Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Thanksgiving Deer


The Thanksgiving Deer

                It’s been a beautiful fall in the mountains of North Carolina.  The weather has been good, not hot but definitely not too cold either.  The leaves, though not as brilliant as I have seen them in years past, were nice.  The sky has been blue, Carolina blue, and the sun has had that warmth you can only appreciate after sitting in a cold deer stand for a half hour to forty-five minutes before the sun begins to turn the distant ridges into black silhouettes against the graying sky at the edge of the world.
Going deer hunting is not as simple as waking up and walking into the woods and shooting something.  It’s much harder than that.  It involves preparation, determination, and sacrifice.  Well, skip that last.  The only real sacrifice is in the sleep deprivation we always suffer on hunting days.  You see, it is a two and a half hour drive to our hunting area and we leave very early, usually with only three or four hours of sleep to see us through. So it’s up at two o’clock in the morning, make some coffee, chuck our hunting stuff in the truck along with our only half-awake bodies.  Sometimes we talk a lot about hunting and what we expect for the day, and sometimes we sit and drive in a brain-dead, stupefied silence until the caffeine kicks in. 
John and I have to get up an hour earlier because we drive to Pop’s house to leave from there to head out to our secret deer hunting site in the far reaches of the mountains.  Pop is usually getting his boots on when we arrive. 
We transfer our equipment into his big, old grey Dodge Ram truck, grab the guns, reload on coffee and head out.  Several years ago John got big and tall enough to be uncomfortable in the back seat of the extended cab pick-up so we swapped places and I ride in the back…which conveniently facilitates my laying over for an extra hour’s cat nap on the road.  The ride is fun, when I’m awake, with spirited jests and discussions of deer activity, and who did what and who sat on their rumps, and who is hunting where and what time we are meeting up for lunch. The miles and minutes tick off quickly until we are pulling up to the gate to the land we hunt on. 
                It was a perfect day for deer hunting. The sharp chill in the pre-dawn air always wakes me up and invigorates me.  Something in frosty cold mountain air just feels clean.  It makes me feel more alive and alert and in tune with the natural world that surrounds me in the glorious solitude of lonely peaks. I breathed deeply and tried to soak it all in.  The stars were gleaming ferociously in the clear, black sky as I climbed across the fence and started up the farmer’s access road.  It’s more a set of ruts and gullies wide enough for a tractor than a road. I stopped on the ridge to look up and savor the view of sky, quickly identifying Orion, Taurus, Pleiades, and Cassiopeia.  The big dipper pointed me across the sky to Polaris and I smiled and started down into the black hole of the hollow where I was planning to hunt, half way to the bottom of the mountain. 
                The moon had long since gone down so the darkness was intense.  I had a head lamp with several settings so I turned it to the red LEDs which are dim but sufficient, and I have read that deer can’t see the red light.  Maybe that's true, I don't know.  The old road bed down to the tree line is steep and curvy and not for the faint of heart in a vehicle, but on foot the only real challenge is to walk slow and quietly without slipping and falling on your gun.   I had plenty of time so I took it slow and stopped several times for a brief rest before the road levels out on a lower ridge running toward the northeast. I left the road and entered the woods for about ten yards then turned straight down the mountainside. There is an old rusty fence, and I crossed it at a broken spot where only the top strand remained intact, then on down. I was searching in the dark for an enormous rock that sticks out of the side of the mountain low in the hollow.  I had been there several times and thought it would be a great hunting spot because you have a commanding view of the valley and the small stream that originates in several springs a couple of hundred yards back to the right up the hollow.  The plan was to try it out for a morning and see if it was really as good as it looked.
                I missed the big rock to the left in the darkness and came to a smaller one next to it, but I could just begin to see enough to locate the big rock hanging over me there in the trees. The original plan was to sit on top of the rock and watch below, but as the woods began to emerge from the darkness in the pre-dawn grayness, I realized that up that high I would also be trying to see through entwined branches from the trees, instead of the tall, straight trunks I was seeing from here near the bottom of it.  It was time to wait for a little more light so I could choose a spot with good firing lanes and a good view. 
                The area underneath the overhang of the massive boulder began to look promising, with a flat area about three or four foot wide, a couple of small trees to help break up my form, and a great view of the land below and across the valley.  I decided that was where I wanted to be, so I slipped over there as quietly as I could, managing to make no more noise that one of the big fox squirrels digging for acorns or something. 
                There were several old dry sticks and some leaves scattered over the level spot and though it made more noise than I wanted, I knew I had to clear most of them away before setting down, or I would make noise every time I moved.  So I played the old game from childhood called Pick-up Sticks, slowly getting each stick out without moving the rest.  I laid them over the edge and pushed gently to move the leaves with them, then sat down on the bare dirt, with one foot propped against a dead locust trunk, and the other laying over the edge of the bank.  I leaned back on my pack and found the position was pretty reasonably comfortable, for the time being, at least. 
                I sat back and watched the woods slowly lighten as the sun turned the horizon purple, then pink and orange, which slowly faded to red as the sky went from black to blue.  The trees, which had been silhouettes in the dim light faded to gray and the green and brown of the underbrush began to emerge.  A few trees still held on grimly to their last brilliant leaves from the fall, and they seemed to almost glow in the company of their less colorful companions. 
                The view and the available firing lanes were much better than I had thought they would be, with most of the valley floor visible to me, and with firing lanes that stretched wide open for as much as two hundred yards in places.  I was quite content to just watch and soak it all in.  There is a peace and stillness to the morning deep in the mountains that can be found nowhere else.  I love the solitude, the whisper of the wind in the cove around me and in the tree limbs above.  I love the bite of the cold air on my face, and the slow, deliberate rise of the sun.  Nothing can rush that.  The sun has risen at the same pace since the first dawn in creation.  It never hurries and it never drags.  It reminds me that life is ticking at the same pace if we could just get our minds out of the rat race long enough to appreciate it.  That is most often easier said than done, unless you are sitting in a deer stand somewhere in tune with nature instead of man.
                My rump began to hurt.  It grew more intense as time crept on, and I shuffled my position to try and get more comfortable.  I didn’t want to make any noise but the discomfort was getting worse, so I rocked up and reached under me to see what was up.  The ground which had been smooth when I sat down, had packed under my weight to reveal a fist size rock along with a couple of smaller ones that were starting to dig into my backside with vengeance.  One by one I pried them loose and laid them aside against the face of the big rock until the ground was once again smooth and easy to sit on.
                A movement caught my eye low down and to the left, so I watched carefully and waited to see what had moved.  A moment later I saw it! It was a boomer, a small type of squirrel, and he was running back and forth across a log that spanned the creek.  I had caught the first flash of movement as he ran behind a tree trunk near one end of the log, then again as he headed back from whence he had come.  I watched him jump up on a big knot sticking out of a tree trunk, sit there for a moment then disappear up the far slope. 
                Birds began to move and search for food, then a murder of crows came through overhead screaming and cawing at the world as they went somewhere off the mountain.  Small sounds came from every direction as the woods woke up and came alive, and I began to think about things that could happen.  “What if…”   “If a deer does this…” “There is a lot of food in that cut-off over there…”  “That big bear may show up and bear season is not in at the moment, if he comes my way I’ll have to defend myself so…”
                At one point I laughed to myself and thought it would be funny if the deer was bedded down on the other side of this same big rock I was sitting under.  Ten minutes later I heard something big on the other side of the rock.  Big enough to be a nice deer,  I thought “Holy Cow. It was sleeping over there!”  I had never heard a sound until the sudden noise so I thought it must have been close when it got up.
                I reached for my gun leaned up against the rock next to me and picked it up, laying it across my legs pointing in the general direction I expected the deer to appear from beside the rock as he started down the hill.  My heart began to thud like a big drum in my chest as the adrenaline began to course through my body. 
                The deer stepped past the edge of the rock, and it was a nice one.  I lifted my rifle and rested it on my hands with my elbows propped on my knees and began to follow his movement down the hill.  He walked to the creek for a drink and turned slightly giving me a near broadside view, but a six-inch diameter tree was right in the way.  I took a slow breath, and then he stepped forward.
                I could see his shoulder, about four to five inches of his chest, then the tree trunk.  I thought “Four inches is a mile to a bullet at this range.” So I lined up the cross-hairs, let out half a breath, and squeezed the trigger softly.
                The report of the rifle roared through the valley, the rifle jumped in my grip, and the deer jumped and took off up the slope.  He was a dead man walking.  I could see the blood trail from where I was sitting and at that point it was around fifty yards.  I watched him run up the slope, turn across and then back down toward the bottom.  Then he crumpled up and fell sliding down the last few feet into an old logging road bed.  He had run about one hundred and fifty yards over all, and had ended up around one hundred yards away down slope in the direction I was planning on dragging him out anyway.  Awesome.  I could not have planned that better.
                I looked at my watch.  8:01am. I had my deer and the morning was young.  I sat for a while listening as normal sound returned to the woods.  Occasionally the boom of someone else shooting somewhere in the surrounding mountains would echo among the peaks, some closer and some far away.  All was good in my world. 
                I sat quietly for a while, then decided to go look to see where that deer had come from.  The easy way would have been to circle below the rock then back up the other side.  Naturally I didn’t do that.  I climbed around the rock to go above and down the other side so I could check out the view from above.  As it turned out the top of the rock was completely blocked up with a natural fence made from intertwined fallen trees.  Getting through them would have been hard and dangerous and there was very little room behind them to perch on the edge.  Besides that, just as I had thought, there were the tree branches up that high which severely cut into many of the firing lanes that were wide open from the base of the rock.  I had made the best choice after all. 
                Circling on around the top and over to the fence line, I found the place the deer had come from.  He had come out of a thicket on the opposite side of the fence, and moved with amazing silence until he got to the fence and jumped it.  That was the sudden noise he made.  Then he had turned down the slope toward the creek and his destiny.  I followed the trail to the water and found the spot where he stood when I fired the rifle.  The blood trail was wide and clear and I followed it up until I got to the old road bed, then left it and turned down the road toward the deer.  I already knew where it was laying so I took the direct route. 
                The deer lay where it had fallen and I walked up to it and said a quick prayer to thank the Lord for a successful hunt and the meat to go in my freezer.  I looked him over and realized he was bigger than I had originally believed.  He was a healthy buck with eight points on his rack; probably the dominant buck in this valley.  He was fat and heavy with enormous hams and I had damaged very little meat with the bullet. It had taken out ribs, heart and lungs. I found later when I field dressed the buck that I had made the perfect heart shot: shattering the whole top of the heart, which depressurized his entire blood system instantly.  He really was already dead when he ran.
                Dragging the deer out by myself proved to be a tough proposition, but I dragged him down the road to where it emerged in the edge of a clearing before tying him off and field dressing him.  He was a fat fellow, and my knife gummed up with tallow so bad I had to clean it on a dead stick twice before I finished.  He was going to make some good meat this year.
                I washed my knife and my hands in the creek, scrubbing with sand to scour off the greasy fat, then rested for several minutes before dragging the deer on down to the pond on the Christmas tree farm where I left it in a shady spot.  The sum was warming the valley nicely by then and I sat and ate a snack while sending John a text about where he and Pop could find me.  I rested then, and watched the mountain for deer coming out to feed, but the warmth of the sun brought on a lethargy that increasingly encouraged me to stretch out in the grass and close my eyes.  I read a chapter or two in my little pocket New Testament, then caved to temptation and stretched out in the grass and closed my eyes.  Only to hear the truck coming up the hill.  Oh well.

James Lee Frady (c) 11/24/2012