COOK, MINN. - The sky was black and clear and the south wind that blew Friday night still blew when we awoke at 4:30 a.m. Saturday. It was opening morning of deer season, and my brother, Dick, his son, Brian, my son Cole and I wanted to be in our stands by 7:15.
Following the diffuse light of our head lamps, we walked a narrow trail that winds a half-mile through jack pine and popple and some red and white pine. This higher ground has yielded some deer to us over the years. But each of us prefers to hunt lower country and the swampy lairs of the bucks that lurk there.
Every waking moment, deer this far north roll the dice. Bears sniff out their fawns, wolves catch them on ice, cars splatter them in the night. Comparatively, we represented little threat: Dick sits in a swamp stand farthest to the south, Brian to the west, Cole the east and I the north. Except for a noon lunch sometimes spent around a campfire, sprawled in a half-circle on the forest floor, we, each of us, pass these days alone with our thoughts, watching swamps and particularly the edges of swamps and the trails formed there.
The sun came up and there were no shots. On occasion within a half-hour of light seeping through the bare tree limbs that arch over the piece of country, a deer reveals itself, ghostlike. Seen just then, the animal gives itself up less by what we can see than by how it carries itself. Does travel light-footed and are not just a little curious, stopping and chewing and looking around, as if one motion was dependent on the next. Bucks, especially the good ones, are heavier and often move in the manner of champion boxers entering the ring.
If you've seen a deer move this way, you'll recall it when you see it again; the subconscious records such sensory perceptions indelibly.
Hunters who don't see deer for a long while from their stands begin to see them everywhere. Tree stumps and deadfalls take the form of heads or legs, and branches, antlers. I killed a deer the first time I ever hunted, and I told my dad afterward that I had seen so many animals that finally I had to shoot one. This was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in woods not unlike those my brother, nephew, son and I hunted on Saturday. Deer typically aren't plentiful in these landscapes, except in successive years of open winters, with little snow. Looking back, I'm unsure whether any of the many deer I saw that first morning of hunting were actually deer except the one I shot. The upshot is the crack of my hand-me-down lever-action .30-30 set the table for a lifetime of expectations that some seasons are met and others not.
When we met for lunch the sun was high in a bluish sky. We had seen no deer. Sandwiches we had made early that morning and stashed in our packs were broken out and the time was passed in good humor. Each of us knew the business at hand, and at one level the shared tradition of hunting the same land over many years played itself out again. Irony has no role here, and in that respect deer hunting is a welcome diversion from modern life. Mystery does, however, gather round all of hunting, and acknowledgment of its presence is an acknowledgment that no outcome can be predicted.
Which, in the end, is hunting's price of admission, and one season ticket holders gladly pay.
Midafternoon came and went, then ushered in late afternoon. The wind, strong from the south all day, was unrelenting. Overhead the sky became a winter's gray-blue, and the temperature fell.
Deer on windy days that would otherwise move often bed down. Still and quiet is how they like their woods, beneath the croak of a raven passing overhead, and the flitting of chickadees, tree to tree.
Hearing something, or not, I gathered up my rifle and dialed through its scope a bird's-eye view of everything. The scope brightens as it magnifies, and it seemed for a long moment that everything that was important to see could be seen through it. Hunts long ago with my dad, and now those with my brother and his son and my son.
I thought I saw a deer, too, a buck, a good one, its nose to the ground, following a doe.
Good hunts are like that, they have deer in them. I looked more closely, but perhaps it was not a deer after all, only again the endless desire to see one that caused it to appear.
I could have pulled my eye from the scope. But I thought if I looked hard enough, or moved its point of focus just slightly, I could see everything important to be seen.
Maybe even a deer.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org