The luckiest deer hunter

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 16, 2012 - 7:44 AM

One Minnesota family with lifetimes of deer season memories is given new reasons to savor its annual hunt.

They ought to call it thought hunting.

You sit in a deer stand, hour after hour, silent and still. While you wait for a deer, your mind wanders the dense and beautiful forest of its own thoughts.

In my decades of deer hunting, this is one thing I've come to value. Yes, I like the heart-pounding thrill of a nice buck approaching. I like the challenge of making a clean kill and respectable field-dress.

I enjoy putting meat in the freezer and maybe a trophy on the wall. And I cherish the annual reunions that deer hunting gives my family.

But I've noticed that the hunt's long interludes of solitude are some of the best opportunities I get all year to think, without interruption or distraction.

To take stock, reminisce and savor. To mull and decide. To mark the years and stages of my life. To worry, count blessings and hope.

Century-old tradition

For almost 40 years, my dad, my brother and I have hunted the same patch of the Chippewa National Forest in the lake, sand and pine country of north-central Minnesota.

We've hunted the same area so long we've seen portions of it logged and return again to mature forest. Sitting high in a ladder stand against a tall pine you stepped over as a teenager has a way of compressing the years and making you see your life in bigger chunks.

Lately my grown son has joined us, learning to shoot his uncle's old .30-30 and continuing a tradition that's been in our family since before my paternal grandfather and his brother built a windowless log deer-hunting shack northwest of Duluth almost 100 years ago.

They got there by pumping a railroad handcar, and they felled whitetail on the edges of a massive bog in an area they called Mount Hope.

Some of our best family memories are from our hunts. One year, dad shot a handsome eight-pointer right at sunset near his stand next to a giant Norway pine, a mile on foot paths from where we park.

We'd heard wolves yowling earlier, so we thought we'd better walk back there together and do a nighttime drag. Dad broke trail as my brother, Greg, and I slid the animal over fresh snow and low windfalls, each of us straining on an antler.

On one of our rests, we noticed that the brilliant full moon was dimming. We looked up, expecting to see snow clouds moving in. Instead, we realized with a shock, the rounded shadow of the earth was sliding slowly across the moon -- a lunar eclipse. One of us remembered one had been forecast.

We turned off the flashlights and stood in the forest's inky blackness. Hushed and awed beneath a canopy of achy-bright stars, we waited for Earth's disk to complete its journey across the Sea of Tranquility or whatever vast, sterile plain lay between those chalky lunar hills.

We continued to gaze through the bare treetops as our planet's shadow finished its moon-crossing, revealing first a sliver of the other side, then a crescent, and ultimately its full, beaming orb.

Basking in the luster of its restored light in the snowy forest, we passed a hip flask and drank a "hunter's toast" to dad's buck and to this rarest of moments, an old woodsman and his sons sharing a priceless, unforgettable experience.

Reason to reflect

Such memories are all the sweeter when a hunter is given reason to reflect on the fragility of life.

Last year, a couple weeks after I killed a broken-tine eight-pointer on the last day of the season, I was finishing a routine workout when a blood vessel in my head suddenly ruptured in a wave of searing pain.

I was in the hospital 16 days with a tube inserted deep into my head. It was a major brain hemorrhage, but I escaped the disabilities -- difficulty walking and talking -- that many stroke victims suffer at least temporarily.

The reason is a little bizarre.

According to the neurosurgeon who studied the CAT scans and MRIs of my head, a malformation of blood vessels had starved a portion of my brain of oxygen and prevented it from developing properly, probably before I was born.

Luckily, the fetal and infant brain is highly adaptable. The good parts simply assumed the prescribed functions of the part that didn't develop -- the part that remains to this day, in the words of the neurosurgeon, "silent."

And it was into that silence that the same malformed cluster of vessels bled when I was 51 -- inundating, pressurizing and starving the one and only portion of my brain where there are no vital functions being performed, no thoughts to kill.

That bullet whizzed right past my head. That thought still takes my breath away.

Another scare

Then, this fall, dad's 76-year-old body took its turn to scare everybody.

Blood work from a routine physical showed abnormal results, and eventually specialists determined he has cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Dad matter-of-factly explained that it can't be cured but that chemotheraphy conceivably could knock it into remission.

We feared that the chemo, if not the cancer, would make him really sick, make his hair fall out and all that. But it didn't.

He says he might be a little more tired at times. But he's kept working two days a week as before and kept things up around the house, yard and garage.

Once again he helped put on the lutefisk dinner at church, and he's kept telling corny jokes. And when November came, he and mom hosted the annual hunt as usual.

On opening morning, he was out of bed at 4 a.m., and when the sun rose on another deer season, he was in his stand by the big Norway, where he sat in a cold wind until lunch, bundled in wool, alert for his next trophy.

Stealing a phrase he's used to describe certain memorable people over the years, I'll say this: My dad is tougher than a boiled owl.

Later in the deer season, his oncologist called with fantastic news: The latest tests showed the chemo is reducing evidence in his blood of the cancer, making remission seem more likely.

Maybe we both should start playing the lottery.

Measuring luck

In terms of deer hanging from the pole outside dad's garage, this season wasn't one of our best. For days we had blustery weather that made it hard to hear and might have spooked a lot of deer.

Greg shot a fork horn late one afternoon when it walked up on him from behind, a warm-up to a trophy whitetail he shot a week later in Pennsylvania. Dad and Mike didn't get a shot but enjoyed their time in the woods and together, a patriarch getting another chance to share his experience and time with a grandson eager to soak it up.

I might have had a nice-sized fork horn myself, but he spotted me before I could get my rifle off my lap, and then he ducked into some thick brush. He made a fool out of me, as many of his kind have done before. He left me shaking my head and smiling.

So I didn't get a deer, but as usual I got a lot of time to think. To remember and appreciate. To marvel and savor and worry and hope.

To decide that you can fail to fill your tag and still be the luckiest damn deer hunter in the whole north woods.

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751

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