Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Chronicles of Sheena - Years One & Two





YEAR ONE

The colors had just begun to change on the trees in the backyard. In between bites of juicy medium-rare tenderloin, I told Rich that I really missed eating venison. Two years had passed since our elderly neighbor stopped hunting and we hadn't eaten this tasty meat as a result.

"Maybe I should start to hunt," I heard myself say. "But I don't know any hunter who could teach me the ropes." "Phil does," answered Rich. “Phil? Phil hunts?” I picked up the phone the next day and called him. "Sure, I've been hunting, although I've never caught anything yet," he replied.

We planned a target shooting outing for the next day as I needed to know if I could at least use a gun and hit a target. At the range, he reviewed all the gun safety measures. He showed me how to load and unload a gun. In detail, he explained gauge, velocity, bullets, range, and other topics I soon thereafter forgot. I just wanted to see if I could shoot a gun.

I picked up Phil’s camo-colored double-barrel shotgun. It weighed about seven pounds and all of a sudden, I found this heavy to lift. I settled the butt of the gun on my right pectoral, focused on the target, held my breath, aimed and shot. Even though I was wearing special ear plugs, the sound deafened me. My shoulder was thrown a few inches back. The small detonation in the barrel was extremely powerful. I wasn’t sure about this idea anymore. A few years back, I had a bad shoulder injury and subsequent surgery and now I wondered if target shooting would hurt it…

We picked up the binoculars, and the bullet hole was only a few inches off the bull’s eye, with the target being about 40 yards away. Not bad! Good, in fact! We spent the next hour alternating between the shotgun, a rifle, and a pistol. In my eyes, Phil had a huge collection of guns, over 10 from his last count, and his passion, one that I didn't yet fully understood, was palpable.

Satisfied by the morning’s target shooting outcome, I tried to register for a hunting safety course. They were all filled up, given how close we were to the hunting season. Joe, the instructor, a hunting fanatic and dedicated DEC volunteer, created a new course since he'd amassed quite a long waiting list, and I was set to go.

A week later on a Monday after work, I traveled more than an hour from my office in Kingston to the outskirts of Middletown. As I entered the parking lot, 25 pick-up trucks greeted me. I had entered red neck city. I paused and decided to strategically position my car towards the exit, facing out, as I was worried that my numerous left-wing bumper stickers might offend some of the natives and wanted a quick escape, just in case. I had considered removing an old one, a leftover from a past presidential election that read: Practice Abstinence in 2004: No Bush, no Dick, but it was still glued to the car.

A few minutes late, I hastily entered the hall, where about 30 men between the ages of 14-30, were listening raptly to Joe. I immediately made a quick move to the right and stood next to the door, trying to make myself invisible, a fly on the wall. However, Joe noticed me and hollered, "Myriam! You made it!" And 30 caps turned around to see a purple-clad grey-haired woman. "Come to the front! There's a seat just for you! "

I stood out in this plaid and camouflage adorned male-dominated room, wearing my colorful office work attire, jewelry and all, I walked to the front, sat on a metal chair, and slouched to make myself as small as possible. Not too long after, I noticed another, albeit much younger, woman in the classroom. I felt slightly relieved.

The two nights of hunting safety course passed rather quickly, to my surprise, and I learned a lot of useful terms and safety procedures, such as how to avoid shooting myself while taking the gun up to the tree stand or while crossing over a fence. I also learned how PETA (which doesn't stand for People Eating Tasty Animals) truly recruited their members (lonely and angry housewives that have nothing better to do) and most importantly, how to react if a PETA member intruded my hunting space (threatening to shoot them, albeit tempting, was not an option, I was instructed).

The next day, I went to Gander Mountain, now my new favorite outdoors store, to buy my first hunting license. That night at the kitchen table, I read cover to cover the New York State Official Guide to Laws and Regulations for Hunting and Trapping, while Rich perused Gourmet magazine.

Rich had no interest in hunting, to my surprise. As I became increasingly hunting obsessed, reading about it, spending time with Phil target shooting, shopping in hopes at finding camo clothing that wouldn't be too big for me, walking the land where we were going to be on opening day, looking for deer tracks and cues, and impatiently waiting for hunting season to officially open, Rich just let me be. After 13 years, he knew what to do.

Target shooting was surprisingly a very relaxing activity for me, very Zen-like. I had to first clear my mind, then breathe deeply, aim accurately, and be poised, before I shot. But, could I truly shoot a living animal? A Buddhist at heart, I was reminded of my journey into Tibet, home of the world's most devout Buddhists, who hunt and eat meat, as without it, they wouldn't have survived. A mere decade ago, upon my arrival from New York City to the Hudson Valley, I was a Bambie-lover, until I hit my first deer, which destroyed my car. And I became increasingly less so thereafter when these same cute animals decided to eat my garden. Could I truly shoot a deer? I went back and forth… As a new member of the huntress set, I formulated my personal guidelines and decided that the animal to be hunted had to be:

1) Edible
2) Plentiful, overpopulation is a plus
3) Responsible for ecological damage (bonus criterion)

Fortunately, the deer fit all of these criteria in the Hudson Valley and Catskills regions. I also set other personal guidelines in terms of shooting per se and decided that the animal had to be located within the comfort of my shooting range, at around 30 yards, with the utmost limit of 50. It had to be a secure shot: I aimed to kill, not to injure.

Somewhat morally satisfied, I was ready to confront the few hunting-averse friends I anticipated offending by my decision to hunt. Do you eat meat? Yes. Well, someone somewhere is killing this animal. Wouldn’t you prefer eating an animal that is entirely free-range roaming, grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free, low in cholesterol - all for free? I recited my three criteria. Case closed: I should have been an attorney.


OPENING DAY

I was so excited that I woke up about 20 minutes before my 4 AM alarm, and laid there asking myself if I really wanted to get up. Yes! I sprung up, put the water on for tea that I was bringing in a thermos. My dog Méo woke up, puzzled. Soon he realized that it wasn’t breakfast yet as it was totally dark out and went back to sleep.

I dressed up, put on many layers of clothing to help me stay warm, grabbed my pack and headlamp and headed out in the chill but beautiful really early morning air. Richie’s old beat-up pick-up truck, which I hated until this day, was perfect for this task. I drove to the Catskills and saw that Phil’s white truck was already there. We were positioned in different locations on this private land, which belonged to my octogenarian neighbor who no longer hunted and who graciously offered its use, thus ensuring that nobody else will be there but us.

Trying to make as little noise as possible, I nevertheless sounded like a herd of 20 elephants while I crushed the dry leaves and branches at every step. I eventually found my way in the dark, and climbed the ladder to the tree stand. Although I'm a rock climbing enthusiast, I am afraid of heights, and a ladder tops it in terms of fear and discomfort. The tree stand, a two by two platform set 15’ up, awaited me. Once there, I tied myself in, brought the shotgun up, loaded it, and waited. It was 5:30 AM. A few minutes went by. Chuckling, I stared at my getup: orange vest, orange hat and neck warmer, camo gun. I was a true caricature. I couldn’t believe I was now one of them. I used to despise them. Make fun of them. They would ruin my outdoors experience for weeks in my favorite hiking season of the year. Them. I was one of them! What the heck was I doing up there?

Just before seven, I heard shots coming from every direction. Hunting season was officially open! I was very glad to be on private land and up in a tree stand. I took my camera out. I took some pictures of the forest. Left. Right. Front. I reviewed the photos. They all looked the same: leafless monotone limbs sprouting from a brown and rocky undercover.

To fight boredom, I ate every 15 minutes, and although it was only 8:30, I had already devoured my whole day's food supply. The cheese sticks. The two hard-boiled eggs. Granola bars. Teriyaki roasted almonds. Beef jerky. I held back drinking the tea, which would cause a full bladder: something I had not anticipated. It would create yet another set of obligations: unloading the gun, untying myself, climbing back down the ladder, walking quite a distance away to cover my scent while trying not to make noise, then returning to the tree stand, and reversing all the steps. Since it was way too much work, I decided I was going to be thirsty instead.

By 9:00, I sent a text a message to Phil. Help! I am BORED! I don't know if I can stand this another minute! Let alone until noon! Argh! He replied, When was the last time you were bored? Stick with the program; it doesn’t get any better than this.

I stared at the woods. Again. By now, I knew every branch, leaf, rock, and every furry squirrel that made this portion of the forest unique. I was one with the forest. It was beautiful. Earlier, when the sun rose, the light changed by the minute and the multitude of birds started chirping, taking turns.

I sent the same text message to Rich that I had sent earlier to Phil and he replied There is a buck waiting for you at home… I did the same thing with my daughter who asked Why didn’t you bring a book? I suddenly wondered if this was meant for me. Could I honestly sit in a tree for a month? No. I had to walk. I’d go elsewhere that afternoon. Suddenly, I heard leaves rustling and saw three does, approaching, oblivious of my presence. They were a mere 10 yards away. Unfortunately, neither Phil nor I had an antler-less permit for this area. I watched them go by. I texted Phil the big news and he wrote back that a buck most likely will soon follow.

Sure enough, Phil saw a huge seven pointer, but the beast was showing his butt and was a bit far away and Phil let him go, never to be seen again.

By 11:30, I called it quits and packed up, untied, got down, and while driving back home, decided where to go for the rest of the day. After lunch, I headed to the Mohonk Preserve, in an area I suspected there might  be no other hunters.

Once there, I positioned myself stationary and listened. A couple of hours went by and I came to the conclusion that I was indeed alone, and that this area would become my hunting spot for the duration of the season. I knew there were deer wandering in the area as every time I hiked up this hill, I saw them. I decided to go explore the side of the mountain. I found a very well-worn deer path and followed it. It lead to a place where they ate and drank, and another spot where they slept. Satisfied, I returned home, just in time for a delicious dinner of pasta and calamari sauce prepared by my beloved hobby-chef Italian partner.

The next morning, I woke up again before my alarm, and again asked myself if I truly wanted to get up in the wee early hours of the day. Yes! I was so excited that I jumped out of bed, thus starting a ritual that would be exhilarating to me for the rest of the month, whenever I had free time to go hunting.

I arrived at my chosen forest area, hiked, watched the moon on the horizon, and found a nice rock where I hid and stayed still for a couple of hours, until the sun came up. For a hyperactive person like me, this was great therapy. Subdued by each second that passes, I absorbed the coolness of the air, the sweet smell of the rotting leaves, and listened to every sound. Below, miles away in the valley, two packs of coyotes howled and talked to each other back and forth, miles apart.

Staying still was really difficult for me, but I tried. Eventually, I’d move, very slowly, but I knew I’d be making noise I'd rather not make... After several hours, I decided to go walk a bit and followed the herd path, one very slow step at a time. Eventually, I stopped and sat on a long dead tree, and watched two squirrels play hide and seek. I spaced out and didn’t know how long I'd been there when suddenly, I was in a 3-D National Geographic documentary film, as a red fox, oblivious of my presence, walked by, a mere 10 yards away. He hopped on a big log, gingerly trotted his way across it, hopped off, and then entered his den. He had done this move hundreds of time, one could tell.

Back to reality and work the next day, Bernie, the receptionist, greeted me at the office with a “Good morning Sheena, Queen of the Jungle! Did you get anything?” This nickname was to stick with me for the duration of the season and beyond. Secretly, I enjoyed it immensely.

As a mother of two, my totem animal was a grizzly bear. Better never get between a grizzly bear and her cubs. She will tear your head off. And that is how I felt in my role as a mother. For hunting, my inspiration goddess was Sheena, the huntress. She was intuitive, patient, strong, endured cold and rain without strain, could smell her prey from far away, and was a precise markswoman.


THANKSGIVING

Although I'd been living for more than 20 years in the United States, this was the first time that I celebrated this all-American holiday with my family in my home. My sister was flying in from San Francisco with her son and husband, my son was traveling north from DC, and my mother was coming south from Montreal to join us.

I was very excited to have this many vacation days in a row. Although the house was full of guests, I was up at 4 AM and went on my own adventure for a few hours. Thanksgiving day, I saw one of the most inspiring sunrises, with the hues of reds and oranges and blues and purples, watched over by a small crescent moon.

Just back in time as everyone was done with breakfast and showers, I was not even missed! This was great. That afternoon, while the chefs busied themselves to the celebratory meal of bird, sweet potatoes, green beans, and cranberry-orange sauce, I went back out with my sister and her 10-year old son. I wanted to show them where the deer hung out. We walked very slowly, the three of us, and tried, albeit clumsily, to walk in unison, to minimize how much noise we made in the leaves. After about half an hour, I gave up... we sounded like a herd of bison trampling across the Plains. I picked up a hastier pace. Minutes later, my nephew Felix was gesturing that there were does in front of us. He was so excited! Too far from my comfort shooting zone, we watched them leave, jumping like gazelles.

We walked to where they were just seen, and I showed them the water source, coming out from under a huge boulder, a place they'd go to drink. There were so many different tracks now, it was hard to tell which ones were fresh. We came back home to help prepare a lavish Thanksgiving dinner, and played games. We discussed that next year's turkey might be wild-caught, as Sheena would start turkey hunting. We also talked about different recipes to prepare wild boar for Christmas next year, when we'd visit my sister in California, as one can hunt the invasive wild boar year-round. In the late evening, I succumbed to a good night's sleep, exhausted by my very long day.

When I woke up, again, before my 4 AM alarm, I wondered if I could keep up this pace. Yes! And I jumped up, did my short and quiet morning routine and set off while everyone else was still sleeping. As I hiked up the hill to another spot where I knew that deer hung out, I realized that for me, hunting was really an excuse to be out in the woods, alone. Wilderness was my temple and this was where I found unity within me, made sense of the world we lived in, came up with creative ideas, and bettered myself as a human being. I cherished every second of my solitude in the woods.

When I came back to the house, we decided to do some target shooting with my son's BB gun, which hadn’t been used in ages. We created a target with a big cardboard box, reviewed some basic safety rules, and Felix and his dad David shot their hearts out, for hours.

On Saturday, everyone but my mother had to go back to life and the house suddenly became eerily quiet and empty. After dinner, I stuck my head outside and saw a myriad of stars shining in a cool but dry night. I asked my mom how she felt about keeping an eye on my teen, Naomi, while I headed out for an overnight in the woods. Her jaw dropped. "You're joking, right? Now? Tonight? It's 10 PM! And isn't it a bit cold out?" "I have the best outdoors equipment, remember I go winter camping all the time." "But, still, all by yourself? Isn't this dangerous?" My mother seemed to forget I'd been going in the woods every year for week-long solo backpacking trips for over 20 years now. "And I have a gun... plus this area is safer than any place on earth." Wide-eyed, she let me be. After 46 years, she knew what to do.

THE OVERNIGHT

The excitement overwhelmed me as I hiked up the hill and I forgot I wanted to go slow to avoid getting all sweaty and then, clammy. I shed a few lawyers of clothing and continued my stride, a bit slower this time. When I got to the top, a very nice flat area next to a large boulder awaited for me, just big enough to set my mat and sleeping bag. On my back, I gazed at the sky. Shimmering high above, the stars casted their spell upon me. And then... a shooting star! I smiled, utterly contented. I was exhausted yet I didn't want to sleep; I wanted to watch the night go by, every millisecond of it.

A few hours later, I was awakened by a familiar yelp, that of a red fox. I wondered if it was the same one that I saw a week earlier. As I pondered whether I could go back to sleep with my full bladder, and debated whether it would be even worth all the effort it would take to get out of the sleeping bag and strip down at this point in time, as I was getting up really soon thereafter anyway, I suddenly heard the yelp getting much closer. A few seconds later, it was so close that I sat up and heard a rustle in the leaves. Really close! When I could see the fox a mere few feet away in the darkness, coming straight in my direction, I hollered a human “Hey!” so it could detour around me and sure enough, it missed me by inches and jumped over my backpack, which was sitting right next to me. Wow! That was close... but then, another one, which I hadn't seen. One that hadn't noticed me either came running towards me and this time I shrieked, completely taken by surprise. Upon hearing this loud and scary sound, the poor fox practically had a heart attack and jumped three feet high, then swerves 90 degrees left to avoid me and my pack altogether. Within seconds, the forest was silent again.

Of course, I was completely awake by then. I sighed and lay on my back, watching the stars and listening to my heartbeat and the wind in the branches high above. The stillness of the night entered every pore of my body and I surrendered to its magic, to its power as it mingled with the sweet smell of the autumn leaves.

The sun was very slowly showing promising signs of a glorious day and I decided to pack, eat, and then stay still, quiet. Hours went by. I stared at the woods, listened to every sound, and surrendered to my monkey mind, racing in every direction. I promised I'd be back by 10, and so I headed back, slowly, admiring the daytime setting, which I had travelled in the dark, the night before.

The instant I entered the house I was greeted by a warm and welcoming maternal hug. My mother said my hair smelled like the woods. She put her nose back into my neck, to double check. She mentioned it would make a very nice perfume, one that would please the outdoorsy type, like me. I forego my idea to take a shower, and decided to wait until this woodsy smell would be gone.


PLANNING THE NEXT ESCAPE

Back to work on Monday, Sheena couldn’t stand the confines of the four walls in the small office, with its window overlooking the parking lot. I decided that five days was way too long to wait for my next hunting escapade and took Friday off. I would do this until the hunting season - only three weeks long! - was over. There were only two weekends left anyway. How can time once lived so slowly on day one went by so quickly now?

After four long work days, it was time to go out again. The 4 AM wake-up call arrived none too soon and as I was hiking to my spot, it suddenly struck me how much this newly-found passion was crawling under my skin, deeper and deeper with each outing.

The first snow of the season fell during the week, then melted a bit, creating a nice thunderous crusty sound under each footstep, alerting all the beasts, big and small, far away. The rustle of the leaves was quite tempered compared with this abomination. How did our hunting ancestors do it? When their survival depended on it, how did they overcome this problem?

A large Pileated Woodpecker was drumming with its bill at a dead tree, a distance away. Taking my camera out, I decided to do a different type of hunting. Moving as quietly and slowly as I could muster, given how clumsy I was, making a ruckus on the crusty snow, I brought myself to about 20 yards from the tree. Suddenly realizing it was being watched, just a mere second before I brought my finger down on the shutter, the woodpecker flew away to another tree, quite a distance away.

Unlike other outings, where I'd usually improvised, I had a plan for my day. I was going to walk very slowly the whole length of the deer herd path, along the boulder field, just below the cliff, from one end to the other, about 2.5 miles. Even though I’d use my utmost concentration on trying to make as little noise as possible, given the dry snow breaking down under each footstep, I couldn’t help but think at how effective I was at alerting every living thing of my presence within a five-mile radius, when suddenly, I saw three does, mixed in with large boulders, about 50 feet away. How in the world did they not hear me? I stopped walking, but while two of them escaped, one stood still and stared in my direction, as if thinking, I thought I saw something move over there, what was it? Where is it? The gun was safely on my shoulder, as I oftentimes carried it when I least expected to see anything. Of course, if I moved even just an eyelid, she would turn and run away. So I left the gun on my shoulder and stared back, not flinching even a muscle, keeping my breathing shallow, hoping she will put her head down long enough for me to reach for the shotgun. Made suspicious by the fact that her two companions had already escaped, she slowly turned around and then quickly jumped out of sight. I decided to carry the gun with both hands, and made my way behind them, as stealthily as possible, calling upon my long-lost American Indian hunting genes. I was Sheena, the huntress!

A couple of hours later, I caught up with them. I had a lot to learn, I realized, as I had obviously not thought that this could even be remotely possible, and I had again put the gun on my shoulder once my forearms became tired and now, here I was standing still next to a big tree, trying to blend in. The doe (the same one?) was staring straight back at me this time around and without hesitation, fled, again.

During my annual week-long solo pilgrimages into the wilderness, which I called my walking meditations, it took four days for my mind to settle, to stop its nonsense of nonstop chatter. Then I spent the rest of the week enjoying the true silence, until I returned to 'life'. Hunting is a sitting meditation. Doing nothing but contemplating, my mind would settle down after a few hours, as I stopped thinking and just be.


LAST WEEKEND

Another four-day workweek went by, actually quicker than the previous one. Maybe it was because I was on a mission to find camouflage clothes that fit me and I spent my lunch hours shopping? There were great sales at Dick's and Gander given that the season was almost over, yet I couldn’t find pants that fit me. I floated in even the smallest size they had available. I decided to buy large kid-sized overalls only to return them a couple of days later. Overalls were absolutely impractical for a woman. What was I thinking?

I'd been talking incessantly to Rich about my hunting experiences for three weeks and had shared my anticipation for some weeks prior to that, yet he hadn't been seduced to join me to go out until the last weekend of the season. All of a sudden, my athletic man saw this as an opportunity to be out in the woods and get a great workout. He'd be driving the deer tomorrow as Phil and I would wait at the opposite end. The idea behind a drive was to gently push the animal to the waiting hunter. Surprised, I asked, "What took you so long?" "Well, you can go from 0 to 100 in three seconds, whereas I need three months to get there. I am here now."

This was the last weekend of the hunting season and here we were, now a threesome with a hunting strategy. Phil had been scouting a different area than I, and there was definitively a lot more activity there than where I had been. Rich would hike to the top of the ridge, then walk down through the thick evergreen grove while Phil and I would wait at the other end. Sure enough, Phil, who was ahead of me, saw three deer jump out of the woods and took a shot at one, but missed. Meanwhile, the loud gunshot noise scared a beautiful large white bird from the grove and it landed in the tree right next to me. I looked up, it turned its head around: an owl! Not any owl, however, but a young, beautiful, and rare Snowy Owl! I stared at it in awe as it was an unusual sight and a first for me.

When I met up with the guys, they were discussing a new and improved strategy, as the does fled down the valley and there was another ridge above them for Rich to run to and hopefully scare them back down. Rich was wearing his red Hawaiian shirt and red cap, which was his way of sticking out, in more ways than one, a stylish safety measure during hunting season.

After a few more attempts in trying to move the does back towards us, we called it quits and decided to start a bit earlier the next day.


THE PLAN


Phil and I decided to position ourselves in strategic locations, and arrived as early as we could, since we couldn’t avoid making a cacophonous entry because of the crunchy snow. It was a cold and windy night, but I was lucky to find a huge log a few yards off the trail where I settled and got cozy. The sleeping bag captured my body heat in a few minutes; comfy and sheltered, I watched the bright moon shining in my face, and tried, in vain, to go back to sleep, even for just an hour, as I listened to the coyotes howling down in the valley, a chorus of voices signing in harmony.

From a distance, I heard footsteps in the snow, as the noise resonated in the stillness and blended with the wind. A few minutes later, I could see a silhouette, walking in the dark, without a headlamp, as the moon shed plenty of light to see. He was walking straight towards me, and as I was thinking how I could possibly be this visible next to the dead tree, he swerved left to go around the log just as I said, "Hi Phil!" He jumped and hollered, "Geez you scared me! What the heck, I nearly stepped on you!" "I know, I thought you could see me and were going to stop and say hello!" A bit out of breath, he asked, "Where is the trail?" "Just over here, behind me..." "See you later then!" As he moved on, each step became fainter and fainter.

When the sun started to rise, I decided to take a bit of a catnap, as the moon had set and there were no more stars to watch anyway. When I finally woke up, I sat and stared at my surroundings, hoping to see something: a deer or two would've been nice. Nothing. I looked at my watch. 9 o'clock! What? How could it be this late! I was supposed to be in my other spot already and now I had to pack and eat something and walk a ways and...! I called Rich, "Where are you?" "At the top, ready to come down." "No! Not yet, I need about 15 minutes!" Ditto with Phil. They'd wait for me.

With nothing alive moving in sight, I got up, packed in a frenzy, grabbed a granola bar, got to the trail and started walking briskly, then decided it was best to take care of my full bladder while I still had some privacy. I put the gun down, then the pack, walked a few steps off the trail, turned around, and as I was about to take my pants down, I heard some noise behind me and turned. Two big does, about 10 feet away, were staring at me. The gun was out of reach, waiting on the trail. I stared back. This couldn’t really be happening. Could it? I could almost put my arm out and scratch their noses. How did they not hear me coming? I made as much noise as a freight train! Of course now if I even move a nostril they’d start running. After the staring contest, they won, and I said goodbye to the venison steaks, the stews, and the meatloaves I’d just missed having for the winter. At least they hadn’t caught me with my pants down.

When I met up with Phil, he told me he’d just seen two does running down. "I know, I saw them too," I replied and told him my story. We laughed. I was such a rookie! I'd learned my lesson and this won't happen again... I hoped.

Positioned in our spots, we waited for Rich to come down. Sure enough, a few more does were seen from Phil's position and he took a few shots, but he missed, again. I saw them run away, yesterday's scenario repeating itself.

Phil and Rich called it quits early, whereas I returned in the afternoon to show Frank, who does bow hunting, where this good spot was. He's an experienced hunter and had given me a lot of pointers, and would hopefully help us dress the deer we bagged, if not this year, then maybe the next. In the parking lot, just as we were parting, he got a phone call and he was summoned by one of his friend to help him track a deer he’d injured. He’d lost the trail of blood in the snow and needed Frank's help. He invited me over. Sure! I loved to learn new skills.

Flashlights in hand, we followed the drops until they stopped. Frank gave his friend a bit of a hard time for putting footsteps everywhere, making the task for finding deer prints that much harder. After about an hour, we had found and lost the trail several times. His friend admitted he took a poor shot, being that the season was almost over and all, and now regretted it. I vowed to not let my impulse take over if this ever happened to me. They never found the deer.

Sobered by this experience, I got back home. Nonchalantly, Rich mentioned that I should have come back home early with him as three does were feeding at our bird feeder when he came back. Over another fabulous dinner of grilled chicken and stir-fried green beans with roasted almonds and balsamic vinegar that Rich had prepared, we discussed hunting strategies for the next day. Phil couldn’t join us so it would be just the two of us.


THE LAST DAY

As I got to the parking lot before dawn, another pick-up truck drove by and a hunter started chatting with me and asked, "So, how many of your guys are up there?" "It's just me and another." "Did you get anything?" "No, you?" "Me neither and man, I hope we get lucky today, this is the last day!" "Yeah, that would be great," I replied. "Good luck!" "Good luck to you too!"

As I was getting my stuff out of the truck, I realized that he didn’t talk to me the same way other hunters had spoken to me until then. As I reflected upon this, I suddenly realized that in my getup, balaclava covering my hair, ears, and the bottom half of my face, he probably thought I was a guy! A short one, but a guy nevertheless! It wasn’t the tone of his voice, or the choice of his words, it was his attitude. I had met a bunch of hunters in the last month, and although none of them showed outward disrespect, there was either a look of suspicion or a nod of approval. But this time it was different: I was his equal.

Once in position, I laid still, until Rich gave me his cue. A couple of hours went by and Rich was ready to descend to the grove. About an hour later a doe jumped out of the tight forest, about 75 yards away. That was a little too far for me... and she was behind an old rock wall. My luck, again. I then realized that I could at least attempt one shot. I followed her trajectory, I held my breath, and pulled the trigger. Missed. Taking a shot wasn’t that bad after all, strangely.

It started to rain and we headed back home, saying farewell to a fun first hunting season. A few minutes before dark set in and the season was officially over, we got a call from Phil. "I got one!" he shared, excitedly. I called Frank and grabbed some beers and we all headed to Phil's garage, where the doe (huge!) was laying. It was Phil's first deer. He had seen her the day before but she was too close, 30 feet or less, and he didn't have the heart to take a shot. Today, she was twice away that far and having thought it over, he had made peace with his decision to hunt her, and was ready when she showed up.

Frank arrived shortly thereafter and thus began the laborious and somewhat gory task of turning this animal into food. Under Frank's watchful eye and vigilant instructions, Phil was doing really well for a first-timer and I was sure happy it was him, not me, doing this task right now. Phil's son Diego, who’d just turned seven, had a lot of questions and was documenting by videotaping the whole process. We each got a lot of answers to our questions as Frank used to do animal dissectation for work and Phil was a physician's assistant in a hospital. The wealth of knowledge exchanged between the two of them made for an interesting anatomy lesson. For example, we learned that deer have four stomachs, like cows, and have pretty much the same diet. Once the dressing process was over, he removed the skin of the deer. Once done taking the meat off the bones, there wasn’t much of an animal left, but about forty pounds of meat waiting to be butchered properly in sections in the next day or so.

Venison stew will have to wait until next year. Until then, there is turkey season in May! And I, Sheena the huntress, was jubilant with anticipation.




YEAR TWO

When spring came, I decided I wasn't going to go turkey hunting after all. It felt like a lot of time and effort for just a few pounds of meat. Moreover, there was always too many things competing for my time (Gardening! Rock climbing! Trail running!) to afford adding yet another activity.

Even though I’d been looking forward to it, when the deer season started in the late fall, my heart just wasn’t there. I was recovering from a major emotional trauma following a bad rock climbing accident with Rich a  couple of months earlier, and the thought of killing an animal just chilled me. If I would've been lucky, I’m not quite sure how I would have been able to handle it. So going hunting was an excuse to be in the woods to find myself, and that was fine too.

I couldn’t take any time off from work during the week, as I had used up all my vacation days already to take care of Rich because of his injuries from the accident. The crowded woods of opening day were a total put-off for me, so a month prior to gun season, I scouted the most remote areas that I could find.

When the first day finally arrived, I headed out to an area a couple of miles into the woods. The weekend forecast called for perfect weather, so I planned to stay there for the full two days. I was dropped off at the trail head at about 10 PM and hiked up, spooked (or rather, was spooked) by a couple of does, and went directly to the bivi spot I had found the weekend prior, set up my bag, and stared at the stars above me.

My mind was racing from not having had any time to myself for weeks now. Trying to calm it down, I took deep breaths and tasted the sweet smell of the air. Finally, I dozed off. I woke up before dawn, grabbed a bite to eat, drank some tea, and sat. Just as the sun was coming up, I heard a motorized vehicle. I had hiked a couple of miles uphill into the woods only to be reached by modern means... It never occurred to me that a pick-up truck could navigate up this steep terrain, with big rock jutting everywhere. Now I knew (a bit late though). Three guys got out of the truck.

During gun hunting season, whenever I sit in full camo, I put a blaze orange cap in a tree branch near or above me to alert other hunters of my presence. They saw this immediately, of course. A few minutes later, one of the guys came to visit me, and approached stealthily.

“Hi! Did you hear me coming?” he asked, a bit cocky and proud of himself. He had walked on the ridge, on the rock escarpment, had avoided all the leaves, and was standing about 20 feet from me. “I’ve been hunting in this spot for over 30 years and have never seen anyone else here outside of me and my sons,” he said, puzzled. “Honestly, I came this far into the woods because I didn’t think I’d see anyone,” I replied, hoping he'd get the message. He finally left after he’d asked too many questions, which I aptly avoided responding with too many details. Within the hour, they got two does, but not the eight-pointer he mentioned he was hoping to get. I decided to go for a walk.

When I came back to my spot in the middle of the afternoon, the guy did the same thing again and stealthily approached me, but this time from behind. “Did I surprise you again?” this time he started to creep me out. But it got worse. He started flirting with me. “You’re really a very attractive woman, do you know that?” Maybe, but I also have a loaded 7 mm gun on my lap, in case you didn’t notice. My guards were completely up, and I resisted the urge to tell him exactly what I was thinking. If I really wanted to get flirted, do you honestly believe I’d be in the middle of the woods, all by myself? No, this is not were I’d be. “If you don’t want to have to hike back, I can give you a ride in my truck. What time will you be here until?” I truly didn’t want to tell him I had plans to spend another night there, having avoided to the best of my ability to answer questions about my previous night. “I’m planning to leave at sunset,” I replied, thinking it would give me a full two hours to think of how I was going to avoid this situation. “Do you want some candy?” he asked, as he reached into his pocket. Are you kidding me? You flirt with me, then offer me a ride in your truck, now candy? Honestly? You’ve got to be kidding me! I’m not going anywhere near you... jerk! “No, thanks. I don’t eat candy (truth). I’ll meet you at your truck just as the sun sets (not),” I replied. Satisfied, he left.

Then, as soon as he was out of sight, I packed in a frenzy, and headed into the woods Indian-style. I followed a herd path for about half a mile, and then lost it completely, just as it started to snow heavily. I was bushwhacking in tall rhododendrons towering over me, struggling at each step to move forward, when I saw the eight-pointer buck this guy hoped to get. I was not in any position to take a shot, even if by chance it would have been good, let alone look for, find and then drag the beast out from these thick bushes. I was so pissed that this hunter had altered my perfectly (or so I thought) laid out plans for the weekend that I made as much noise I as could to scare him away from where I came from, Sheena secretly showing her middle finger to the jerk, waiting for that buck, behind me.

The next mile was the most ankle-breaking and treacherous terrain I had ever bushwacked through in my entire life. I could barely see where I was going because of the snow falling heavily, but knew that if I followed the ridge and kept the drop on my left side, I’d get to where I’d hope to be before it got completely dark out. Luckily, I ended up on the other side of the mountain at twilight, just as the snow stopped falling. Drenched in sweat, I found the trail I hoped to cross, and headed down.

Once on the carriage road, I put my headlamp on and went about to look for a place to crash for the night. I soon found water, an essential part of a good overnight camp, and not long thereafter found a relatively straight but small and narrow spot, yet just perfect for my sleeping bag. After I ate dinner, tired of my day, I got comfortable in my bag. As I was ready to fall asleep, two does almost stepped over me! I was very near a herd path. My last thought before dozing off was that it might be a good spot to be the next morning.

Outside of seeing a flock of about 40 turkeys, I didn’t see anything else the next day. I headed back home, a bit frustrated by my weekend, but happy I’d gone out nevertheless.

I went back out a few mornings in other less remote areas during the next three weeks, but didn’t see anything at close range. On my way to my mechanic's garage one day to get the car set with winter tires, I passed a yearling and a fawn on the side of the road staring at their mom, laying on the other side, who apparently had just been hit. It was a very sad sight, but all too common in this deer-ridden area. On my way back from the garage about an hour later, the yearling had been hit too.

I called Frank. "What's the deal with road kill? How long do we have before it's too late for the meat?" After I gave him the details, he explained that it was well within the acceptable time range for safety and that if I wanted him to help out, I should report the deer to the DEC and he'd come right over. "Nah, my red neck index isn't that up yet," I answered, with an audible hint of regret in my voice. I wanted venison, but not that bad. "Now that I know though, maybe next time." The same evening, we had friends over for dinner and I told them my story. "You mean to say we could have eaten venison tonight?" they asked, disappointed. You know who your true friends are when they are willing to eat road kill.

On the last day of the season, I went to a spot where I’d seen plenty of deer the previous year. I got there at about 5 AM. As soon as the sun was up, I heard gun shots from every direction around me. Hunkered down behind a large tree, I wondered, “How am I going to get out of here?” and thought, "This might be Sheena's last gun season."

© 2010-2012 Myriam

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