Beyond the Fence
January 13, 2023
Writer Dee Calvasina remembers as a girl riding in the family car to the nearby Seneca Army Depot in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The depot was entirely off limits to civilians and surrounded by miles of 6-ft. high fence topped with angled barbed wire. What went on at the base was top secret, but one thing the locals knew for sure—there were white deer there.
The base was built in 1941 when, in anticipation of possible war with Germany, 162 farm families were evicted to make way for the construction of a munitions storage facility. During the Revolutionary War, a large Seneca Indian village was also destroyed here. The area has a painful past.
The first recorded sighting of a white deer was in 1949, but white deer numbers increased to about 200 at one point—protected by both the fence and army officials. Although hunting of the brown deer was eventually allowed, there was a strict order that no white deer could be shot.
Dee recounts her childhood experiences driving by the depot: “People would pull off the shoulder of adjacent Route 96A and wait in anticipation to see one of the white deer that were ‘beyond the fence’.”
“[G]etting a glimpse of one of these rare creatures was always cause for pause, awe, and reverence. Not to mention their stark beauty, which was like candy to the eye. They (were) mystical creatures, as mysterious as the munitions facility itself.”
Little did Dee know at the time the extent to which the white deer would one day occupy her writing or how much she would become involved in trying to save them. “We had no idea back then what an impact that herd of (white deer) would have years later on a community and a state.”
Now, many years later, Dee is still drawn to the depot–except this time visitors are finally allowed inside the fence, or at least part of it. The military base closed in 2000, but in 2017, thanks to over 20 years of dedicated effort by people like Dee, a 3,000-acre portion of the depot was set aside as Deer Haven Park.
Dee began a monthly column in the local Finger Lakes Times in 2017 called “Beyond the Fence,” writing about the land, the wildlife, and the history of Deer Haven Park. But the star of the column has always been the white deer. Dee has collected some of her favorite essays in a new book titled Beyond the Fence. It is a wealth of information and a wonderful read.
Deer Haven Park has since become a tourist destination, giving visitors not only a chance to see the white deer through guided tours, but to also experience the park’s varied wildlife and learn about its military history.
Despite the human abuse, Mother Nature has shown her resilience, and the Seneca land that once stored munitions and could be viewed only through a tall fence is slowly recovering. It is no longer a place of secrets, it is now a place of wondrous discovery.
To get information about the Seneca White Deer Tours at Deer Haven Park, call 8-DEER-TOURS (833-378-6877) or visit this Deer Haven Park webpage.
For additional information on Dee’s book and another terrific read, check out Joel Freedman’s review of Beyond the Fence from the December 27, 2022 issue of the Finger Lakes Times–proof that the area not only has some fantastic deer, it has some pretty good writers as well.