We see a lot of deer.
Most of the 2800 miles of roadway on Prince of Wales are shot rock, so overgrown that they’ve long been incompatible with vehicular transportation. But Sitka black tailed deer are more maneuverable than your average logging truck, and they are the new infrastructure connoisseurs, annexing the old roads through the dense brush that marks old clear cuts.
Deer walking in the road, standing on the shoulder, in forests, beaches, clear cuts, estuaries: more deer than I’ve ever seen in my life.
We see the first fawn on June 1st.
In fact, when we leave camp in the morning, there are baby deer everywhere. Every adult we see is accompanied by a miniature of itself, stumbling around drunk on spindly legs, nursing on the side of the road, collapsing in the middle of the asphalt if it gets tired. The fawns poke around on their hooves like tiny machines, as if the Tripod machines from War of the Worlds had been cross-bred with bunnies.
“The deer have a calendar,” the city administrator of Craig tells us, when we’re drinking coffee in his office to get out of the rain, chatting about the local fish processing plant which won’t be operating this year and the phenomenon of the fawns’ appearances. “June first,” he says. “Somehow, they always know.”
I’m impressed with their punctuality: imagine what it would be like if the year’s supply of human babies were all born on June 1st.
“You guys know you’re not supposed to touch them, right?” he says.
In Alaska, this is not the typical warning you get about animals. It’s usually more along the lines of, did you bring a gun with you, or hey, where’s the bear spray, or jeez, watch out for that awful smell which has started roaring and rustling in the bushes.
But the little deer are different. They’ve got no defense mechanism but laying very, very still, wherever they happen to be. They’re born scentless. If their mothers sense danger, they run for the woods, trying to draw predators away with their smell. The babes wait in the underbrush for their return, nearly impossible to find. “Unless you step on one,” the city administrator says.
Which I think is just a figure of speech, until the city administrator recounts the time that he was out with his dog, and while stepping from one log to another, looked down to see a tiny fawn looking up between his feet. The dog was a step behind him, and he panicked, unsure what the dog would do, unsure what he could do to save the deer — and he turned around to watch as the dog just walked over it, oblivious, literally stepping on it without noticing, wagging its tail and catching up with him.
We do know we’re not supposed to touch the fawns — it makes them smell like humans, detectable to predators, and alien to their mothers, who then might actually leave them for good.
But it’s still worth the reminder that the city administrator gives us. Later that day, we find a little one standing by itself in the road. It sinks down to the ground when we walk over, absolutely still, as if it has spent the day patiently waiting for us to show up.
Even Reid, who disavows animal cuteness of all kinds, and is deeply skeptical about the concept of pets, asks, “Do you think it’s okay? Do you think it’s abandoned? Should we call someone?”
I think it’s fine, I say. It’s just waiting for its mother to come back. But the urge to reach out and touch it, to gather it up and nestle it away into the trunk of the car is almost magnetic. It’s just so cute! And small! And laying alone next to a highway!
It’s hard to get back into our car and leave it there, alone. Even armed with knowledge about its scentlessness, knowing its mother is probably hiding close by and waiting for us to leave, knowing its coat is designed to camouflage it, knowing that just our smell poisons its chances at survival, it still feels irresponsible to drive away.
Humans are funny that way. We’ve got opposable thumbs, and big brains — but we’ve also got these big dumb hearts. We might be the species that dominates the planet, but our instincts kind of suck.
It’s no wonder the deer are taking back the roads.