I don’t get up at 6:00am. I never get up at 6:00am. I make webpages for a living and one of the reasons I chose that career was because it never ever requires me to get up at 6:00am. But there I was rubbing my eyes and envying my still-snoozing wife. Dressing in the near dark, layering fleece over flannel over cotton and hoping that it would be enough in the frigid November air, I fought against the bulk as I stretched to tie my shoes.
My new uncle-in-law lives in northern Washington alongside a slow, chilly creek. The steep-sided valley of scattered lodgepole and aspen was covered in shallow fog and mile upon mile of tawny dry grass as I slipped from the guesthouse and headed for Dave’s front door. A tiny wisp of smoke rising from his chimney told me the coffee was ready and Dave was probably struggling to tie his own oversized shoes.
Dave had drawn a late-season tag in a unit adjacent to his own front yard. It was his first yard in three years and by inviting his inexperienced, suburban nephew along he was taking a certain risk. Nobody ever said so in as many words but it was implicit that my role was to carry binoculars, stay behind the rifle and not ask too many questions.
While I’d grown up in a rural setting, there were no hunters in my family. I was familiar enough with deer but only as highway hazards and I couldn’t tell you if we were dodging whitetails, mulies, or saber-tooth deer on Route 18. I didn’t grow up with any aversion to hunting, no moral conflict over the steaks I ate; but neither did I understand the motivation to hunt. There was a stereotype in my mind, born no doubt of Southern California politics, that hunters were Bud-pounding, monosyllabic Neanderthals, when in fact, that’s a more accurate description of surfers.
By 6:45 Dave and I were climbing a steep dirt road in his pickup. The rising sun lit the western ridge with brilliant hues of gold and rust while most of the valley still slept in the shadows of the eastern peaks. When we stopped the truck and stepped out into the stiff breeze, I felt as if I’d never seen this country before. Adding to the otherness of it all I stood not in soil but in several inches of fine powder. Fire tore across this slope fifty years ago, thinning the thick pines, making room for the newer aspens and covering everything in a deep blanket of ash.
With a silent nod toward a distant shape, Dave shouldered his 30-06 and headed north. The doe he had spotted was patiently waiting for her sisters to climb a steep gully she had surmounted. With no pretense of stealth, Dave and I approached to within a quarter mile before the group of females casually sought higher ground. For the next half-hour we continued in this way, following one group of females or another at a good distance, looking intently for their mates. Dave was giving me a crash course in outdoorsmanship by pointing out details I should notice: the wind, the clouds, the faint deer trails. He would periodically raise his binoculars and survey the sprawling hillside while I dutifully copied his actions, trying to see what he saw. By the time the sun had climbed high enough to light the valley floor, we were approaching a thinly wooded saddle with sunlight streaming through the trees in long, dusty blades. “Look for the sunlight glinting off an antler,” Dave instructed. “That’s the easiest way to spot a buck.”
I was fascinated with the trees, with the light, and with the tracks we found. “See how the toes are splayed out, and the impression of the dew claw?” To me it looked like a pair of quotation marks but I nodded respectfully. “That shows the animal had to be carrying a lot of weight. Probably a buck and a good sized one too.”
From the driver’s side window woods are woods. I could identify a half dozen varieties of trees, recognize various geological formations but here I was getting a glimpse of something far more, far deeper. This wasn’t calculated environmental science but wood-wisdom. A druidic knowing of the land and its inhabitants that could only come from sharing the space with fir and fox and the day’s first breath. As much as I was being instructed, I was being mentored.
As we crouched there over the tracks I caught a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. Bringing the binoculars up, I scanned the hillside and spotted another doe lying in a patch of rabbit brush, twitching her ears and rolling her neck. Following her gaze I quickly spotted four other deer slowly moving up the slope.
“There’s a buck over there,” I whispered to Dave.
“Where?” he said.
“See the dead tree? Look just to the left of it.”
There was easily a quarter mile between us, probably closer to a half and almost no cover. “If we get behind that knoll we can close in without any of them seeing us.” I said.
Dave looked at me a long moment, his eyes squinting in an unreadable expression. “We could do that,” he said, “But then we won’t be able to see them either. If they move we won’t know where they went.” I nodded, just a little crestfallen. “Still,” Dave said, inhaling sharply, “it looks like our best chance of getting a clean shot.”
Without another word he stood up and started toward the tree line. Walking calmly and deliberately he stopped now and again to watch the distant deer. Trying not to rush, stopping whenever a head would turn or an ear would twitch, we moved behind a small hill. Quickly now we crept across its base toward the dead tree that had helped us spot the buck. Not quite sure how close this detour had brought us; we eased quietly to its crest and took a peek. No deer – just another, lower hill between the courting buck and us.
Darting between rocks and pines, painfully seeking to make each step on the dry pine needles as silent as possible, my heart was racing. Above us was a large outcropping of basalt and the point of no return. If we reached that rock and found the buck on the other side, the shot would be clean and short and simple. If we poked our heads out to find nothing but sage, the day would be over and Dave would try again tomorrow, without me.
Those last fifty yards seemed like a mile. Every twig that snapped sounded like thunder, every sniff of my nose seemed like a hurricane. I couldn’t believe that I could make such a racket; and it seemed impossible that the radar-dish ears of these animals could miss it. Step be step we closed the distance and I dared to glance around the crumbling stones.
The whole group was still lounging around, completely unaware of our presence. I literally gasped and in that instant ten gigantic ears swiveled to face me. Dave’s rifle wasn’t ready and any motion on his part would undoubtedly be seen.
Gradually, the deer went back to their munching and Dave lifted the Remington to his shoulder. A moment later a sharp crack echoed off the hillside and a four-point buck fell among his escorts. The does stood, bewildered at the sound and only moved off when we stood up and approached them.
I won’t deny that the process of cleaning the animal soured my stomach just a bit but in hindsight it’s the detail that I remember least. The impression of that extraordinary day continues to be the glory of an autumn morning, the wonder of sharing that hillside with wild animals, and the discovery (or re-discovery) that the wilderness is not the border that surrounds and threatens my home and my life, but rather an older, more patient home that has simply grown unfamiliar. Dave seems to think that I brought him good luck and promises to invite me on his next hunt. I don’t know if I’ll carry a rifle next time, or just binoculars, but looking forward to another morning like that gives me a comfortable rumble of anticipation.