On a cool, crisp October morning last year, I joined a group of friends for a vigorous off-road cycling tour over dirt trails throughout Essex County. The route followed power lines and rail trails and traversed local conservation lands, state parks, and state forests. On a section of singletrack, we came face-to-face with a camouflage-clad hunter, a high-powered bow on his hip.
The guy couldn’t have been nicer, greeting each rider. But those “close encounters” always give me pause, because I have to trust that the person holding the bow, or shotgun, is responsible enough not to endanger my riding partners or me.
That’s the reality for Massachusetts outdoor enthusiasts six days a week during hunting season. Hunting is strictly prohibited everywhere on Sundays. The rest of the week, hunters, trail runners, hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers all share many of the same properties, whether public, private, or semi-private, where hunting is allowed.
“Basically, we’re all using the great outdoors for a variety of reasons,” said Chris O’Neil, owner of Ipswich Cycle. “We need to share the responsibility, as well as respect each other’s purpose of enjoyment.”
O’Neil understands better than most. The 46-year-old has ridden mountain bikes for 36 years. He’s also a longtime hunter. The two activities, he said, aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Hunting to me is not necessarily a sport,” said O’Neil. “I consider it a lifestyle which embodies respect, patience, education, [and] sincere appreciation of the game.”
According to the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, the hunting season runs from Oct. 1 to Feb. 28, though the number of hunters increases dramatically during deer season. That starts with bow hunting in mid-October through the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. Then there’s shotgun season from the first Monday after Thanksgiving to the third Saturday in December and muzzle-loader season from the third Monday in December through New Year’s Eve.
For many hikers, trail runners, equestrians, and mountain bikers (plus snowshoe devotees and Nordic skiers), those dates coincide with some of the best times to be in the woods. The stark, brisk weather can be invigorating. This highlights the fact that hunters and other trail users have a much in common, said Marion Larson, chief information officer for the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
“Hunters are there for the same reasons you are,” said Larson, an environmental police officer for six years. “This is their way of enjoying the outdoors. They don’t necessarily have it in for anyone.”
There are roughly 70,000 licensed hunters in Massachusetts, said Larson, but accidents are exceedingly rare. In more than 30 years, only three incidents involved non-hunters, she said. None was fatal.
Part of the reason for that safety record is that first-time hunters in Massachusetts must complete an education course (12 to 18 hours long) before they can purchase a hunting license, said Larson.
Being visible is equally important. State law requires shotgun hunters to wear blaze orange caps and vests, though bow hunters are exempt. However, Larson recommends that everyone wear blaze orange (Rhode Island requires this on state-managed lands). Even pets should have a blaze orange collar or vest.
“It’s not a good idea to be out there without’’ bright colors, said Larson. “Blaze orange is the best, because studies have shown that that’s the color that shows up in low-light situations. If someone has blaze orange on, you can see them very clearly.
“I’ve stopped a mountain biker who had on black clothing and their helmet was white,” she said. “You know what a white helmet can look like as it’s going along through the woods? A deer tail. Exactly. You really need to be seen. It’s just the best insurance.”
Another key issue is knowing where hunting is permitted. The patchwork nature of many conservation lands, where the borders aren’t always well defined, can be confusing (especially for mountain bikers, who can cover greater distances in less time).
Larson suggests trail users learn who owns the land they’re traversing (town assessors have maps of all the land with landowner information), and then inquire whether hunting is allowed. Knowing the local bylaws is also smart, since information on posted signs can be limited. Larson recommends that trail users have a printed copy of the bylaws with them, to avoid any misunderstandings.
“Many times, the town officials, whether it’s the town clerk or the town police, don’t know the exact wording of their bylaws,” said Larson. “Some of them will say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t hunt in our town,’ when the bylaw says you can’t discharge a firearm without landowner permission. But that doesn’t prevent you from using a bow and arrow.”
Both Larson and O’Neil said that trail encounters while hunters are actively following prey are infrequent, since wildlife typically avoids well-used trails.
Instead, trail encounters are more likely to happen when hunters are traveling from one hunting spot to another. Though I was just following my gut instincts when I met the bow hunter on the North Shore last autumn, Larson and O’Neil said my reaction – a friendly greeting – was best.
Larson acknowledged that there are occasional conflicts, but they don’t represent the majority.
“I can tell you,” she said, “from my experience in the field for six years, that at least 95 percent of the hunters that I encountered were legal, responsible, ethical, respectful people.”For more details on hunting regulations, visit mass.gov/masswildlife. If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please allow several weeks advance notice.