land Trust. Now I am actually on their planning committee and the Brookdale Land Management Committee. It just grew on me. The land trust, the people – they are great! They really care about protecting that property, making sure that the habitat and the plants that are worth saving are protected, that the invasive [species] don’t take over. I try to keep the property posted as well as I can….more or less the areas that people really come in and out of; to make sure that [the boundaries] are posted and that [hunters] know the rules.” Doug is, essentially, the guardian of the Brookdale Preserve, insuring that would-be abusers do not have the chance to set up a permanent tree stand, and elucidating property boundaries to maintain an agreeable relationship between hunters and neighboring property owners.
Although Doug has immersed himself in the preservation aspect of the Preserve, he still is an eager harvester, with a bow and arrow as his choice weapon. Retrograde? Maybe, but bow hunters are an entirely separate breed, more skilled and honed on the behavior of their targets than fellow shotgun slingers. “It’s really the bow hunting that is the draw for me. I enjoy the challenge of the bow. You have to have somewhat of a skill at shooting, and you have to be able to pattern the deer, to have the deer in front of you, broadside for an ethical shot, and at a certain distance. With a shotgun, if I see a deer 150 yards away and it’s moving, there is a good chance I can get it.” Compared to the simple pull of a trigger, or several successive pulls, bow requires outright precision at the first shot, for a second chance at such a narrow range (forty yards at absolute maximum) is quite unlikely. “It is a skill, and it is a sense of accomplishment….You have to able to pick that bow up, and anytime you shoot…you have to shoot at a small target consistently at twenty to thirty yards. It takes practice.” And for me, personally, having a bow in hand is more than a sense of accomplishment, it is a symbolic act. The Seneca natives that hunted in and around Chili bore bows to catch their prey, and undoubtedly practiced for countless hours before summoning the strength and focus to draw an arrow at a live target. Albeit, the technology has drastically evolved in the past thousand years (imagine shooting a deer with a wooden bow and stone broad head), but the intimate relationship between the hunter and the hunted has not changed.
When Doug is hunting, he is probably feeling the same primal sensations that rushed through the Seneca as they drew their coarse bow strings. “The adrenaline in your heart just pounds — you can’t control it,” Doug explained enthusiastically. “It just happens. And all I can think about before I shoot is, ‘am I aiming right? Is everything right? Is my peep site lined up with my pin, is my pin lined up where it is supposed to be?’ Once you are confident with that, you let go and watch your arrow fly, and watch how she reacts.” Last year, Doug pulled a140 pound doe out of the woods, which he eventually transformed into venison burgers, stew meat, and Italian sausage. He has his heart set on a trophy white tail that can be recorded in the books, but he is not hell-bent in pursuit of it. Instead of flying out West and hiking days into the wilderness, Doug would rather drive a few miles to the Brookdale Preserve, sit in his familiar tree, and watch the forest come alive, completely unaware of his presence. “It is so peaceful. You just take your stand, come in, find a tree, climb up, and sit there. It seems a little boring, but it’s actually pretty exciting. You see things that you wouldn’t otherwise. I have had little young deer with two to three inch spikes come right up to the bottom of the tree and look up at me. I have been able to video them with my camera.” Unlike most commuters who frenetically fly down Route 252, missing the northern edge of the Brookdale Preserve, Doug knows the place just as well as the deer do, from the salamanders to the large, acorn bearing oak tree. With this knowledge and inherent wisdom, Doug is intimately aware of the subtle, yet priceless values hidden in Brookdale’s brush and sodden soils.
“If people weren’t making sure that the wetlands weren’t protected, all this property would be bought up for commercial or residential [development] – it would be gone. There would be no public access for hunting. That is the value to me.”