We get to brake for deer

A trail cam pic from a spot near Burlington

We often play a game in the car called “count the deer” with the kids. It’s not a formal game, really. Just a way to get the kids to stop fighting with each other. In the ten or so miles between our house and a family gathering earlier this week, we counted 13. My record so far this year in the 10 miles between my house and Big Hollow is 26. 

I bring this up in honor of the season. Yes, the deer season for the readers that deer hunt, but also the holiday season. Because unless you own an insurance company, all the wildlife we have around here is certainly something to be thankful for. Even if you live in Burlington, you’re likely to encounter wildlife on occasion. Just drive out to Crapo and Dankwardt parks an hour before dark. Deer everywhere. 

At the conservation department, we regularly get calls about wildlife in the city. Raccoons, foxes, lots of squirrels, endless baby bunnies, and more than a few deer. 

I have to admit, by the end of each summer, we’re all pretty much over it. There’s only so many times you can tell people to leave baby animals where they are before you burn out. But concerned citizens notwithstanding, how lucky are we to live where we do? To have trees and open spaces and wild areas not far from home, if not out our back door? 

Let’s take a minute to not take it for granted. Because it’s easy to take wild areas for granted when you’re standing on the brakes for yet another deer in the road. It’s easy to take for granted that some people are going to burn vacation days in Q4 to shiver in a treestand or a duck blind. Guilty as charged.

But not everyone has these opportunities. In fact, there are people who have never stepped foot in woodlots that weren’t planted by urban planners. There are people who don’t regularly get to see wildlife, who would likely jump out of their car to take pictures after braking hard for the deer crossing the road. It’s hard to imagine, I know, but that’s their reality. And I feel bad for them, even if they do have lower insurance rates. 

I recently had an encounter that brought this into stark reality for me. Back in mid-October, we brought in an Americorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) team to help us with various projects around the county parks. Americorps NCCC is a national service organization for college-aged youth to get experience doing things like working in county parks. Members get to travel the country, meet new people, learn new things, and experience different workplaces and career opportunities. In return, they get a modest stipend (and by “modest” they mean “practically nothing”) and an education credit they can put toward student loans or future college enrollment. It’s basically federally subsidized indentured servitude. But it’s a valuable experience.

The members of our seven-person crew came from all over the country, most from big urban areas. One member was from El Paso, Texas. Another from Connecticut. Another from Massachusetts (it took me four tries to even spell that state). Places, apparently, where deer are rare and gun-toting hunters are even rarer. 

One of the projects we had them work on was cutting invasive species out of Hickory Bend Conservation Area, a wooded, quiet, wildlife-rich area near the middle of the county. While out cutting brush in the woods, spread across several acres, a couple of the team members were approached by what I assume was a squirrel hunter. Thinking they were conservation staff, the hunter had a question about where to hunt. Not only did they not know the answer, the situation made them very uncomfortable. So much so that they ended up pulling out of the work area altogether and bringing it up to our staff. 

Here's where I learned a valuable lesson about taking for granted the middle America, outdoor life we get to enjoy. 

For us natives, bumping into a guy with a gun in the woods in October is as expected as apple cider and Halloween décor on the end caps at Walmart. But for young people from large urban areas near the east coast, encountering a guy with a gun anywhere is cause for concern. Like, big time concern. And as much as I wanted to just brush it off and say, “that’s just how it is around here,” I realized that their world is very different from mine.

 So we took some time to acknowledge that. I explained that hunters are required to take a training course before they can buy a hunting license. I even showed them some of what is taught in Hunter Education classes and assured them that hunting is, statistically speaking, a very safe endeavor. And we put protocols in place to increase the safety factor including signage at the entrance stating work crews are on site and we got hi-vis vests for everyone. 

I also made a note to improve our training for future teams. To set expectations up front to hopefully mitigate the surprise factor should a similar encounter occur again.

But most of all, I stopped taking for granted what a great place it is here in our little spot in middle America. Even if I do occasionally have to brake hard for deer.  

This post is the monthly column I write for my local newspapers, hence the local spin. I write every month for The Hawk Eye, the Burlington Beacon, and as of this article, the Des Moines County News.