By Jonny Grave
You’ll have to wake up early, well before the other humans come down to the trees between the water and the trail. It’s all just west of where your comfort level ends. Just keep the river to your left, and the trail to your right.
I made my first venture into these woods about a year ago. It was my usual curiosity of hidden places that drove me farther into the trees between the Capital Crescent Trail and the Potomac. Since following a set of tracks in the river’s mud last October, I’ve gotten better at tracking down the deer in these woods. I like to think of them as my fellow citizens of the Nation’s Capital. They just happen to have antlers.
Last week, I met a new member of their family.
I took to the trees about an hour after waking. The ride from Mount Pleasant was short, although still provided plenty of chances to be mauled by drivers on a Friday morning commute. I steeled myself against their malicious right turns in front of the bike lanes. They were on their way to work. I was off to the woods. One of the many unexpected upsides of being a professional musician is the staggering number of mornings I have off. Most days, I sleep in. This particular day, I decided to head deeper into the trees to see what lay beyond Jack’s Boathouse and the Three Sisters.
Below the trail, the ground begins to widen into a stretch of land, just about half a mile after the Alexandria Aqueduct’s portico. The preening cormorants on the rocks were shaking the previous night’s rain from their wings. The sun was just barely making its presence known through the overcast skies. It wasn’t even noon, and I had yet to see a single jogger. I locked my bike to the wooden fence bordering the woods, climbed down the embankment, straight into the mud and the marsh that nearly swallowed a boot, and headed west again.
The heavy rain from the day before left the ground soft, making hoof prints easier to see in the fickle light under the trees. After stumbling for a moment or two in the tall grass, I found the first deer trail of the day. There was a set of tracks to follow that looked fresh, but I was confused by their orientation. Normally, one would just follow the pointy end of the hoof print, keep quiet, and hope you spot the deer before they spot you and run.
But these prints were all pointing in different directions at once, some next to each other, some leading in what looked like circles, all of them from the same time of day, but all different sizes and depths… then the branches started to crack, as a handful of massive brown figures ran away from where I stood in the trees. I was evidently not in the presence of an individual deer, but in the presence of about eight or ten.
I had forgotten to look around me, and not just at the tracks. I’m an idiot.
Catching up to them proved to be a little more challenging than just following prints in the dirt. Every time my camera was within range for a good shot, I would step on a branch, or breathe too hard, or did something enough to warrant their flight into the thicket. I’ve followed deer through these woods before, but it seemed as though they were harder to track than usual.
Finally, after about an hour of cautiously pacing after the leash (that’s what you call a bunch of deer), I discovered why they were more skittish this time than previous visits. As I sat perched on a rock, camera in hand, I noticed something running through the grass around the knees of the deer grazing just ten yards away.
Bounding out of the branches came a tiny fawn, not yet two months old. Like a loaf of bread with ears and legs. Running circles around the adults in the group, and making as much racket as possible, what he lacked in coordination, he made up for in enthusiasm.
He got a little too close to the human, though. He stopped dead in his tracks, only feet away from my lens, looked me right in the eye, sniffed in my general direction, and bolted back to his mother bleating the fawn equivalent to “Mom! Mom!”
The mother looked toward my rock, stamped her feet twice, hissed loud, threw up her tail, and ran off into the woods again, along with the rest of the group. I took that as my cue to leave.
The walk back was still full of wildlife. Box turtles, double-crested cormorants, and even a great blue heron were all out and about. The late-blooming flowers filled the air in the woods with honeysuckle and wild chive blossoms.
There are days when I don’t want to leave the hidden places I visit. Deep in the woods, beneath the trail, Fox Hall, the Palisades, and the city I call home, I found it hard to return to the streets above. Food trucks in Franklin Square, however, provide a wonderful incentive. I turned east, keeping the river to my right and the trail to my left, and keeping my camera turned on.