When Chris and I first started going out, way back in 1985, it was only natural that I decided that she needed to go hunting with me. But of course, even though we grew up in the same hometown, went to the same high school, and even competed on the same track team together, she and I had vastly different backgrounds.
All of the male role models in my life - my father, stepfather, all my uncles and older cousins - were hunters. When I was too young to hunt myself, I remember summer days spent with any number of them target practicing in the old gravel pit on the camp road. And then in those long summer evenings, sitting in large circles around the campfire as Uncle Roy and the older Lyle cousins would start telling stories about deer they had shot, and the dogs they had hunted over, and thinking that it had likely always been this way when hunters gather around a fire and couldn’t wait to get older to add stories of my own.
And of course, after the cousins all went home, I would retreat to my room and read. Even when I was little, I was a voracious reader. I was especially fond of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour westerns, and one of my cousins from Connecticut would always bring a brown paper grocery bag of books home for me every summer. The books were mostly western themed that she had picked up at a flea market on the “three for a quarter” table, but knowing how much I loved the outdoors, she would also pick up old Field and Stream or Outdoor Life magazines if she found them.
One glorious day, as I was getting close to the bottom of the bag of books, I found a small paperback that changed the course of the rest of my summer and actually all my childhood summers after that. It was “The Sportsman’s Digest of Hunting, written by Hal Sharp, published in 1953. Now, most of my time alone in the woods to this point had been spent wandering around the hardwood ridge up behind our camp, pretending to be Kit Carson or Daniel Boone trying to find enough wild game to kill to feed the pioneers I was guiding. I would lay three or four logs together and have a “cabin”. I would climb high in a beech or maple to avoid the Indians I heard coming through the wood. In other words, just playing.
The book changed everything. It was (still is, I have it one my desk as I write this) a chapter book that covered small game hunting, duck hunting, big game hunting, shooting, cleaning and cooking wild game, and, of most use to a young boy who wanted to be Daniel Boone, a chapter on woodcraft. Suddenly, the things I had been playing at became more purposeful. Using the chapter book, I taught myself to build real shelters, navigate with and without a compass, build a fire even if I didn't have matches, and especially how to blend in to your surroundings so you can see and harvest more game. It wasn’t an obsession, but I did immerse myself in it learning as much as I could and practiced a lot. And like anything, the more you practice, the better you get.
Which takes me back to Chris and her childhood. While her dad, a surgeon, owned a shotgun and a hunting rifle, he had only been “hunting” once or twice that she can recall. And with no extended family of hunters, she had never been personally exposed to a culture of hunting like I had. She was, however, very outdoor oriented.
As a young girl growing up at her own camp on the Big Narrows, she was always outside, doing the normal things that kids at camp on a lake do like sailing, waterskiing, swimming. But she also did a little “hunting” of her own, catching turtles and frogs along the shore. Her mother, Tona, told me once how good Chris was at paddling her little canoe while standing up, scouring the shore for turtles, then quietly and slowing drifting alongside them to snatch them off the log. So, in that way, I guess she was practicing her own set of outdoor skills. But drifting quietly along in a canoe trying to catch a turtle is a far cry from moving quietly through the Maine forest. And the first time I ever took her hunting with me is a perfect example.
We were sophomores in college, so it would have been November 1985. I was planning to hunt one Saturday afternoon, and asked Chris if she would like to go. She had never expressed an interest in hunting, obviously didn’t have a license, but I thought she might want to tag along. And I was right, she did want to go, so I told her I would pick her up at her parents’ house after lunch.
I told her to dress warm and showed up at her house dressed in my normal hunting gear for mid-November. Green wool pants, black and red checked jacket, an orange ball cap, and a small orange safety vest. To make sure she was safe and legal, I had brought an extra hunting vest and cap. But apparently, her mother was more than a little concerned with her safety.
I was somewhat surprised, and more than just a little annoyed, when Chris came out of the house dressed from head to toe in fluorescent orange. Big, bulky, bright orange hunting pants, a huge parka-like coat, four sizes too big, orange so bright it hurt to look at in the sun. An orange knit hat, and a pair of orange gloves. The only thing that wasn’t orange was the toes of her boots that were peeking out from the cuffs of her too-long hunting pants, and the parts of her face that weren’t covered by the collar of the monstrously huge coat and the knit cap that was jammed down over her head. In other words, her cheekbones, the tip of her nose, and her upper lip.
Even with most of her face covered, I could tell she was laughing when she got to the truck. I guess the look on my face must have betrayed my surprise.
Chris said, “Mom said I had to wear my dad’s hunting clothes, so the other
hunters can see me”.
“Chris, where we are going I doubt there will be any other hunters” I replied,
obviously with some annoyance. “Remember I said we need to move slow
and quiet and try to blend in?”
“Um, yeah, I guess so” she said, still laughing.
“You look like the great pumpkin. Blend in? The deer will see you a mile away!"
“Well, then, we’ll just need to be extra quiet!” she giggled.
And that was the end of the conversation. Young love is a time of learning and accepting and accommodating, and I loved her more than hunting at that point (or close anyway) so, to keep her happy, and not to get Tona mad at me, we jumped in the truck and headed to the woods, and a short time later pulled into an old log landing at the end of a dirt road on the back side of Madagascal pond. I had spent a few hours there the weekend before, and had seen lots of fresh deer sign, no fresh tire tracks in the landing, and thought it might be a good introduction for Chris.
Before we got out, I told her we would start at the skidder trail to our left, keep the wind in our face, and slowly stalk through the trees along the edge of the area that had been cut a winter or two ago.
“We are going to move really slow, just a few steps at a time” I told her. “When
I stop, you stop.”
I heard “OK” emerge from somewhere within the orange ball beside me.
“So, two or three steps, stop, look, listen, and we’ll just do that around the
Another muffled “OK”, came the reply.
As we got out of the truck, I eased my door shut slowly, and the door latch caught with a barely audible click. This close to where we would perhaps find deer, I like to move as ghostlike as possible.
“KERTHUMP!” The passenger door echoed as Chris slammed it shut.
“Oops, sorry”, she said.
Standing in front of the truck, In a hoarse whisper, I reminded her of the game plan, and reinforced the need for her to stop when I stopped.
“If I see something to shoot, I want to make sure you are behind me to be safe, ok?”
She gave me a thumbs up. Or at least I think she did. Her gloves were way too big for her too, so all I saw was an orange flash as she brought her hand up in front of my chest, with one bent gloved finger a little higher than the rest.
The next half hour was uneventful. As planned, we moved in unison, a few steps at a time. I’m left handed and had gotten into the habit of taking four short, light steps at a time, always stopping with my right foot slightly ahead of my left so I was almost always in a steady, ready to shoot position. The pumpkin girl trailing behind me was doing great. Chris was making a little bit of noise, but each time I stopped and glanced back, she was motionless, or relatively so. Sometimes when I stopped she would be mid-stride and when I looked back she was on one foot, not wanting to set her other foot down until we started moving again and fighting for balance. I thought that was funny (and cute) so I didn’t correct her. I wish I had…
We were in a small area of dead spruce and fir, trees not worth cutting, on a slightly elevated point that overlooked a small two- or three-acre opening. We were a few yards back from the edge of the opening. Four baby steps. Stop and listen. Four baby steps, stop and listen. I heard a branch break in front of us, a bit to our right. I held up my hand for Chris. I had told her what that meant - don’t move, stay quiet.
I was stock still, eyes prying the edge of the clearing, and then saw movement. A little flicker. A small flash of white. Peering harder, I isolated the movement and watched hard. As is often the case, much like finally seeing the image inside those weird 3D paintings if you let your eyes find it, the outline of the deer came into focus. Saw his tail flicking, then the round of his back, the edge of his neck, his ears, and finally his horns. Not a huge deer. A thin rack, but above his ears and some curve. At least a six. And only sixty yards or so away, not quite broadside but close enough, but he was behind some thick growth that I wouldn’t shoot through.
I stayed frozen, but my 30-30 was at half ready, waiting for another few steps from the buck to clear the brush. A minute passed as he continued to browse. He took a step. Another long minute, another short step. As I watched his leg start to swing forward for his final step, I slowly raised my rifle, and pulled the hammer back. Just as I was settling the butt against my shoulder and curling my finger around the trigger, all hell broke loose.
Behind me, I heard a crack then sensed a rush of something large brushing my shoulder. I felt wind on my face as a large object went whipping by my head. And then watched as a thirty-foot-tall dead spruce, about 8 inches around, bounced off the ground with a sound like a cannon shot. I spun around to check on Chris and there she stood, one foot in the air, balanced precariously on the other, her left hand in the air where she had been bracing herself against a tree. But now the tree was gone. It lay at my feet.
A solemn, silent half hour later, we climbed back in the truck. Chris turned and asked, sheepishly, “Well, how did I do?” I burst out laughing, shook my head, and said, “Oh, pumpkin girl, we’ve got some work to do…”