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Local legend has it that the last living Dutch elm tree in the state of Vermont sits alone in the middle of a cow pasture on the east slope of the Mad River Valley. This lore doesn’t appear to be verified, but nor can I find evidence of another surviving Dutch elm. If this is indeed the last tree of its kind in all of Vermont’s 9,616 square miles, then I haven’t explored it nearly enough.
My home – the Mad River Valley – boasts phenomenal trail running options. Whether you’re floating along single track through a regal stand of spruce trees, grinding up local mountains as the sun rises, or studying maps to link trails and peaks for long adventure runs—Vermont has a mix of everything.
However, there are a few weeks every fall where I do not venture on local trails: hunting season.
With its abundance of game, Vermont is one of the northeast’s top hunting destinations, as hunters venture into the woods in search of moose, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hares, and waterfowl. It is estimated that around 10.3% of Vermont’s residents are registered hunters, placing it around the top ten of states with the highest prevalence of hunting among the population.
While I make sure to wear an oversized, neon orange, reflective vest thrown over my running clothes during autumn, hunting season in Vermont extends beyond the sartorial. It forces a change of pace. Trails close. Hunting signs pop up. And the rules are to be respected. Hunting season has various stages, but typically trail closures last from early October through November.
During this time, I become a road runner.
The Seasonality of Surfaces
There are challenges that accompany this shift. My shins need a week to adjust to the harder surface of roads. My body feels slightly awkward as my stride lengthens and the legs try to navigate smoother, flatter terrain after a summer spent hopping over roots and rocks. And I lose one of my favorite running partners – a golden retriever named Maeve – whose resemblance to a white-tailed deer (especially when in motion) means she is unwelcome on most runs during the fall.
But as I smell autumn’s snap in the air and notice the first leaves turning, I feel the same butterflies-in-stomach I get before a race. New routes! A completely different type of running!
During hunting season, I become an almost daily visitor of the Dutch elm tree, which sits on the northern end of the Waitsfield Common road, a beautiful dirt road that runs parallel to the western peaks across the valley: Mt. Abe, Lincoln Peak, Mt. Ellen, Stark Mountain. The road itself is satisfyingly hilly, has few cars, is well-maintained, and, most importantly, is safe from hunters. I do occasionally step to the shoulder and watch a truck with a freshly-killed deer in the back trundle by, on its way to the local animal weighing station in downtown Waitsfield.
Taking in the Views
I’m not sure the transition from trails to roads is one I would self-impose, as changing habits and breaking routines is no small feat. But I do actually relish the shift. My cadence steadily increases as I glide along flatter roads, and, after a couple weeks, I find speeds that were formerly unattainable on my beloved trails.
My head stays lifted more when I run on roads, given the consistent surface. While there are potholes to navigate (this is Vermont, after all), I don’t have to focus on my foot placement as much as I do when trail running. So I look up and around me more, taking in my surroundings.
With my head up, I’m able to marvel at frost sparkling in the trees along the road’s edge, closely track the changing colors (and eventually total loss) of Vermont’s brilliant foliage, exchange nods with gruff, 14th-generation Vermonter farmers sitting in front of their properties, and dodge tractors bringing the last of the season’s hay into the barn to store it for winter.
Hunting season comes at a time when the garden harvests are done and the focus shifts to this new form of food gathering. It is a practice rooted in tradition and the need to survive Vermont’s harsh winters. It is a time when some families get back into the woods and connect with the land in their own way.
As a runner, I’m guilty of being too rigid with my training at times. Mid-summer intervals in the build-up to an August trail race may take precedence over stopping to pick wild blackberries along the trail. A sense of urgency as training ramps back up in the spring make it harder to notice the first crocuses poking through newly-thawed soil in April. And the onset of hunting season each year, with its associated changes to trail access, has the potential to make for some disgruntled trail runners. But what a shame it would be to miss all of these natural phenomena that last for only a few weeks each year.
The atavistic nature of hunting is a remnant of a time when we were much more connected to, and at the mercy, of our immediate environments. This connection is something we should hold onto – whether we hunt or not.
The annual onset of hunting season reminds me that my running happens in a broader environmental and recreational landscape. As I don my neon orange reflective gear and trade in my trail sneakers for road shoes in early October, the transition is acute: a new season has begun, trails must be shared, and my running practice will have to adapt.
Navigating hunting season may not be a reality for all runners, but I think we can all benefit from syncing our running with seasonal flows. Whether that involves a literal change of pace, or just more attention given to noticing the first leaves turning in the fall or a pause to appreciate an early frost’s crystalline patterns.
I think we can all benefit from syncing our running with seasonal flows.
Even as I set bigger and longer running goals, I hope to further harmonize my running with my environment, to explore new routes, strike wonder at different terrain I move through, and embrace the protean nature of the world around me. But, for now, I’m excited to lengthen my stride as I hit the roads and visit the Dutch elm tree. Not because I have nowhere else to go, but because it’s exactly where I want to be.
Live in an active hunting community? Here are seven steps for runners to stay safe:
- Know the seasons. The exact dates of hunting season vary between states. Check your state’s department of natural resources or local fish and wildlife department website.
- Orange is the new orange. There are some great, stylish options for hunter-safe running garb out there these days, but anything neon is worth the investment. Stay visible, stay alive.
- Safety in numbers. Running with a friend or a group can be a great social activity, and the sound of chatty runners can alert hunters to your presence.
- Ditch headlamp runs. Dawn and dusk are primetime for wildlife, and therefore hunters. If you tend to run at the edges of the day, consider shifting to run during full daylight.
- Protect your four-legged companions. If you’re in the habit of running with a dog, make sure you also equip them with orange, reflective gear and take extra precautions when heading out with them during the hunting season.
- Embrace the change of pace. If trail closures are a reality for you, or you just want to be extra cautious during hunting season, try signing up for a fall road race or Thanksgiving turkey trot and instead bank some speed work in October and November.
- Don’t forget to appreciate fall. Apple-picking, cooler temperatures, leaf-peeping, pumpkin spice everything, frosty mornings, first snows. Wherever you are, the gradual shift from summer to winter comes with some spectacular natural phenomena. Take a moment to slow down and marvel at the changes around you!