The trail I had been hiking down for the last 45 minutes was covered in roots, different types of vegetation, rocks and was criss-crossed with long spiky vines from the wild blackberry bushes that are so very prevalent in this area. I was nervous, and I was trying to hold my anxiety at bay. I wasn’t alone in this hike, but it was still 2 hours until sunrise.
We were hiking in the dark with no flashlight. Only the light of the sliver of moon guided our path. I don’t like the dark very much when I’m out in the woods. My imagination goes a bit crazy with thoughts of crazy people on the prowl, the hunter becoming the hunted. Thoughts of the mythical Bigfoot finding me in the dark and tearing me limb from limb haunt my imaginative pondering while roaming the woods in the dark. I was anxious.
“Crack!!” It was heard throughout the area. I had stepped on an old rotted oak tree branch that had fallen across the trail. “Shhhh”, my mentor scolded. “We’re entering into the area that we are going to hunt. Keep quiet.” We proceeded on, my mentor Chris, leading the way into the tangled woods, off the trail, to places only he knows about. “I call this the rats nest, because you can’t get through it, but the deer can. The stand I set up for you is right down there. Just follow the path I laid out for you and when you come to a stick blocking the path turn left. Walk three hundred yards and look up. You should see the stand.” Seriously? I should be able to see it? There’s no other markers than just a stick? I have to do this in the dark? By myself? The thoughts and questions were racing through my anxious mind. “Where are you going to be?” I asked him. “Over there to the east of here about 1 mile down the ridge line.” He said with his woodsman confidence that just seems to always shine through.
Chris is a quiet man. He is a confident man who has taken many deer and turkeys from the woods to feed his family with. He is an expert outdoorsman. Confident and skilled in the ways of tracking, knowing where the game will be and when it will be there. He knows about plants, which ones are good to eat and which ones you should avoid. He’s an excellent marksman, both with the shotgun as well as the rifle and bow. He’s tall with short blond hair, has a strong physique and tan skin from being out in the woods so much. He often looked at me in a manor that spoke of a quiet wisdom. Like he knew something about me that I didn’t. I respected this man right away and knew him to be honorable.
Chris is the person who taught me how to hunt. He taught me everything that was necessary to enter into the woods and come out with game. He welcomed my wife and I into his home and made us a part of his family. He is married to a wonderful woman named Mary Jo and they have two wonderful children Cory and Eric. He showed me the ways of the woods, the ebb and flow of nature surrounding us. He taught me, and showed me that every part of the natural world has a pattern of living and dying. In order to sustain itself it must be controlled. And that control process is through the food chain. Killing, gathering, eating of plant and animals. All things will die. This is the man who left me alone in the big oak woods at night. Did he know that I was afraid to be by myself in the woods in the dark? Probably. I never informed him of that personal flaw in character, but he probably knew the same he knows that deer have entered the back bean field when that bean field is acres away from his house. I’m sure he was making me find the stand in the dark by myself, either to help me get over my fear, or just for a good laugh to himself. He’s entertained by such things.
“A mile away. Okay sounds good. Which way’s east?” I thought to myself. I was looking in the direction of my stand and I turned to ask him, but he had simply and silently slipped off into the night, disappearing into the dark oak woods which were almost home to him. I suddenly felt very alone. Almost helpless and frozen in time and space. “Get it together man and let’s find that stand before Bigfoot finds you.” I said to myself. And off I went. Down in the direction he showed me. There were a hundred if not thousands of sticks crossing the path but I happened to see an impression in the ground next one stick in particular. A track! A test! Did Chris make this impression to test me on my tracking ability? Who knows? I turned left and walked three hundred yards. It took me all of 30 minutes from that point to find my stand. It was silhouetted to the sky about 20 feet up a tree. I climbed up, attached my harness to the tree, pulled up my compound bow, settled in and waited for the sun to rise.
There are many things that goes through a person’s head as they sit in a tree in the big woods for eight hours straight. All my senses become heightened. I can hear more sounds than normal. The chirp of a pissed off squirrel. The calls of nearby cattle. The grunt of a mature buck looking for a mate. The wind moving through the trees. I start to pick out different colors. What colors belong? Which ones don’t? The concentration it takes to listen, spot, and feel to find game is enormous. It’s enormously taxing and it’s enormously relaxing as well.
There are many ways in which a person can hunt deer. This is what we were obviously doing. Hunting deer. There is the spot and stalk method, where you spot the game with your binoculars before they see or smell you then stalk in to where the game is located to try and get a shot. There is the road hunting method, which I don’t particularly like. There is the ground blind method, where one sits in a camouflaged tent or fort on the edge of a field and waits for the deer to walk by. And then there is the tree stand method, where you choose very carefully the tree in which you want your stand to be situated. In this style of hunting you want to take into consideration wind direction, deer trail location relative to the tree, tree rubs, scrape locations, bedding areas, feeding areas, and how you are going to get into and out of the area without being noticed by the resident deer. A lot of thought and planning and strategy went into Chris’s placement of this stand, and I admired that. I trusted his knowledge and experience.
The light from the sun was starting reveal my surroundings to me. I was on an oak ridge situated on a rather large bench where two ridges joined together, and there was deer sign everywhere. My breath quickened and my senses started to become alert. I heard what sounded like a squirrel moving through the oak leaves covering the ground. A little flick, a twitch of deer ear amidst the bracken of the “Rats Nest” clued me in to the fact that it was a deer and not a squirrel moving those leaves. My heart started racing and my breath quickened. I grabbed my bow, knocked an arrow, and waited for the deer to reveal itself fully. “Please be a buck, please be a buck.” I prayed hoping that it would be a deer that I could shoot and bring home to my family. The tag I had from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was for an antlered deer only. The deer that stepped out from the entangled slope of madness was a doe. An antler-less deer. A deer that I could not legally shoot. I relaxed, as deer after deer after deer came out from the entanglement and walked pass my stand. All does. I didn’t get a shot at any bucks that day, nor for the rest of the time I was hunting, but I did get to experience and admire God’s work and creative hand in those beautiful animals.
“Mmmhmmm.” Chris cleared his throat at the base of my tree. How he got there without me knowing was beyond me, but spoke volumes of his mastery of the outdoors. “Let’s go get some supper. Did you see anything?” he asked, “Ya,” I replied “A whole lot of does.”
Hunting for me isn’t just about killing an animal for food and nourishment for my family. It’s about the experience. It’s about the memories and friendships that are built. It’s about connecting to a deeper part of myself that needs to be able to provide good, wholesome food sources of protein and vegetables for my family. Humanity has lost some of its natural ability to hunt and gather food. It doesn’t really surprise me at all when all you have to do is go to your local market and buy all the meat, veggies and processed foods that you want when you want it. I see a huge disconnect between people and the food they eat. Most folks don’t know where it comes from. They would rather someone else do the killing than to have to do it themselves. Yet many people argue about how unethical hunting and killing animals is. Our society is used to having things just given to us. They don’t want to know where their beef comes from. They don’t want to know that the steak they’re eating was frolicking around a pasture content with life a few days earlier. My hope is that we can bridge that disconnect by educating and by practicing good hunting ethics.