Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Luke's Way

Since the blog is quiet and people are too busy hunting to write about it, I thought I'd post a story I wrote from 2003 and posted in sections on my Farm Fin Fur Feather blog. It's long, but Enjoy!

I had been watching deer all summer and this was to be the “year of the buck.” We purchased our farm in upstate New York to raise a family, to live in the country, and, for me, to hunt. My first hunting season on the farm was a frenzy of hunting, an orgy-like frenzy of hunting madness. Yet despite long (constant if you ask my wife) hours a-field, the first year yielded little by way of game. A few ducks, a goose, some small game, a doe on opening day of deer season. Mind you, it was huge success relative to my previous years hunting, but of course not what I had in mind now that I lived in what my friends referred to as a veritable game preserve. So this year, our second, was to be the “year of the buck.”

All throughout the early small game seasons I kept myself alert for deer, always on the lookout for sign and patterns. I knew where they crossed the creek, where they bedded down, where they browsed the hedgerow fruits and berries, where they traversed our woods en route to corn and soy bean fields. I knew their paths through the cattail marsh, through the overgrown orchard, through bottomland brambles. I had mental notes of all of the rubs on and around my property. I had them patterned and I had seen at least two large bucks. Things were shaping up well for the “year of the buck.”

Opening day of deer season arrived with me riding high on a tide of confidence after a highly productive waterfowl season. I put in a few hard days of last minute preparations, stand placements, shooting lane clearings, all in anticipation of filling at least a doe tag or two and hopefully bagging my buck on opening day, before the deer changed all of their routines due to hunting pressure. I cleaned my WW I Mauser rifle-turned bolt-action shotgun thoroughly, sighted in the red dot scope one last time, pulled my deer hunting garb off of the clothesline where it had been “airing out” for a week or so, and completed last minute checks. “Tomorrow morning is it,” I kept thinking.

In the back of my mind I knew I needed to make a contingency plan about how to deal with the yearly tension between waterfowl hunting, my first love, and deer hunting, a growing obsession in its own right. The night before opening day, I committed to 100% attention to deer season until I got my deer tags filled, or the season ended, one of the two. It felt good to arrive at that position, knowing I seem to do better at whatever I endeavor when I sell out to the cause. So, I was committed to an extended “deer campaign” if required, which was appropriate for what was to be “the year of the buck.”

I slept fitfully and finally gave up at 3:30 AM. “Might as well get going,” I thought as I lay listening to the rain on the metal roof. “Things will be slower in the rain.” I was up and dressed by 4:00 AM and on my way to the stand in the thicket shortly thereafter. The thicket stand, I reasoned, was well placed on a regularly traveled route, and after all the shooting got started, I would be in an easy ambush position as the deer made their retreats to safety. Unfortunately, in the absolute darkness of the cloudy and foggy morning, it took me much more searching, and swearing, than expected to find the tree, despite the fact that I had just looked it over the afternoon before. Finally, as the darkness began lifting, I found the tree stand, and got myself situated. I was overheated, now soaked from the rain and the wet underbrush, and out of sorts. I tried to take some deep breaths, achieve the elusive Zen state of deer hunting, but I kept hearing deer moving around me. With twenty minutes to shooting time, I was strung as tight as a piano wire.

A shot to my left, single, followed by two follow-ups and the sound of someone whooping. “The season is five minutes old and someone is already happy,” I thought, “Won’t be long for me either.” A single shot to my right, near the hedgerow. “Must be Woody…he always gets a deer opening day.” Half an hour passes, and though I regularly hear deer in the brush around me and on the many spur trails, I have yet to see one. A shot to my rear, down by the lake in the vicinity of the cattails, followed up by three more shots in rapid succession. “Hmm…maybe I should have taken up that position near the marsh,” I mutter. Catching myself beginning to second-guess prematurely, I take a deep breath, steady myself, and focus. “This is the year of the buck,” I repeat, as a mantra, as I hear more shots in the distance.

The next two weeks differ very little from opening day. Snow falls, changing the scenery a little. The number of shots heard while in tree stands, or tracking and trudging, diminishes, leading me to believe that most of the deer in the county have been killed by what must be more lucky or more skilled hunters than I. I fall into a routine. Arise an hour before dawn, quickly dress and head out to one of my outposts of despair, while repeating my mantra “This is the year of the buck.” Mentally note the sound of the ducks or the geese on the marsh, taunting me, chiding me for wasting my time on deer when I could be waterfowl hunting. My lab gives me the same look every morning when she sees me put on the orange coat and not the old Filson, and more severely upon my return around 10:00 AM empty handed. Return to the woods around 3:00 PM for a few more hours. Somewhere in those two weeks I manage to show up for work for “reduced hours,” but those minutes are not memorable. What is most memorable, other than the bizarre behavior of ground squirrels which I have become an expert in due to my intimate and extended observations of, is a phone call from a good friend in Kentucky.

“How’s it going?” he inquires. “Great” I reply, aware that in that moment I might have wasted the last ounce of contrived optimism I may somehow have still been in possession of, and would be utterly bankrupt of positive thoughts when I get to my stand this afternoon. “What’s up?”

“Well, you know, Luke has been talking about wanting to hunt, and I don’t hunt, so I was wondering if you would take him hunting?” My friend Rob is not an avid outdoorsman, preferring to heap his genius upon more predictable and controllable things than nature, such as computers. I have considered the wisdom of his choices while freezing in my deer stand and have found them to be admirable, especially admirable this deer season.

“Has Luke ever been deer hunting?” I ask.
“Not really. We shot his .22 a few times together, though.”
“At what?” I ask.
“Cans, mostly.”
“See, all of his friends are starting to go hunting with their Dads or uncles, you know, everybody hunts down here.”

“Well, I’d love to see you guys, and I think it would be great to get Luke out hunting. Maybe we could go for squirrels.” I was thinking it might be better to postpone this hunting expedition idea until after deer season was over, so I could finish my languishing campaign in peace. There was only a week to go.

“Were you thinking in a few weeks” I asked?

“Well, we could do it next weekend…” I did the mental math. That would be the last weekend of deer season. But, for goodness sake, I had better at least see a deer by then.

“That will work just fine. Make sure Luke brings warm clothes and good boots. We have snow. Should be great hunting weather.” I can never pass up an opportunity to share the hunting tradition with a youngster. Besides, if I have wrecked my deer karma, maybe this will help.

The days passed by much like the preceding days of deer season, though I did at least get a fleeting glimpse of a doe or two, and even a handsome buck passed by out of range. The weather got colder, the ground squirrels seemed to disappear, and the snow deepened by the time Luke and Rob arrived. Shots were infrequently heard now, and my musings were muffled in the snowy quiet of the winter woods. I heard the dogs barking back up at the house and guessed that my hunt for the afternoon was over, that the Squirrel Hunting Expedition had begun. As I lowered my gun to the ground and climbed out of my tree stand, I heard the alarm chirp of a gray squirrel. I noted his location, and thought “Now don’t you guys all disappear too, Mr. Gray Squirrel.”

I made the hike back to the house quickly. It was easier now that I didn’t carry the back pack loaded with rope and knives and other sundries needed in the event one slew a deer. Now I just carried my gun and a handful of shells. Luke and Rob were standing on the steps, hands on hips, looking at the frozen lake, while my labs entreated the new arrivals to heed their wagging and whining. I felt my spirits lift a little from the heaviness I was beginning to suffer from the battles with self-doubt in the deer campaign.

We entered the house where my wife had a cozy fire going and delicious smells to greet our guests. Both Rob and Luke were immediately under the spell of our little piece of heaven, and by dinner time, Luke was being regaled by stories of “Myself as Great Waterfowl Hunter.” He listened enthusiastically to my tales, and my labs wagged their tales where appropriate. Rob also indulged me and encouraged me to continue with laughter and questions. As I was pouring a wee bit more wine into my glass, Luke deadpanned: “What about the deer?”

Waxing nostalgic about hunting aesthetics is one thing, but it should not be forgotten that hunting has its origins in a fairly straightforward requirement to put meat on the table. Leave it to a child to do so well what most adults have an increasingly more difficult time of. Ask the hard ones. Cut to the chase, get to the bottom line, and don’t equivocate. So there it was, the question laid before me. “Meat, or no meat?” “Success, or failure?” I looked into this aspiring hunter’s eyes and I could see that no flowery talk of “enjoying nature being the point of hunting” was going to fly. I think he understood the point was to hunt, which is more than to kill, and he was asking just how I was faring in that department. I cleared my throat, breaking the silence. “This is the year of the buck” I said flatly. “I have hunted hard for him, and he has eluded me. I haven’t seen many deer at all, and I have killed none.” I took a gulp of wine and swallowed. More silence.

Luke is an interesting young fellow, thoughtful, sincere, and comical in an off-the-wall kind of way. Luke looked at his father and seeing no sign to maintain silence, furrowed his brow and declared “Huh. Well, deer are pretty smart.” Never truer words were spoken. The boy had just delivered a simple yet profound nugget of truth to me in taking the attention off of myself and my misery and my woe-is-me deer-less pity party and putting the focus squarely where it belonged, on the honorable and magnificent quarry I was after and the reality that hunting deer should not be easy. I smiled and laughed a little, and so did Luke and Rob, but uncomfortably. Apparently, I was wearing this all on my sleeve. I needed to remedy the ambiguous tension in the air.

“Luke, in hunting, as in life, things don’t always go our way. Right now, I am a little discouraged because I have put a lot of thought, time, and effort into getting a deer, and I haven’t got one yet. Most everybody I know has gotten at least a doe or two by now, and many have gotten a buck. I guess I have been feeling a little sorry for myself because I haven’t had a fairy tale deer season where I got a trophy buck on the first day. But, like you said, deer are pretty smart, and I will keep trying. I am glad you are here, and we will go squirrel hunting tomorrow morning, and see what we can do. Are you prepared?”

Luke’s eyes got a little wider and his voice a little higher as he listed all of the things he had done in preparation for his hunt. His enthusiasm elated the mood in the room and the rest of the evening was relaxed for the grown ups, and full of anticipation for Luke, who decided to “turn in early” to be ready for the morning hunt. The fires died in the fireplaces, the wine gave out, and conversation waned. We retired with a steady snow falling.

The next morning I did not awake before dawn as was my usual routine, because squirrel hunting need not be that kind of affair. We all ate a leisurely breakfast, carried a little wood for the kitchen fireplace, and drank coffee and hot chocolate. We went scouting for squirrels, did some farm chores, and before we knew it, it was 2:00 PM. I had forgotten how civilized life could be at such a pace, what with the water fowling season and deer season rigors. Finally, according to Luke, we turned our full attention to the squirrel hunt.

We adjourned to the gun room and began dressing for the field, bundling up against the dropping temperatures outside. Luke was going to borrow my .22, and Rob and I each carried 12 gauge shotguns “to help out” Luke. Rob’s gun for the day was a New England Firearms single shot, mine was a FieldMaster pump, named the “magical gun of mystery” in honor of its often idiosyncratic ways, especially in the duck blind. Would it cycle, would it fire? One never knew. I thought I’d give it a run since I had recently cleaned it good. My hope was that this would be a good barn gun, an extra shotgun to have around, used more as a tool than as an instrument of sporting leisure. It was the right gun for the day.

Luke loaded a pocket full of .22 rounds into his hunting coat, and I grabbed a handful of number sevens. “These ought to do the trick for backing Luke up,” I thought, smiling at the remembrance of my first boyhood squirrel which mysteriously had more than one hole in it despite the fact that I only shot my .22 once. My glance skimmed across a wooden cigar box which held my deer hunting slug shells. “Better grab a couple of these, too, just in case,” I said out loud, noticing a definite increase in my optimism levels. Luke grinned at me.

We crunched through the fresh snow past the barns toward the creek ravine. The ridges over looking the ravine are dotted with 100 year old oak trees that are in decline and full of large cavities. They are like housing projects for gray squirrels. We arrived at the biggest of these, which stands guard over the trail that descends the steep banks of the gully. The ravine is gorge-like in places, with depths of up to 70 feet from the ridge to the creek bottom below. One can only see the creek bottom by standing on the very edge of the ravine and peering over the edge. Adding the 100 plus feet of height of the oak trees, the squirrels are afforded quite a vantage point indeed.

On this day, a squirrel was noisily gnawing away at something in the higher branches. We spotted him high above, a silhouette against the gray sky. “Too far, too high” Rob explained to Luke, taking advantage of an opportunity to explain how rifle bullets travel, even .22’s, and how we must anticipate how far past what we shoot at our bullets will fly. We observed the copious squirrel sign on the snow covered ground, and we bent down studying the comings and goings of our quarry. Luke asked about the blurred tracks, and we spoke of the wind, and the snow, and how animals react to severe weather. And then it happened. It was subtle, almost the same feeling you have when you have been in the waiting room at the doctor’s for hours, and have become drowsy and resigned to forever waiting, and then your name is called. It is both startling and no surprise at all.

My name was called kneeling under that oak tree looking at squirrel sign with Luke and his father. Rob later said my expression was really like I, but nobody else, heard perhaps my wife calling my name or the phone ringing. Luke asked “What?” and I put my finger to my lips. I was suddenly very alert, but still unsure why, or what called me. We kneeled silently together for a moment, and I remember how beautifully quiet it was, and how lovely the faint rustling of the dead oak leaves still on the branches sounded. Luke and Rob were looking at me intently, like I was either going to tell a joke punch line or break some bad news. Instead, I smiled and slowly, deliberately, removed the three bird shot shells from the “magical gun of mystery”, and replaced them with three deer slugs. I wasn’t sure why.

From the squirrel’s vantage point high in the swaying branches of the oak tree, this is what he saw. Directly below him, at the base of his tree on the ridge, were three humans with guns, nothing unusual this time of the year, crouching, looking at his acorn peelings and footprints, pointing here and there. The squirrel barked warnings to these humans, declaring his rights to privacy and property so that they will leave the place where he has buried a nut or two. Far below the squirrel, down in the ravine, in the blackberry bramble on the far side of the creek, rest three does, their ears twitching, nostrils flaring, puzzling out mixed signals on the wind. They are laying low in the snow where they often seek refuge, riding out the winter weather in the shelter of the gully. The humans with guns often walk past them where they lay quietly. This day they snort nervously, aware of a predator, of impending danger. The sounds and smells are strong, though intermittent. They decide to depart quickly.

Meanwhile, on the ridge the squirrel sees the human with the orange coat rise and motion to the other two to follow him. The little one follows next, followed by the one with no hat. The squirrel turns his gaze again to the deer, now standing up in the snow, twitching their tails and snorting. One is big and gray, one is slightly smaller and more tan, and one is younger and spotted. Looking back at the humans, the squirrel sees that they are walking towards the edge of the ravine, to a clear spot recently logged. The deer are moving now toward a switchback trail up the far side of the ravine, running. The humans have reached the edge of the ravine. The little one is pointing at the running deer and the one in the orange coat is snapping his gun up to his cheek. Bang! The squirrel drops his nut and dives into his tree home, where he is greeted by the noisy chatter of his tree mates.

I shot three times, the “magical gun of mystery” performing flawlessly for once. I lowered the gun and it registered that I had just seen deer and shot at them. I heard a squirrel chattering. On my left I heard Rob say, “You got ‘im,” incredulously. “We got a deer!” Luke exclaimed. At first I couldn’t see anything. We were standing side by side by side on the ridge in the fading light as the snow fell. Then I could see a big gray doe laying on the deer trail across the creek about 120 yards down and away. She was still. Two other deer were running up the trail, pausing for a moment looking back, cresting the rim and bounding out of the gorge and out of sight.

I turned my head and looked at Rob and Luke, who were smiling. “I am going to the deer,” I said. “Would you gentleman mind keeping your eye on it from here in case she gets up, or I can’t see her from down there in the thick stuff? I’ll give you a shout to come down when I get to her.” We all agreed to the plan, and as I excitedly and hurriedly slid on my backside down the snowy ravine (which I must remember to do again as it was quite exhilarating!), I could hear Luke speaking with exuberance to his father. While chambering a few shells in case the deer was not finished, I resolved then to do all I could to help Luke own this hunt.

As I feared, it was difficult to see anything in the tall brambles, and slowly I picked my way through the brush. I called to Luke, “Luke, can you still see her? Am I getting close?” Simultaneously, both Rob and Luke answered. Luke said “Yep, you’re almost there,” while Rob said “Keep going, a little to your right.” Then, after a few more steps, I saw the gray fur and white tail. When I got to her, she was quite still and dead. I called for Luke and Rob to come down, and emptied the shells from my gun. I leaned the gun in a low fork of a tree, and knelt down to my downed deer. I felt for her wound and finally found an entrance and exit wound in the neck, where the lead slug had severed her spine. She died almost instantly. No wonder she disappeared from view so quickly, which also better explained my instinctive second two shots at the other bigger deer.

Luke and Rob came up behind me and I could hear Luke saying “Wow, it’s bigger than I thought.” I was feeling her fur, and I invited Luke to check it out. It was then that I felt that “performance pressure” ease away from me, and a feeling of immense gratitude came over me. I realized how fortunate we all were to experience this, in this unique way, together. I became aware of how fortunate I was to be hunting in such a beautiful place that happened to be my back yard. And it occurred to me to impress upon Luke the importance of gratitude versus gloating when we have the good fortune of our hunt including a kill. I looked at Rob, and he communicated without words his deference in this situation, which is a compliment to another, as any father knows. I said “Can I get serious for a minute with Luke?” Rob said “Yes, of course.” So I said to Luke, “Remember how I said in hunting, as in life, things don’t always go our way? Well, today they went your way Luke, and my way too. We killed a deer. Now, we must be thankful for this deer, for this life we have taken. We don’t have to do anything fancy, we should just be quiet for a minute and think about this beautiful deer in this beautiful place and be thankful.” After a few moments as we knelt around this gray doe in the snow, giving thanks how we each saw fit, I heard a squirrel’s chatter from the big oak tree up on the ridge. I looked at Luke. “Kind of a strange squirrel hunt, huh Luke?” He had a shy look, turned his head away. “Yeah” he said, sort of laughing.

I asked Rob to go up to the house and get my butchering equipment and some baling twine from the sheep barn while Luke and I found a small lodge pole. While we waited for Rob’s return, we sat on a log and had target practice with the .22 on an old tree trunk that had gnarls in it that looked like the rings of a target paper with a bull’s eye. Luke showed that he was a pretty good shot. We ran out of rounds for the .22 just as Rob appeared up on the ridge. As he was picking his way down to us in the fading winter afternoon light, Luke said “This is the best hunting trip I have ever been on.”
“Sorry we didn’t get you a squirrel” I said.
“Well, getting a deer is pretty good too” he replied.
“Yes,” I said, “because deer are pretty smart.”
We laughed as we stood to greet Rob, having returned from his mission.

Working quickly, we had the deer field dressed before dark, and we hung it from the lodge pole just like in the Davy Crocket books I read when I was a kid. Rob took the front, I took the rear, and the successful hunting party labored under the load of the heavy doe up the path to the top of the ridge as darkness fell. As we approached the farmhouse, we could see the warm yellow lights of the windows and we could all imagine the cheery fires and food, fun, and family waiting for us inside. My children and wife, as well as Rob’s wife and daughter were waiting at the door for us when we returned, and I couldn’t help thinking I was in a Currier and Ives dream state, or that Norman Rockwell would be sitting with his easel in the yard.

So, despite not having shot a trophy buck, my deer drought ended on a happier than could have been expected note. From what I hear, Luke is still telling his New York deer hunting tale. I never told Rob about how preposterous it was that an instinctual snap shot on a running deer at over one hundred yards down hill in bad light with a dubious gun shooting 2 ¾ shells through a stuck poly choke last set for ducks with two witnesses resulting in an instant kill neck shot was. That it was unbelievably lucky, never repeatable, I mean. Not that it wasn’t meant to be. I have told Rob that the hunt I shared with he and his son was one of the most memorable hunts, if not moments, of my life. I am hoping Luke will be willing to go after squirrels with me on my next trip for Moose in Maine or Elk in the Rockies. I hope that in life, as in hunting, things will continue to go Luke’s way.


Ernie said...

Keith, Not having had access to the blog when this first appeared i am delighted that you chose to post it again. Great reading and a great story. Ever think of submitting this to Field and Stream or one or two of the other hunting mags? It's too great and well written of a story not to share. Thanks for posting it again!

KGT said...

Thanks alot Ernie.

Eric said...

Great story Ernie is right you should publish it in field and stream.They would love to have it I am sure

Dr. Dirt said...

What a friggin' epic! I'll expect to have a little venison when I'm up your way in January. Congrats.