Friday, October 13, 2006

Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer

When I told some of the people that I have contact with that I was going hunting for the week, they seemed surprised that such a mild-mannered writer/editor who is seemingly chalk full of sensitivities and sentimentalities would be interested in carrying a rifle around a distant forest in search of something to kill for the sake of fun, adventure, excitement and romance. Maybe they see me as a pacifist, an anti-violent introvert who shies away from conflict, confrontation or anything that may cause harm something else. If you think this, than maybe you’re right, but when you’re 600 miles from home, hiking through the woods with a Remington 30-06 at the ready and a Smith and Wesson 38 on your hip, it changes a man. For a week, I was able to forget my soothing nature, my calm demeanor and my typically caring character, and I was given the rare ability to reinvent myself to be The Hunter.

Everyone one should do it, reinvent themselves I mean, be it a high-roller in Vegas, a basketball star on the courts or a secret agent in a foreign city, it is liberating to change your perspective. Around me most of my life, I am stuck in a concrete forest of streets and buildings, whitewashed, echoing and loud. The stars have disappeared, the trees in neat manicured rows and the constant clamor of the cars driving by fills the air with dust and noise. Rarely am I able to shrug my responsibilities as a normal citizen, a husband, father, guy who mows the lawns and keeps the cars washed, and venture out into the woods to transform into a persona I’m only able to read about. Those that live in Northern California, where we went, embrace this as a way of life and have taken it for granted. Opening Day of the deer season is just another day, but for us surrounded by urban sprawl, domestication, air pollution and unnatural resources, Opening Day was an tense dawn, filled with excitement.

For me, all it took to find this enthusiasm was a rifle and the chance to live like my ancestors did 150 years ago, when resourcefulness, motivation and willpower put dinner on the table instead of Albertson’s or McDonald’s.

We left Redding on the 299 headed east through the picturesque Fall River Mills region, a placed marked for scattered logging at the base of the Modoc National Forest. Our trail took us north past the city of Glenburn and McArthur, up McArthur Road to the 40N04, a dusty gravel road that points towards the hills. We followed a swath sliced in the forest to make way for the high-tension lines and then cut into the woods over a clattery dirt trail that led to our camp site. We were situated near a vast meadow of grass with a small creak that ran through it. Tall pine trees created a canopy of waving branches and needles, and if you ventured merely 100 feet from camp, their trunks masked any view of where you had come from or where you wanted to go. Up the trail from our camp were what was left of three old trucks, scattered under beds of pine needles as if tossed like toys by a negligent child, and nearby was the remains of a saw mill built out of lava rocks and mortar probably 100 years ago. The walls of the main boiler were crumbled and broken; all of the machinery long gone, but the remains of the workers were heaped in several piles of old tin cans, rusted beyond recognition and scatterings of junk waiting for time and Mother Nature to return them to the earth.

I had every intention of sleeping under the stars for the week. I had brought with me all that I thought I would need for the basics of comfort, sleeping bag, air mattress, a couple of wool blankets and a tent in case it rained (we had some showers on the drive north). I didn’t find out until later that my cousin Tim (Growing up, I’ve always known my cousin as Timmy, but it is difficult to look a 36-year-old man in the eye and call him Timmy, so I called him Tim for most of the week… but since my uncle is also a Tim, there was some confusion that resulted in me calling him Timmy, like when we were kids). Anyway, I didn’t find out until later that my cousin Tim² (we’ll give him the superscript so you’ll know which one I mean without have to modify him with “cousin”) was bringing a camper up as well (my uncle brought his), so there was no sense in sleeping outside, as much as I wanted to.

Uncle Tim and I rode a pair of quads (four-wheeled motorized off-road personal vehicles… picture a motorcycle with four wheels) out to the main road to escort Tim² through the near darkness of the evening. We enjoyed a light dinner and sat around to talk, which was mainly each of us sharing humorous anecdotes, most of which wouldn’t translate well here so I’ll skip them entirely.

Darkness in the woods comes early and it comes quick, something we almost hardly notice down here in the city, what with all of the street lights, but when the sun goes down in the middle of nowhere, the sun goes down, light is gone, shadows nonexistent and movement restricted to those with a flashlight (I brought three…you never know). Standing in a small clearing and looking up at the sky, I don’t remember the last time I saw so many stars, like someone had spilled salt on a black table. An hour later, a full moon washed down the forest in a pale light, and it turned cold, bitterly cold… gloves, hat and four layers of clothes cold.

I settled my six-foot-one-inch body into a six-foot bed around 9pm and Tim² and I talked for about another hour, sharing how we met our wives, the best attributes of our children and what each of us did for a living. It had been many years since I had last seen my cousin, so it was nice to catch up…but since neither one of our memories were too good (family curse) we couldn’t remember the last time we saw each other but narrowed it down to a wedding or a funeral, usually one of the only times family seems to get together these days.

Opening Day of deer season started with promise. For some reason, perhaps it was part of my week-long reinvention, I awoke before the sun. Maybe I went to bed too early or the mountain air was too crisp, but my feet were over the side of the bed and in my boots as the sun was just first peaking through the trees…everything had that blue hue to it and you could see your breath in the air. I donned my wool-lined trench coat (later in the day I wore a similarliy themed three-quarter coat), a fleece-lined cordoroy jacket, my fleece-lined leather gloves and a wool cap, and I was still cold. Breakfast consisted of a couple of those nut and grain bars, basically coagulated trail mix in a brick shape. It was nearly frozen and I had to gnaw through it with my back teeth. I loaded my rifle, strapped on the Smith and Wesson to my belt, along with my Case knife and radio, and we were off on Opening Day.

I didn’t see rhyme or reason to go one way or another from camp, as I assumed deer would be dispersed all over the mountains and ripe for the hunting, but as soon as the sun was completely into the sky and the deer season in full force, I knew no deer would stick around for the assault. It was bad enough that I started my day in a fantasy that I was a soldier in World War II, patrolling the thick forest of the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge (well, my jacket was West German army surplus at least), but the added sound affects coming from the various surrounding mountains was too much. It was a war zone, and more experienced hunters we met along the trails said they had never heard so much gun fire in this area before… but as it turned out, there was a shooting range a couple of miles away. Still, about once or twice a minute, there would be the familiar report of a rifle shot drifting to us on the wind, and each time I heard it, I knew a buck had met its fate. Or, so I thought.

Dad and I hiked up a trail to the crest of a mountain, and we pushed through a narrow peninsula of trees and out onto a swath of cleared land that cascaded down the mountain to a wide valley below. The sun was up and bright, but there was a palpable chill in the air. We stood in pleasant silence, about fifty yards apart, me on a huge bolder, scanning the edge of the forest for any sign of movement. I squinted in the sun but tucked my chin into my coat whenever the wind blew up from the valley. We stood there a long time, maybe a half-hour, my rifle cradled in my crossed arms, and I enjoyed the peaceful solitude of being there. Quietly waiting for a buck to appear. None did.

Dad made a small noise to get my attention and when I turned to see him, he motioned behind us, further toward the top of the mountain. Cautiously investigating the strangers on her mountain was a small doe, no more than 100 pounds at the most, who carefully picked her way through the rocks and bushes to stand looking at us as if she didn’t believe her eyes. She was young enough to have probably never seen such creatures before in her life. The doe stopped, stared, moved toward us by ways of a random path; then, without warning, she bounced away a few leaps, stopped, looked and left out of view as quietly as she came into it.

It was the first deer I saw of the week, and I would see 13 more like her on Opening Day, but no buck, no antlers… not a one all day. I didn’t level the scope on my rifle on anything but tree trunks, rocks and shadows that may have looked like deer.

I had mixed feelings, disappointed that I didn’t have the chance to feel the elation of the hunt that I had heard so much about but glad that I didn’t have to kill anything, a dilemma that would present itself to me more and more as the week wore on. I’m not a hunter; I buy my food from the store, but for that one week, I was Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill.

I carried a rifle and I hunted for deer like my father, my father’s father and his father that came before him.

It was exhilarating.

More later.

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