Delta Echo Echo RomeoSep 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Dee Calvasina
Inconspicuously nestled between Seneca and Cayuga lakes on Route 96A in Romulus lies over 10,000 acres of the former Seneca Army Depot. Constructed in 1941, this first northeastern munitions facility’s operations were obscured from the public for over seventy-five years until the military formally decommissioned it in 2000. In 2016, over 3,000 acres of the abandoned site was privately secured. It is now a wildlife conservation and military history preserve—Deer Haven Park, LLC—and open seasonally for public tours. Tours begin and end at the Visitor Center, which houses military artifacts and a gift shop. Auto tours provide a virtual tour guide, whereas bus and private tours have an actual guide accompaniment.
As fascinating and vast as the military sites and history are (more on that later), what many visitors revere most are the encounters with the elusive all-white whitetail deer. It’s the world’s largest known herd of all-white whitetail deer, in fact. These animals are not albino, they are leucistic, meaning that, due to a recessive gene passed down through the birth cycle, they lack pigmentation in their fur.
How does a herd like this happen? Well, apparently, nature had its own agenda for preservation when the government secured the original site within over twenty miles of fencing, having no idea about the land’s unique wildlife. The deer’s extremely rare sightings harken back to those original Iroquois homelands of the 1700s. As fate would have it, the recessive gene had a chance to be enhanced as time progressed, thanks to the blanket protection gifted to the animals by the commander of the Depot, beginning with the military’s first sighting in 1949.
The park is not a zoo, however, so every visit is unique as to what wildlife may or may not appear. Fortunately, because visitors are entering a natural habitat, sightings of brown and white whitetails normally occur, along with that of bald eagles, turkeys and turkey vultures, blue herons, beavers, foxes, coyotes, and numerous other mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Visitors arrive excited to experience firsthand this amazing, archaic military facility, and are enthusiastically hopeful for their own white deer sightings—encounters which linger in the memory. Assistant Operation’s Manager Gary Hunt shared his own perspective on what appears to be a consensus of many guests.
“It is so peaceful and quiet inside the park,” says Gary. “I have been here for over six years now, and I still almost always experience something new. I love talking to the visitors who come from all over, but I really enjoy talking to the deer. I’m a deer whisperer. I’m always telling the does that they’re doing a good job with their young, and always telling the fawns that they’re looking good and getting big.”
This type of phenomenon can be witnessed while on tour as encounters with the deer, especially the white, are sublime, and cause for pause, reverence, and, yes, many times hushed but verbal interaction. It is unexplainable, but such a happenstance, even within a busload of people, appears to be solely between each individual and the deer. Eye to eye, heart to heart, and uniquely experienced. Surreal.
As for the military portion of the park, the Depot’s formerly clandestine operations are revealed and shared as visitors can see demolition sites, grenade throwing practice areas, and a once heavily guarded “Q” section (dubbed such as its contents were top secret), bringing the secrecy and intensity of the former military base to light decades after it was originally in use.
Munition storage igloos ominously loom up from the landscape, their antiquated presence captivatingly somber. As one further traverses an infrastructure replete with personnel bomb shelters and abandoned railway structures, one cannot help but be transported back to an era when a variety of extreme shortages, pantry and otherwise (it was the time of Victory Gardens), were the norm, and the country plunged into the Second World War.
Guests on the guided tours are allowed entrance into one of the over 500 igloos within whose immense dimensions everything from bullets to 10,000-pound bombs had been stocked. Standing within these concrete behemoths gives humbling perspective to the enormity of the nation’s military operations during this time, from WWII up through the Desert Storm conflict.
To keep things fresh, park officials are frequently introducing exciting new events. This year, on September 30, they are hosting their second annual Fall Festival, featuring open wagon tours. In addition to the forty-five-minute bus and open wagon tours, the festival will include crafts, food, Civil War re-enactors, military vehicle displays, live animals, and much more.
Deer Haven Park is open from 11 a.m. until dusk every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from April through the end of October. Closing times will vary as days shorten, so check deerhavenpark.org to keep abreast of those hours and of new or additional offerings. You can also follow the park’s events on Facebook. Bus tours require reservations, which can be secured on the park website. Auto tours can be enjoyed without reservations. There is a $35 fee per vehicle; up to seven people per vehicle are allowed.
This unique military and wildlife experience is a secret worth sharing and one you owe yourself to experience. Who knows? You too may walk away with your own magical encounter, and memories to last a lifetime.