Deer hunt includes mystery, questions; few answers
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
In the inky shadows of pre-dawn lie questions and uncertainty; mystery lurks in the darkness like dream fragments, seeming real and fantasy both. It takes the light of day and time, always time, to sort things out. With daybreak yet to come one has only questions, no matter how hard one wishes for answers. Those will come, the answers. True on all days, never more so than in the dark hour before deer season opens.
We walk single file. Near-full moon near setting in the west, hazy with veiled cloud, casts light and shadow. What seems real is not; what seems solid is vaporous. Predawn, that special time when nothing is as it seems.
Leaf rustles neath boots; branches slip across jackets; small sounds in the darkness.
We climb to the tree stand, our refuge, sturdy and aged with the seasons. Settle in. Load rifles; bolts slide forward, metal to metal and then finality of bolt locking. After; quiet. It is smoky dark and the landscape around us is murky with smudges of undefined tree and brush. Eastern sky glows lighter. We wait.
A rifle shot echoes across the rolling hills. The season begins.
We do not see a deer in the first hour. Nor the second, the third. It is opening day. We always see deer in that span. Rifle shots, scattered and inconsistent, suggest other outcomes. For us, only questions.
In the fourth hour a movement in the pines, a flicker. I whisper to Ted, “Deer. Maybe.” I’m not 100 percent certain. A question. Two minutes later a doe comes from the cover of thicket and pine, moving in haste, across an open area. She looks as though she has someplace to go but is not sure where. Then she walks into brush; gone. She was nervous and we discuss the reason. A buck behind her? Wolf?
We wait. Minutes pass then another shadow of movement where the doe had come but this time I was focused and know this time it was a deer.
No question. No mystery. It comes into the open area, dull light on antlers, moving with certainty from right to left.
Was it 25 years ago we first hunted this stand together? Longer? I know only that on a morning in November a buck came out and Ted waited longer than I’d expect a young, inexperienced kid to wait, sighting over an old single shot 30-30 until the buck was where the best shot was and he took the buck there. Now, decades past, the eight-pointer comes the same way and stands in nearly the same place Ted had taken his first.
The shot is loud and final. I go back to the shack and make bacon and eggs while Ted takes care of the buck and loads it in the truck.
That afternoon I hunt in a chill wind, see three deer through the hours and come back to a warm shack. We grill steak, wash it down with wine, talk of hunts past, discuss the day. We’d not seen many deer. The questions; the why and the why not.
At 1 o’clock in the morning I wake and stoke the fire. Outside it is crystal clear and the moon is bright. I think to myself that deer will be moving in the moonlight, so bright is it.
I hunt alone in the early dawn chill with temperatures in the low teens. I hunker down. I do not see deer and I do not hear many shots.
There is a beauty to November so often overlooked after the gaudy displays of October. A subtle beauty, nuanced, understated but very real. It is a restful time of nature drawing down as if tired and needing rest. Pine trees stand somber in an autumnal green far different than spring green but lovely nonetheless. Fern and fallen leaf crushed brown and umber. A few russet oak leaves remain and when the sun lights them they seem to glow. It is a simple time, unadorned. Time in a deer stand is not simply for deer. Time in a deer stand opens the November world from dusky dawning to evening glow.
I sit and lean back in the big white pine tree and take it in. I do not see deer. It does not ruin the day.
I turn my head and see the wolf. I never saw it coming. I was looking left; it came from the right following an old game trail. He has nearly reached the thick cover of the hillside. He seems very big and he is moving as best he could. But he is hobbling, one front leg held up, not bearing weight. It happens so fast I cannot say which leg is crippled, happens so fast I am late to raise the binoculars.
I do not know why I say it is a he; it just seems that way.
He is limping badly but moving forward. He turns off the path and stops. He turns to look at his back trail. There is a gap in the brush and I can see him. I center him in the binoculars. His face is full and blocky and black but the black that has a sheen to it, that seems to glow. His eyes are bright but I cannot tell what color.
Then he is gone.
When I quit for the morning I walk parallel to where the wolf had gone, scanning the cover on the off chance he’d laid up. He had not. I walk back to the shack and wonder of the wolf, how he’d come to be injured, what would become of him in the mean times to come.
In the afternoon the wind comes up and howls like a lost spirit. Snow falls and the wind growls and any trace of the wolf is blown to the gales of November.
All that remains are the November woods and a final mystery left unresolved.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.
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