Watching the ‘Grey Ghosts’ of winter

ESCANABA – At the first hint of nightfall, they’re there!

A wisp of white, like a ghost, a blur of grey, like a cloud of smoke, the movement is seen beneath the trees. When the winter edges them in, they do not wander far off.

There’s safety in numbers, so they gather together forming a yard and runways of packed down snow. The whitetail deer of the U.P. are the grey coats of winter.

With the exception of the birds, deer are the most watched type of wildlife in Michigan. As the winter’s snow gets deep the challenge for survival gets greater for the deer. Sometimes we think that hunters, predators and car collisions kill large numbers of deer.

But a long winter is the ultimate predator on the deer herd. After more than a decade of milder winters with minimal snow accumulation, it’s hard to remember the harshness of the North Country.

Back in the early 1970s, Delta County had some record snowfalls. I recall snowshoeing with my dad and brothers into the deer yards in the cedar swamps near camp. We came in off of the fluffy snow and had to step down several feet onto the hoof packed floor of the yard.

The area beneath the cedars are paved with dark deer droppings. The deer scooted off ahead of us just keeping out of sight in the tangle of trees.

I was only about 12 years old back then and I recall my dad having to lift me up by the arms to help get my snowshoes back up on the upper level of snow outside of the deer yard.

Winters like that one took more deer than the wolves do today.

This year, late in the winter (after January) we’ve received some heavier dosages of snow. So now the grey coats don’t run any more than they have to.

Recreational deer feeders may throw out a couple of gallons of kitchen scraps and there they come to sample the smorgasbord.

When the deer are standing around in their grey coats, it’s easy to spot subtle differences in them. Some have more white patches of fur under their chins, some have more black. Sometimes you can see the spot where the buck’s antler fell off of a month or two ago. The fawns from last spring look especially fluffy in their warm hallow-haired winter coats.

Whether they are in the backyard or at camp or on the edge of the fields, deer-watching is a fun Yooper activity. Are there any bucks in the group? Are they well fed and in good shape? Folks tend to sympathize with the whitetails as winter drags on.

Green-up, the time when the very first sprouts of wild vegetation show up, can be a long time away. We humans long for “green” just for a cheerier atmosphere. The deer long for the green for nutrition to survive.

When watching the deer – especially in the winter – it’s hard not to give them names, like Old Grey Face, Blackie, Frisky, Flat Ears, and of course Bucky.

Watch them sneak out of the shadows. Watch them from your snowshoes or skis. Go for a ride with someone who seldom gets out and drive to county roads to watch deer.

Even the “Grey Coats” know there is a hint of spring in the air.

Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.