My dad thought I was holding up a dead, frozen deer. His attitude changed when he realized that I caught it bare handed!
We pulled into Warrens in Northern Wisconsin on the eve of my first rifle season. The falling snow danced along the winding road that lead to the campsite. The temperature inside the '69 Bronco plummeted after we rolled down the windows to get a deep breath of frosty air. With puppy-like enthusiasm I stuck my head out the window and got stung in the face by huge flakes of snow. I pulled it back in when my lips started freezing to my teeth. My body trembled with excitement – I was going on a “big woods” hunt with my Dad.
He eased his way around the final corner. The head lights peered through the snow covered slash pines. A few years earlier, Fortune showed us a beautiful 10-point buck standing under the picnic shelter in the park. Our minds lit up with memories of his bold posture and wide glossy-white rack. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding about a placing a tree stand near the shelter.
The outhouse came into view. It always tickled our funnybone. We dredged up an incident that involved "Unk" one of my Uncles. On one occasion he overindulged in one of Dad's five-alarm chilis and he got all bowed up. He was really pissed-off and didn't hesitate to jump all over the cook. "Pull this dam truck over to the can so I can dump this chili where it belongs. In the shitter!" He dove out the door and scrambled to free his pants. The old outhouse whirled with leaves and tilted when the door slammed shut.
Dad seized the moment. He pulled the truck around and placed the bumper against the door. He gave the can a nudge and let it settle. A more aggressive push followed by another. If trapping him inside a smelly, broken down old outhouse wasn't enough -- on the third try he tipped the can to a 45-degree angle. It teetered for a moment...almost over...then returned with a crash. The old shitter buckled from the strain and threw Unk out the door onto his face with his pants slopping around his knees! The laughter subsided as the “thunder mug” faded into the snowy night.
We returned to our favorite campsite in the remote corner of the park -- nearly 50 miles of wilderness bogs, lakes and woods right outside the door.
Dad squeezed the 20-foot Avion between two monstrous pines. I jacked the stabilizer bars into place and within minutes Dad hit the sheets. His World Class snoring rattled the aluminum roof vents and kept me from sleeping for more than a minute at a time.
The excitement of the hunt was more intense than any year I could remember. Christmas Day almost lost its #1 ranking that night. Vivid dreams of World Record bucks played only long enough to visualize every possible shot angle; running, standing still, cornered away. I'd be ready for anything and everything, or so I thought.
The clattering bells of an old wind-up clock startled my dream buck and I shot high over his back. It took a moment to convince myself the dream was not an indication of the upcoming day. Sometime in the night the old furnace blew out and the frigid air penetrated the thin aluminum walls. I lay and listened to my dad's morning rituals.
He began with a frantic head scratch and a few throat clearings. He followed up with the question, “What time is it? “ “I don't know.” I whispered.
"Why...it's...daylight in the swamp!" he cheered, pulling the sleeping bag from my head and roughing my hair.
I pulled my head back into the sack and laughed to myself. I loved seeing him enter the silliness of my childhood world – Ahhh, the transformation of camping.
His next move was toward the small kitchen where he fumbled noisily through the silverware drawer looking for the flintlock lighter. I revisited the definition of anticipation, i.e. Listening to the sound of flintlock spewing sparks toward a hissing gas flow. Relief came when I heard the "whump" of the stove igniting.
Next, he stepped outside and left the door open. A frigid blast of Arctic air and swirling snow swept across my bed and made it nearly impossible for me to get out of my warm bag. He returned with a frozen water container and chuckled.
"How cold is it?" I asked.
When he reached over me to open the curtains and check the thermometer he slipped his ice-cold hand down the back of my neck, "Says 10 degrees! Once we get up and moving we'll be plenty warm." Funny…to me it felt much colder.
He chopped the frozen surface of the jug, enough to fill the Blue Stone coffee pot to the brim .I waited for the final act of his routine; A series of long, slow, noisy, coffee slurps and a gasp. I dove into layers of clothes hoping to be warm enough, which I never was.
I stuck my head out the door. The first breath of cold air scorched my lungs and froze my nose hairs. The snow creaked beneath my feet as I made my way toward what was left of the outhouse. There's something very invigorating about being the first one to grace the throne on a cold morning. I tried to hurry my duty along, but I was too nervous…hence my discovery of the ghost poopy – (one that makes a lot of noise, but is nowhere to be found.)
I stepped lively back to the camper trying to revive my frozen backside. I stood outside the trailer with my shoulders shrugged over my ears and my fingers balled up inside my mitts. I was wearing my Grandpa's old wool hunt pants too. I didn’t like how the air circulated every time I wiggled. He, on the other hand, cherished the feeling of wool on his bare skin. He wore nothing else.
He slurped the last of his coffee and tossed me an extra pair of wool socks to stuff in my backpack. "When you get to your stand put these fresh socks on. And here's your lunch." He handed me a brown bag containing a frozen butter sandwich, two cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate. "Make sure you check your compass and stay still until I come and get you." He also encouraged me to shoot a big one before he disappeared into the woods.
The snow hung in the Pines and lit the forest floor. It made it possible to see without a flashlight. I made my way through the woods toward my stand. I accidentally bumped a limb and toppled snow down the back of my neck. I was lathered from walking too fast so it was cold and refreshing at the same time.
When I reached my stand I leaned the gun against the tree and opened my jacket. A cloud of steam poured from the zipper and crystallized on my eyebrows. I changed my socks and poured myself a cup of hot chocolate to pass the time that moved as slowly as the pine sap that covered the tree.
Three minutes till opening and I nearly fell out of my tree stand when the first rifle shot cracked through the woods. I had a brand new Remmington 30-06 and it was shaking in my hands as my eyes scanned the woods. I was so busy looking in the direction of the shot that I hadn't noticed the deer that made its way under my tree. I snapped the rifle to my shoulder and drew bead on a nub buck. He worked his way passed and never knew I was there. A few seconds later all hell broke loose and shots sounded all around me. In between the echoes I could hear my heart beating through my clothing.
Five deer, all does, ran through a small opening and disappeared. Three more ran within 20 yards. Two minutes later a small herd stopped under my tree. My eyes strained to grow antlers on every one of them. Around noon I stopped counting at 46 -- All does, no bucks.
I made the classic hunters mistake when I left the stand to take a leak. I leaned the gun against the tree and exposed my cold fingers. I’d waited hours to go, but my fingers were so cold and stiff that I couldn't unzip my fly. I did everything I could, short of tearing a hole in my pants to get them open. Finally I managed to get the zipper half down. I fumbled through the various 'fly holes' and fished my trout from its warm shelter. One more layer of cloths and I wouldn't have cleared the zipper. As it turns out, by the time I finished, the zipper froze half way down. My hands were so numb I gave up and left it alone.
On the way back to my stand a small dear stepped broadside 15 feet away. He lowered his head and caught me. I took a step and he looked away. I wondered how long he would let me advance. A few more steps and we were eye to eye. He kept looking around as though he never saw me.
I reached out to touch him and his head flinched stiffly. I offered my exposed palm to his nose and he showed no fear. He didn't mind my touch, so I checked for broken bones or injuries. I just assumed he was injured, why else would a wild deer let me be so intimate, right?
I found nothing wrong with the yearling. I took a stand next to the deer and waited for Dad. Just for kicks I wrapped my arms around the deer and pretended I caught it. Dad stopped momentarily to laugh at what he thought was a dead, frozen deer that someone propped up as part of a morbid joke. I let go of the fawn and his head immediately popped up. Dad's body shuddered and he froze in his tracks, "It's alive!"
He looked bewildered. He performed his own evaluation and found nothing wrong either. We stood for a while and observed the frailty of the eyebrows. We watched his ears work in opposite directions as he scanned for sound. But it was his eyes. The whiteness of his eyes was truly enchanting. We tried to nudge him along with gentle persuasion but he refused and kept returning to our side.
In the distance a small pack of coyotes howled and barked. It sent cold shivers down my spine and I was glad to be near Dad. He understood and respected my decision to give the deer a chance to make it on his own. With predators in the area the deer wouldn't go to waste.
He concluded, "If he's still here when we return this afternoon we'll take him with us." We laughed at the possibility of a live transport back home to show the family.
Just then another hunter appeared and headed our way. He too thought the deer was dead and propped up. I had one photo left on my film roll so I asked him to take a shot. When the shutter closed the deer raised his head as if there were nothing wrong. With two leaping bounds he disappeared into the whiteness, but not before we captured one of the most treasured moments I'd ever spent in the woods.
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals