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It's Only Ankle Deep

It’s only ankle deep

If you spend enough time in the woods, especially with a good friend, you’ll accumulate a lot of memories. Here is one of my fondest memories built with my best bud Mike over 30 years ago.

When we were in college, we used to spend a lot of time in a tract of woods north of Chester, Maine. In those days, International Paper owned a section of mature forest that hadn’t been cut in a long time, it was bordered by the power line, the CP tracks, and a large bog. Mike and I were captains of the UM track team together and didn’t have nearly as much time to hunt as we wanted, but almost every weekend, we would head north to hunt, with bows in October and rifles in November.

The area we hunted was hard to get to, which is my favorite kind of places because not many people work hard to get to those spots. Usually, we’d leave from UM after classes on Friday afternoon (or sometimes instead of classes if I’m being perfectly honest) and spend the night at my mom’s house. We’d get up very early to drive over to Chester, then nine miles on an old dirt road and finally park where the dirt road ended at the power line. Then we’d hike a half mile down the power line, and then another half mile down the train tracks, just to get to the spot where the forest and bog and tracks all intersected. We’d drop our packs (we always brought enough food and gear to stay from daylight to dark, since it was such a slog to get there), then start hunting.

During bow season, we typically hunted from tree stands in the morning, then join up to still hunt. And during rifle season, Mike and I almost always spent all of our time still hunting about 50 yards apart, slowly creeping through the woods while keeping each other in sight as we moved along. If he stopped, I’d stop. if I veered left, he veered too, keeping the same distance between us no matter how fast or slow we moved, no matter which direction either of us decided to wander. Mike and I don’t hunt together very much anymore, as life and work and family take up more of our time than it did when we were in our early 20s. But even now, because of all the hours and miles and deer we’ve logged together, whenever Mike and I head into the woods together, we can still mirror each other as we creep along. It’s a special connection, one I’ve not found with family members or other hunting friends.

I think that connection exists because of how much time we spent together, not just in the woods but in the weight room, on the track, in the dorms, in our apartments, and all the places in between. We seemed to always enjoy each other’s company, and always found a way to enjoy ourselves wherever we were together. We were also very competitive in those days, and even mundane things became a competition between us. I remember one day we walked over a mile, each of us walking on the train track rails, because we had challenged each other to see who could balance on the train rail further. All the way from the power line to almost where the tracks cross Route 116. The funniest part is when we realized how far we’d gone, we turned around and challenged each other to go further on the way back. No idea who won. Probably me. Just sayin’

One morning, early in rifle season, we decided to still hunt from the tracks to the bog, about a half mile push. If we didn’t get anything, we’d cross the brook in the bog, then push the back section and loop back up to the tracks. When we got to the bog, we spent some time looking for a narrow stretch along the brook to cross. Anyone who has spent time in a Maine woods bog knows it isn’t a simple thing to cross the dead water bogs. There are really no solid banks to leap from or to, rather it’s mostly marsh grass, alders, and ancient blow downs. We eventually found a spot that was stable underfoot on our side, looked fairly solid on the other and only about six feet across.

“Mike, I think we can cross here, it’s not very wide and looks real shallow” I whispered.

“Are you sure?” Mike whispered back.

“I’ll go first, just follow me”

I pushed off the bank, took a long step into the water in the middle of the brook, then hopped to the other back. I turned around, smiled at Mike and said, “Come on across, it’s only ankle deep.”

Mike followed my lead, stepped off the bank into the middle of the brook, and went into water up to his waist. Sputtering and yelling and cursing at me, he tossed me his rifle and dragged himself to the bank where I was standing. He looked like a drown rat, but I could barely see him. I was doubled over, shrieking in laughter, tears running down my face. He eventually got his feet under him and stood up beside me, surprise and anger on his face. “You lying bastard, I thought you said it was only ankle deep?” he yelled. Once I caught my breath enough to talk I finally said, “It is, as long as you step on the little log in the middle. Didn’t you see it?” He wasn’t amused then, but we laugh about it now – of course he doesn’t follow me on stream crossings anymore.

And of course, it didn’t take him long to get even. Later that same season, when it was much colder, we decided to do the same push, and once again got to the brook to find a place to cross. This time, everything was frozen over. Mike isn’t a big fan of walking on ice (a story he’ll need to tell on his own, but he shared it with me once, and I don’t blame him a bit for his trepidation), so I was surprised when he took the lead in crossing. He selected a fairly wide spot, put his weight on the ice, and satisfied it would hold his weight, slowly scurried, slid, and shuffled across to the other bank. He turned back, smiled, and said “Come on across, if it held me, it will hold you”

Now that should have been a true statement. As I mentioned, Mike and I were co-captains on the UM track team, both as fit as we would ever be. But I was a triple jumper and built like one. Long and lean, I might have tipped the scales at 170. Mike on the other hand was a prototypical sprinter, with a much more muscular build. He was at least 25 or 30 lbs. heavier than me in those days. So he was right - if he made it across the ice, I would have no trouble. Or so I thought. I got to the halfway point of the brook, moving slow and trying to distribute my weight as best I could. Then I heard it. A muffled crack. And another. Then felt something shift and settle beneath my feet. The next thing I know, the elevators going down, and I’m in ice cold water nearly to my belt buckles, looking up at Mike who is howling in laughter. They water was so cold that I couldn’t catch my breath and certainly couldn’t speak. I angrily tossed my rifle to Mike and to his credit, even though he wasn’t expecting it, he caught it. He even reached out his hand to yank me to the bank. It took a long time before I could speak, but when I could I gave him an earful! “What the hell, you said it was thick enough to hold me up!” He stopped laughing long enough to look me right in the eye, and with just a twinge of pay back in his voice said “Ooh, it cracked when I was in the middle. Didn’t you see that?”

As the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, in Mike’s case, ice cold.

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