Getting to know the woods:Experts weigh in on bringing youngsters outdoors
For longtime hunters, there’s nothing better than getting into the woods. But for youngsters still learning their way in the wild, care must be taken to avoid calamity, seasoned hunters and state wildlife officials agree.
A week ago, 6-year-old Joseph “Jo Jo” McCray was found near the summit of Glastenbury Mountain in Sunderland after a night spent outdoors.
The Arlington youth was with a group of hunters, including his father, who were working together to “push” deer along a roughly mile-long corridor in the Green Mountain National Forest, according to Vermont State Police Lt. Reg Trayah.
Pushing, a technique used by some hunters, involves one or more walkers who drive game towards other hunters sitting in wait.
Trayah said the boy was one of three walkers who entered the wooded area off Route 7 near exit 3 sometime after 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24.
He was supposed to walk along the lowest point of the hill, with an adult 75 yards to his right and the highway an unknown distance to his left, Trayah said.
But the youngster, who was not armed, didn’t rendezvous with the rest of the group and after attempts to find him failed, police and other rescuers were called.
When searchers found Joseph the next morning, he was taken to a local hospital to be treated for hypothermia. Rescuers said part of the reason he survived the cold night was because he was dressed warmly — camouflage overalls, long johns, heavy wool coat and a hat.
Trayah, who was investigating the incident last week, said the youth was also trying to use his wits to find a cabin in the area that he had been to once with his father.
“He did everything right and survived a hard night in the woods,” he said.
While the youth was blameless, Trayah’s investigation was being conducted in part to determine whether any crime had been committed by the adults overseeing the boy.
Whether or not anything criminal occurred last weekend, fish and wildlife experts and hunters emphasized the importance of supervision and preparedness when introducing youngsters to the great outdoors.
Chris Saunders, hunter education coordinator for Vermont Fish & Wildlife, said he has tried to mix fun and safety while introducing his 6-year-old and 9-year-old sons to the woods.
“I try to take moments to teach them things but first and foremost I want them to enjoy themselves,” he said.
He said he also keeps his boys within boundaries when they accompany him on hunts. That includes staying close to him, carrying whistles and having a plan in the event they get separated. That plan, he said, is not to move.
“Don’t go anywhere because it will only get worse,” he said. “You’re more likely to get disoriented moving through the woods. It’s always better to sit and wait for help.”
Of course, anyone in the woods with a compass — or nowadays global positioning systems installed in phones or other devices — can find their way out of even the densest woods.
But David LeCours, Vermont’s chief warden, said much of the state’s wilderness doesn’t receive enough of a cellphone signal to use GPS devices and while compasses always point north, anyone inexperienced with navigation wouldn’t be able to utilize them fully.
“Someone who is six or seven likely doesn’t possess the life skills to utilize these kinds of tools,” he said.
There’s no minimum age for hunting in Vermont — although a person must pass a hunter safety course, including a written test, before they can purchase a license.
Since he wasn’t carrying a bow or firearm while walking with the group last week, Joseph wasn’t hunting and no age limits apply to when a person can begin accompanying hunters.
“My sons have been out with me since they were born,” Saunders of Fish & Wildlife said. “When I would go out scouting for deer my youngest spent a lot of time in a backpack.”
“I don’t think there’s an exact age that’s appropriate or inappropriate to introduce a child to hunting just like their isn’t an age that’s appropriate to introduce them to the outdoors,” he added. “I just think it’s important that an adult stick close to a youngster.”
Tom Moore, president of the Caledonia Forest and Stream Club in St. Johnsbury, said it’s also a good idea to keep expeditions with youngsters limited to smaller wooded areas.
“If you’re in an area that’s surrounded by roads then you know that if someone gets lost they can walk in a straight line and come to a road.”
Of course, walking in a straight line in the woods is easier said than done. More than once, Moore said, he’s walked in circles himself.
But simple tricks, like tying flagging tape to branches while walking through the woods, have guaranteed that he hasn’t walked the same loop twice, he said.
“Mostly, it’s about having a plan ahead of time and knowing what to do if you get lost,” he said.
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