The tires hummed a low rumble as the truck rolled to a stop. Through the passenger side window, the night sky could be seen reflecting off of the frost-covered field. When the door opened, my lungs gasped from the bite of the cold air. The familiar musty smell of dirt and field entered my nose while moving towards the back of the truck. The latch creaked as the tailgate was slowly opened. Propping the capper top open with a 2x4, my mind wandered toward the hunt ahead. Would all my preparation add up to an encounter with a whitetail? Or would today be a bad day in the woods?
Assembling my gear, my fingers burned and chest shivered from the coldness. With it came a rush of childhood memories. During the dead of a Michigan winter my cousin Jeremy and I went on a hike out in the woods. When we encountered Pine River we decided to cross using a long abandoned beaver dam. Approaching the halfway point, I looked up to see Jeremy on the opposite shoreline. At the same time, the dam cracked and the water filled my boots and I sunk until the murky water reached my waist. The two-mile trek back home taught me what it meant to be cold. This lesson provided me with a feeling of strength as I now hoisted my gear to my back and prepared to push forward.
An internal rhythm pushed me west down the trail and deeper into the darkness. Visions of what the day ahead had in store crept into consciousness. Imagining my ambush location, I could see a whitetail coming out from the brush and offering the perfect broadside shot. The arrow left my cheek and hit with a thud just behind the shoulder. The deer stumbled, fell forward and laid on its side. The life left the deer as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Coming back to reality, the moon back lit a tree that was hunched over as if a giant was hanging from the top. It was time to head south off the trail and into the grasslands.
Stepping cautiously, my ankles rotated on the small mounds of earth peppering the mushy ground. Ahead is a small forest covered in brambles reaching over my head. Months earlier Rachelle and I stood on the edge of this thicket looking in wondering if it was worth the effort to tangle with needle sharp plants. The temperatures were much warmer and the ticks much more plentiful. We spent the better part of the afternoon bushwhacking a hidden path in preparation for my current task. Despite our previous work, this was still the most difficult part of my hike. Like an obstacle course, a fallen oak tree made me climb under over its branches carrying the weight of my gear the whole way. Finally, a thin tree with branches cleared from its trunk came into view.
Before climbing I decided to take a moment to catch my breath and cool down. The cover prevents the moonlight from shining in and it is near pitch black. The only sound is the breeze gently moving through the leaves and swaying the branches. As the thoud of my heart slowed I crawled into my camouflage coveralls preparing to sit in a tree and watch the sunrise. Turning on my headlamp I assembled my tree stand and prepared for the climb.
Moving up the tree, it started to sway four inches right then left. This triggered the feeling of weak knees and reminded me of my mild fear of heights. Looking down, it was too dark to see. For some reason, not knowing how far it is to the ground was reassuring. It made my climbing more confident and I slowly made my way to the marker I previously placed in the tree. Hauling my gear up with a rope, I hung it around the tree and settled in. The darkness started to give way to an orange tint peaking over the horizon. As daylight started to fill the sky my mind took focus of the waking forest.
A squirrel leapt onto a branch 40 yards away causing the branch to bounce like a diving board. The chickadees started to land in my tree singing songs only they understand. A field mouse rustled, digging under the leaves looking for a place to sleep. A short, but unknowable, time later a bright red head emerged from the brush. A rooster pheasant clucked his way around my tree. As he pecked the ground I thought of Rupert and all the training we needed before next bird season.
Time started to pass but it was hardly noticeable. It didn't move fast or slow, the day just glided along without the normal day-to-day friction. An hour passes hardly noticed with no action. Then a branch might snap in the distance. Every second of the next 10 minutes seem to be labored as my attention shifted, hoping for a whitetail to emerge from the brush. Kar-r-r-o-o-o! My head snapped back to see a flock of sandhill cranes flying low overhead. Thier loud rattling crow removed me from my meditative state and I noticed the sun is well overhead. It is time to go home.
So why did I share this story? Isn’t this a hunting blog afterall? I have had conversations with other hunters who describe a day without an encounter as “horrible”, “shitty” or “a waste of time”. I guess this is a matter of perspective. Is hunting all about the kill or does it mean more? Maybe it speaks to my skill, but I have spent many days like the one described above in the woods. Looking back of them I remember them fondly and wish I could go there now. Even times when I have nearly frozen, I wouldn’t take back if I could. I guess, for me, there is no such thing as a shitty day in the woods. What about for you?