The magic of stopping in the woods on a snowy evening
By Maria Johnson
I was walking my dog on the greenway near Lake Brandt when I saw the ghostly animal from 50 yards away.
At first, I thought it was a dog, a big white dog getting a drink at the water’s edge.
Then I noticed a group of whitetail deer stirring behind it. The white dog turned to leave with them.
What the heck?
The dog moved up the slope like a goat. Was it a goat? A dazzling white goat?
The herd moved toward the greenway. The other-worldly creature drifted with them.
Then I did something I haven’t done in a long time:
I gasped in awe at something I’d never seen before and probably never will again.
“Ree,” I whispered to my dog, whose attention was on the herd now. “It’s a white deer.”
For a split-second, I felt like I was in a storybook, sharing space with a mythical creature like the white stag that represented unattainable knowledge in the King Arthur tales, or the white hart that carried good luck in The Chronicles of Narnia.
So I did what anyone else would do when experiencing a magical moment: I whipped out my cell phone and commenced snapping pictures as the first of seven or eight brownish-gray deer skittered across the asphalt. Their snowy compatriot followed. Its gait was a little clumsy, but it kept up.
The herd scaled a steep embankment. Ree and I ran up to where they’d crossed. He got a nose full of scent and strained to follow. We could hear them rustling on the other side of the ridge.
“No, Ree. Let ’em go.”
I stood there a few seconds. It was a cloudy, blustery afternoon. Several cyclists and runners had whizzed past me, but no one else was around at the moment. There was no one to turn to and marvel with, so I texted family and friends, zapping pics hither and yon.
“Cool,” came one reply.
“Looks like a goat,” said another.
“I think it’s a doe,” read one.
Later, I thought about the little white deer. I would call her Snow White because she shined so brightly in the woods. But I knew the thing that made her breathtaking would also make her vulnerable: to coyotes — and to hunters if she wandered outside of the city limits.
I called the marinas at Lake Brandt and Lake Higgins. Had anyone else seen a white deer?
Yes, about five years ago. There had been several sightings around both lakes, but they didn’t last very long.
A ranger at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park said a white deer had lived around the park about ten years ago. He had no idea what happened to it.
No one seemed to know the range of whitetail deer.
It was time to talk to a deer geek. I sent my pictures to Leonard Rue, a naturalist who lives in Hardwood, New Jersey. Now, 90, Rue has written seven or eight books on deer. At one time, he was the most published wildlife photographer in North America.
Rue said the white deer in my pictures was an albino, as opposed to a piebald deer, which is brown and white, or a leucistic deer, which is white or pale yellow with some pigment in the nose and eyes.
He could tell that my deer was an albino by the humped back — the front legs were lower than the hindquarters.
It was probably no more than a year old, he said.
He couldn’t tell the gender.
Albino deer are fairly rare, he said — probably appearing in no more than 1 in 5,000 births — and they usually don’t live very long. Their eyesight is not good. Their hearing is poor. Sometimes their legs are bowed, and if their hooves don’t meet the ground squarely, they can continue to grow and curl upward, leading to a condition called “ski hoof,” which makes it difficult to walk.
Albino deer might last a year, maybe two, he said. Their range, if they were well fed, would be one or two square miles.
I did a quick calculation: It was possible for Snow White to stay in the city, out of the sights of hunters.
I asked Rue if he’d ever heard that shooting a white deer was bad luck, something a friend had passed on.
“What is luck?” said the 90-year-old. “If you think something is bad luck, then it’s bad luck. If you think something is good luck, then it’s good luck.”
Which goes along with what I’ve decided on the brink of this new year: that seeing Snow White was good luck for me; that she’ll have good luck for as long as she lives, however long that might be; and that running through the woods with her family on that windy winter afternoon, she felt the spark of joy that I felt when I saw her. OH
If you’ve seen Snow White, email Maria Johnson at email@example.com.