Archive for November, 2017

It wasn’t my deer.

The second morning of deer season was cold and snowy. While the other members of my hunting party headed north, I decided I was going to head south into the dense timber, and see if I could find any deer bedded down in the snow. My friends and I have hunted this small pocket of public land for the past few years and we are starting to understand more of its character. The land sits at an elevation of 8500 feet above sea level and contains a few ridgelines and shallow valleys that run from east to west. Most of the north-facing slopes have lodgepole pines that have been decimated by the Mountain pine beetle. The hillsides are blanketed with fallen, dead trees. Hiking through these hills is slow because the fallen timber is difficult to cross over. Being able to maneuver quietly is the biggest challenge because brittle branches and pinecones litter the ground. This past summer, my hunting companions and I cut a narrow “sneak” trail through the fallen logs. This trail would allow us to creep slowly and quietly over a ridge and give us access to an area that would normally be too difficult to get to quietly and out of sight. That morning I worked my way up through the sneak and tucked myself into a small grouping of young pine trees. From this vantage point, I could see up the next ridge to the southwest as well as look to the east where there was a large aspen grove that is a common feeding spot for the residential deer herd. I took off my pack and planned to settle myself from the hike in. Even though I was moving slowly, the wind and snow made my movement difficult. My heartrate was beating faster than I’d like and I wanted to give myself time to calm down. The wind had been blowing heavy all morning and just as I was getting settled, large snowflakes started to drift in. In a matter of minutes the sky was covered in a think flurry of snow. Visibility dropped to 200 yards. Even though the wind continued to blow, there was a deadening silence that fell on the woods like only a snowstorm can bring. I sat in the stillness of the falling snow, gazing across the narrow patch of visible land.

I noticed movement to my east and saw a doe about 150 yards away. She was moving slowly through the fallen timbers and making her way towards the aspen grove. Because of the dense brush and the direction she was moving, I knew that I wasn’t going to have a clear shot from where I was sitting. I slid my pack on my back and moved out of the trees I was using as cover. The wind and the snow dampen a lot of sound. I knew that I would be able to move much closer without being heard, but I also knew that I would have to move slowly and deliberately. As the doe moved through the trees, she would graze on the exposed grasses and young pine needles, and I would be able to take a few steps the next spot where I would pause undetected. In these moments, the predator/prey dynamic grew stronger. I would move slowly while her head was down grazing, or looking in another direction. I would move quietly to covered areas that would shield my presence from her. When hunting, it is not enough to maintain attention on the animal you are stalking; you must always be aware of what else is around you. It was strange for a doe to be moving thought the woods alone, so I was constantly looking around to see if another doe was traveling with this one. If my movements were too quick I could agitate a nearby squirrel that would chatter out a warning signal to the other animals in the area. I was moving closer to the deer in hopes to find a line of sight that was clear of any. There were many times when I had a clear shot, but the deer was not in the right spot for me to take an ethical shot. I had snuck within 60 yards of the doe, and had found a position that would give me several clear shots depending on how the doe moved through the trees. And I waited. The doe continued her pattern of eating a little and then taking a few steps to the next spot to eat. As a few minutes passed she started to move into one of the clear lines-of-sight that I had available to me. With each step she took, I had a better chance of an ethical, clean shot.

I mounted my rifle up to my shoulder and viewed through my scope to line up my shot. The deer, still unaware of my presence, looked around casually. I was still, my heart rate calm, and the crosshairs in my scope were positioned perfectly. But then I heard these words in my head: “This is not your deer.” I paused, but still positioned to take the shot. “Where was this voice coming from?” I thought while still looking through my scope. “Stephen, this is not your deer.” I heard my name spoken; I couldn’t ignore it the second time. These few seconds felt like minutes. I lowered my rifle and let out a quite sigh. “That was not my deer,” I said to myself. I sat and watch the doe continue to eat and move throughout the fallen timber and aspen grove until she was out of sight.

I leaned back against a tree and thought about what I had just done. I had given up a shot on a doe that would be food for my family. “Wasn’t this the whole reason I was up in these mountains in the first place?” “What kind of hunter am I if I am not shooting at the animal that I am hunting?” “What did I just do?” These thoughts raced through my head with accusation. I wasn’t up here just to “shoot an animal,” and I also wasn’t up in these woods to just camp and hike, so why did I let this doe go without taking a shot? This hunting trip was about me reconnecting myself into the ancient and primal relationship humans have with our environment. The day before the hunting season opened, I set up a small altar to honor the land we would be hunting on. I built it with a few items that I brought from home as an offering, and placed it in a small, inconspicuous spot. I said a prayer of gratitude for the land and asked for the blessing of a deer to shoot. I wanted to respect the spirits of that land that have watched over it for millennia. I wanted to be in relationship with that wooded mountainside.

I sat still, slowly being covered with the falling snow, and wrestling with what just happened. I could have ignored that voice, shot the deer, had food for my family, and from the perspective of most, I would be seen as a “good hunter.” I could have buried that subtle voice and convinced myself that I didn’t hear it. But I did hear it. I believe the voice I heard was the spirit of the land letting me know that I was in relationship with it. I had started my hunt by making an offering and asking for the blessing of a deer to shoot. Here was a voice speaking an answer back to me. If I had shot that doe, I would have been turning my back on the very reason I was up in those wooded mountains that day.

I don’t know why that wasn’t my deer. I’m not sure if the spirit was telling me that there was a different deer for me this year, or if none of the deer on this land were for me. I guess I will have to trust that the next time I shoulder my rifle, I will still be connected to the land and I will know. By listening for and responding to the spirit of the land, I found peace with my primal human nature: Relationship with the land.


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