I recently hunted with my friend Jim who raises world-champion squirrel dogs. We stood on a hillside and watched his treeing cur, Ranger, take up the chase. The dog gave no indication he was trying to pick up the scent of a squirrel. He raced quickly out of sight. Within seconds, however, the cur barked and treed. It was the first of dozens of squirrels Ranger led us to.
“How does he do it?” I asked Jim. “He never even puts his nose to the ground.”
“His sense of smell is so keen that he can smell a squirrel even while running with his head up,”Jim replied. “He can smell one in a treetop that’s never been on the ground that day.”
“I wonder what it’s like to have a sense of smell that keen,” I said. “What does a squirrel smell like when all you can smell is a trail of molecules left behind as he races from treetop to treetop?”
A better nose equals a better hunter
For some reason, thinking about Ranger’s keen nose made my own sense of smell sharper, or at least I became more aware of the many smells around me. I thought about that as I started another day of hunting and found myself surrounded by familiar aromas: Coffee brewing. Bacon cooking. The spicy smell of hickory smoke from the campfire. These things tantalized my nose when I awoke in camp, and I can still smell them as I write about them weeks later.
As those aromas swirled about my head, they brought back memory-smells from other camps. Years have passed, but I can smell my uncle’s pipe smoke and the Hoppe’s No. 9 he used to rub down his guns. I can smell the leather of my boots drying by the fire and the wet fur of my uncle’s bird dog sleeping by the potbelly stove. I can smell the acrid, but strangely wonderful, odor of gunpowder after a shot and the warm musty smell of a cottontail rabbit pressed against my face.
These smells move me. How quickly they can be conjured up!
As I sat on my deer stand this past weekend, I shut my eyes and breathed in the aromas of the woods around me. When I focused on the balms of the forest without the distraction of sight, I became instantly aware of a whole new sensory world.
There were big smells like the redolence of rich bottomland earth, oak leaves and fields of grass. And I became aware of little smells apart from the big ones — the musty blood-smell of my hunting vest, the pungent odor of burnt powder permeating my shotgun and the languid fragrance of cypress needles.
As the day passed, I realized that morning smells different than noon, and noon does not smell like night. And I noticed the autumn air possessed a scent quite different from the hot bouquet of summer or the frigid sterility of winter.
I could smell persimmons and deer scrapes, the quiet smell of wild mint and the loud smell of a skunk.
But as hard as I tried, I could not pick up the scent of a single squirrel.
Till the end of my days, I will wonder what that must be like.
Featured image: Watching a treeing cur use its keen nose to track squirrels through the treetops awakens the author’s own memory-smells from past hunts.