NEAR COOK, MINN. – Where my brother, nephew, son and I hunt deer, white-tail numbers are low enough to keep our expectations in check, yet high enough to give us hope. I was thinking about this Saturday morning when the snowy woods near here revealed themselves in the early morning light, the limbs of jack pine and fir, spruce and poplar draped in white, and drooping.
I had hardly settled in when I saw my first deer. This was at 7:30, and a few shots had rung out to the west and south in the previous hour or so. None came from our group. Rather the tremulous popping of high-caliber rifles — three, separately — had thumped distantly, muffled, and got me to imagining what might have transpired. Anyway, the deer that showed itself in front of my stand, ghostlike, was a doe, fat and healthy, and unaware I was watching.
The issue of when to fill your freezer nags all fall. A person really doesn’t want to shoot too much too early. Otherwise when cold settles in, incentive goes out. That said, with last year’s venison supply expended, and November well nigh, I looked longer at the doe than I might have in other circumstances. A little of this, a little of that, I thought. Then again, it was a doe, and I wondered whether a buck might be following behind. Also if I pulled the trigger there would be the requisite explaining next week to all the numskulls who ask, “Did you get your deer?’’ So I poured a cup of coffee and hunkered in.
Dick, my brother, was perched to the south of me, and he was on a short leash, timewise. He had a date in an elk camp, and needed to leave by afternoon for parts in the far west. His son, Brian — my nephew — wanted a buck, I knew that, as did Cole, my son. They were in their own stands, possibly alert, but also just as likely eating sandwiches, nodding off or otherwise doing what deer hunters do.
We don’t kill a lot of deer in these parts, mostly because there aren’t a lot of deer here. Dick hunts a swamp edge, and through the years he has proven the most likely to waylay something on the opener. Almost as if by clockwork he seems to pull the trigger between 8 and 9. But Saturday morning those hours came and went, and his .308 remained mum, as did Brian’s and Cole’s rifles.
Don’t get us started on wolves. We know they’re here, and a few weeks back, while scouting, we found still another deer skeleton to prove it. We like to think we’re magnanimous, and everyone has to eat. And anyway, for most of the 35 years we’ve owned the back 40 we hunt, wolves have been part of it, they and their scat and their tracks. Yet in that time, we’ve only seen two wolves, the original night movers. So they’re here and they’re not.
I knew it was Dick who shot when I heard a rifle crack behind me at 10:15. This was a single report, and I figured if you wanted to put a match to the old gas grill, it would be appropriate. The question was: doe or buck?
Brian was next to shoot, a half-hour later. Or maybe it was Cole, I thought, given the weird way sound travels in the woods. But in my mind I had triangulated the source of the shot — also just a single pow — and thought, “Brian.’’
Our plan had been to sit on our stands until noon, as usual. That’s a good six hours or so in one position. Wet snow fell during the first half of that period, and the wind came up slightly, from the northwest. But mostly conditions were as they should be in northern Minnesota on the deer opener: cold, snowy, invigorating.
I had packed a sandwich, three cookies, a Halloween-size candy bar, a small Thermos of coffee and a bottle of apple juice. Also on the way in, each of us following our headlamps, I toted a camera and various hunting necessities, including extra .270 rounds. I’ve never used more than two of these on any of these hunts, and I wondered just when I might stop lugging the other half-dozen or so with me. The upshot is by midday I had eaten half my sandwich, a cookie and enjoyed two cups of coffee. Also I had put in some pretty good thinking time, and fantasized about this and that, both benefits of long hours spent in the woods, whether north, south, east or west.
Brian, it turned out, had gotten the buck he wanted, making a good shot. You can’t eat horns, as they say, but all things being equal, he had wanted a buck. Dick, meanwhile, had taken a doe, stifling his freezer’s echo just a bit.
There was some effort involved in getting everything from where it was to where it needed to be. Dick’s doe, though heart-shot, was embedded deep in a swamp. Brian’s buck, also cleanly killed, was similarly far from the beaten path. But somehow it’s not so much work to field-dress these animals, and drag them, and retrieve the four-wheeler from the highway a mile distant, and to hook it all up and at day’s end to hike back to where you’ve come from.
Which may explain as well as any these interludes in the woods. Where you’ve come from. Where, more or less, we’ve all come from.
Late Saturday, Cole’s rifle rang out.
I thought: “OK.’’
Then I walked in the direction of the gunfire, soon turning on my headlamp while weaving among the jack pine and fir, spruce and poplar.
I knew well an evening’s worth of work might lie ahead, and felt good about it.