Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Chronicles of Sheena - Bow Hunting - Year Three

For the Chronicles of Sheena - Years One and Two, click here.

As daylight was breaking, I settled into the tree stand. I had just gotten tied in and was fumbling with my balaclava, abundant hair, glasses, and cap, when in the corner of my eye, I saw three does marching in about 40 yards away. My bow was hanging next to me, still in the sling. 

Very slowly, I picked it up, removed the sling, and put in the arrow. I had tried to not draw attention to myself and moved as slowly as I could but still, the mother noticed the movements. She stopped and stared in my direction for ten minutes as I stood motionless, barely breathing, staring back. Finally, she resumed her slow walk, looking my way every now and then. Suddenly, I was caught in an ethical dilemma. Does one pick the mother, the yearling or the fawn?

Despite my sheer excitement at this opportunity, I was frozen, with the bow ready to be drawn, unable to make a decision. Can one kill a mother, right in front of her young ones? I couldn’t. What about her daughters? It never occurred to me that I would be having these thoughts, this hesitation, since for two years I had been looking forward to the moment when I’d be at the right place at the right time. Instead, I watched them go by.

I always wanted to learn archery, for as long as I could remember. As a young child, I would make bows and arrows and always played the Indian. Perhaps it was my Cree heritage - my great-grand father, half Indian, half white, lived in the woods in northern Quebec most of his life. Perhaps it was the challenge of firing an arrow with grace and precision. Whatever it was, it also intimidated me.

My father used to hunt moose and bear in northern Quebec. He’d leave for a week with “the boys” and return with a scratchy beard and good hunting stories to tell. I spent my youth watching TV laying on the skin of the small bear he had caught, resting my head on its head. Once, he came back and displayed his trophy moose rack on the hood of his 1966 Buick, and left it there long enough to make sure everyone in suburban Montreal had seen it. But he never took me hunting, except once, to show me how to trap hares in the winter with a noose.

In my teens, I was obsessed with the Himalayas, which ultimately led me to spend two months in Nepal and Tibet in my early twenties on my own. Upon my return, I grew intrigued by Bhutan, another high mountain kingdom and still completely shut off from the outside world, unchanged for hundreds of years. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, where every village has its own archery range. Using bamboo bows, teams of archers compete by shooting at targets only one foot in diameter over
130 yards away, further away than the length of a football field. I couldn’t fathom how one could develop such a skill, which created an even greater barrier I felt I had to overcome.

Once I started hunting, the allure came back, but this time for different reasons. During my two gun-hunting seasons, in retrospect, I believe I was a closet bow hunter. I felt that this quiet, stealth-like approach to hunting created a more even playing field between the prey and the predator. I envied the quietness of the bow-hunting season woods and their uncrowded hunting grounds. Plus, their permits allowed them to hunt for the full month prior to gun season, which was the true rut season, with the most potential for sightings. Beyond anything else, I didn’t feel at ease with guns in general. The fact that some bullets can travel for a couple of miles was extremely scary to me. In the woods, during gun hunting season, this thought was on my mind all the time.

One cannot learn how to bow hunt from a book, but I bought one anyways. Its self-descriptive tile, “Bow Hunting Basics for Beginners” was an introduction to the tools of the trade, the jargon, and helped me verbalize questions I wouldn’t have been even known how to otherwise formulate without this knowledge and vocabulary.

When I finally decided to commit to getting a bow, I consulted my hunting mentor, Frank - bow hunter extraordinaire and self-proclaimed red neck - who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He gave me the equipment I needed to start practicing and I set up a small range in my basement. At 14 yards, it was a perfect distance to hone in on my skill and most importantly, it was a place I could disappear to whenever I wanted. I was immediately enthralled, and began to learn as much as I could about archery. Soon, I felt it was time for me to buy my own bow. The draw weight of the compound bow I got was set at 40 lbs, and felt right for me immediately.

Once back home, my bow and I got acquainted. To my surprise, I found archery to be extremely relaxing and centering. As with any target shooting, one has to empty one’s mind and be completely focused on the task at hand. Archery is a beautiful blend of strength and power, required to pull the string, and then of finesse and focus, to aim and release the arrow. As an athlete, I enjoyed this challenge and the physicality of archery tremendously. I also found this to be a wonderful way to separate a frustrating day at the office with the joy of being with my loved ones for an evening. Shooting a few arrows as I got home from work proved to be a swift and efficient therapeutic transition and created a mindset of openness and presence; perfect attributes for quality time with my family.

Frank took me a couple of times to his archery club range, meandering through the woods, where over a dozen targets lay at regular intervals. By then, I was completely hooked. I signed up for the only two 3-D target shoots I found within reasonable distance from my home and went about honing my shooting skills. All by myself, going from one target to the other, I enjoyed the challenge of shooting arrows at different distances, from 10 to more than 30 yards, on mock turkeys, boars, does and bucks, antelopes, bears, alligators, and a small dinosaur.

As I worked on becoming consistent in my archery skills, Frank suggested that I find the best arrows of my lot for hunting. By doing so, I’d have to label them all, practice target shooting and keep tabs on where they landed, thus providing a track record of each arrow’s accuracy. I found two that were consistently landing within a couple of inches of the bull’s eye, removed the field points used for target practice and replaced them with the broadheads. I securely stored them in my quiver, to both protect the razor-sharp points and my fingers.

I began having hunting dreams and would wake up making plans to fit scouting outings into my already too busy schedule. Then, finally, bow hunting season began.

The start was slow, thanks to the lingering summer temperatures. Despite my eagerness to get my first deer, it helped me to ease into my first bow season, concentrating on slowing down my movements, expanding my ability to sit still, and trying to blend into the woods. Up until then, I hadn’t been able to sit for more than a couple of hours at a time. The first weekend, I decided I was going to sit for a whole day and see what it felt like.

I had scouted this particular area for two years already. There was so much activity and trails everywhere that I was sure it was a good spot. I wasn’t looking for the elusive 12-point buck; all I wanted was pure, delicious venison.

I headed out about a mile and a half over the hilly terrain, crossed a tricky stream, navigated around logs, downed trees, and big rocks before finally getting to the sweet spot. My pack was heavy with everything I needed to hang and butcher the deer in the field: a 30’ rope with three-to-one pulley system, a deer hanger, vodka to disinfect the knife, a rag, a large garbage bag to line my pack for the meat, water filter, and a five-liter pouch so I could rinse the carcass off before butchering. To top it all off, my neighbor insisted the best part of the deer was the heart, and that I had to eat it on the spot over a fire. Since fires were not allowed where I went hunting, I carried my small propane backpacking stove and pan, cooking oil, salt, pepper, and red wine. The only things that was missing in my pack was a blanket or down jacket, which I would soon regret. But as a foodie, I knew my priorities.

I found a ground hiding spot behind a downed tree and some bushes, and sat. For eight hours. I saw nothing but thousands of leaves falling down. I had to resist the urge, which then became an obsession, to get up and walk. I was determined to make it a battle of will and just stick with it and not move, as I usually do, fidgeting around, eating, and drinking tea. It was akin to a silent Zen meditation retreat I had done more than 20 years ago. Once seated on the meditation cushion, there were no movements allowed whatsoever for hours on end, even if one had to scratch an itch. The idea behind this meditation was to watch the mind’s activity like clouds going by until it was a clear sky. I decided, as I started my day, to try this out.

I failed miserably. I started to surf the net on my iPhone and shop for a better chair, as my tail bones were screaming with agony after just two hours of sitting on my small portable three-legged stool. I wrote in my journal, then read a magazine. I also stared into space, of course, for hours, watching the real clouds go by. But I didn’t get up and walk around.

I thought about how the experience of time is elastic. Time flies when one is busy and yet becomes still when one is also still. I reminded myself about how many things were waiting for me to do back home and felt like a teenager skipping school. I reviewed the different roles I played, changing hats constantly. I started to imagine life without kids at home as my last one was heading out to college, a period I looked forward to despite the emotional strain it was sure to create due to the longing. Being a mother of two, I had made many compromises that were either financial, career-wise, dreams of travels postponed, and hobbies left forgotten. This time, my daughter warned me that she didn’t want “dead deer hanging in the backyard - ever,” but these words were soon to be missed, I was sure.

My thoughts bounced around in pure anarchy. But since my life is non-stop busyness, without many moments of free time to do nothing at all, it was a luxury I indulged in completely. I practiced being bored.

Even if at times it felt like I was stuck on Alcatraz, the stillness of the woods reached deep into my soul. With each passing breath, the silence permeated my mind, rendering it yet a bit more quiet, little by little. I also truly cherished every minute of solitude I gained in the woods, as my everyday life duties have me interacting with others all the time.

Sunrise and twilight are my favorite parts of the day. When I’m out for a long hunting day, or when I can go out both in the morning and the afternoon, I get to witness this beauty twice. As the sun rises or sets, the warm glow of red and orange infuses the forest floor, giving it a mysterious feel. The shades of brown from the dead leaves and the bark of the trees glow pink, but just for a few minutes, before the light changes completely. During this phase of uncertainty, animals’ behavior also changes, from the chirping of the birds to the scurrying of the squirrels. On a full moon night, I can see it rise (or set, if in the morning) and it too glows red and orange.

At the end of this long day of sitting with no sightings, when the sun went down behind the mountain, the temperature dropped suddenly by at least 10 degrees, and I started shivering uncontrollably. I got up, waited for the circulation to get back into my legs and feet, packed and started moving out. As I was hiking, I realized I was grateful I didn’t get any deer that day as taking an animal back out would have been a difficult task. As I wrestled with my backpack and bow in the difficult terrain, it occurred to me that all my life I equated struggle with success. If I didn’t work three jobs, 50 hours per week, I wasn’t really trying hard enough to meet ends. If I didn’t hike miles through the most treacherous terrain, I wasn’t really hunting.  That’s when I decided to try to take the path of least resistance, a philosophy I hoped to embrace with everything from then on. Experimenting by finding a less difficult hunting ground seemed like a good place to start. As soon as I got home, I emptied the content of my pack, picked up the bare essentials and added a blanket to my gear. There would be no more shivering for this hunter.

Ed had called me in May and asked if I could come now and hunt one or two of the half a dozen deer raiding his back yard of the assortment of flowers he’d planted over the years. His land was just a few miles away from my home and a very short walk from the car to deer-filled woods. The day after my first long day in the woods, I went to his land to make sure the permanent tree stand was safe and sound. Once there, I added a few slings so I could tie myself in securely, shot a few arrows in stumps to get a feel for this height, scouted the area to familiarize myself with the terrain, and made plans to come back first thing the next day.

I woke up before daylight and was excited for another hunting day. Once on Ed’s land, I climbed into the tree stand and waited. Not long thereafter, a doe and her daughters were foraging on a bush, but I felt too exposed to attempt anything. Even in a tree stand, in full camouflage attire, I stood out like a stranger sitting in their living room. The wind suddenly picked up and the trees that held the stand were swaying so much that I started feeling sea sick. I decided to climb back down and walk instead.

I slowly circled the land and came back to where the three does were foraging earlier. As I was moving slowly towards the bushes, I came across two more does, just on the other side. Trigger happy, being the closest I had ever been to any wild deer, I decided that this was the shot. It was clumsy and through the bushes, and, of course, I missed. Feeling embarrassed by my carelessness, I retrieved my arrow and headed out.

But as soon as I got home, I realized I was so excited by all the doe sightings that I wanted to turn right back around and go out again that afternoon. Back in the woods, I chose a ground hiding spot that I believed to be ideal: a downed tree about 10 yards away from their foraging area. In my camouflage attire, I blended in perfectly.

Sitting on my pack waiting for something to come by, after an hour, I quickly got bored and started surfing the Internet on my smart phone for venison recipes, when suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I caught movement. Again, the rookie in me had let her guard down and the bow was laying on the ground next to me. To my surprise, this doe was completely oblivious of my presence, so I picked up the range finder to see how far she was. She was 20 yards away, which was my utmost comfortable shooting distance with the bow. She took a few steps and went sideways, offering a textbook position. But, with all the adrenaline rushing through my body, I didn’t have control over the bow. I picked it up with my finger on the release and, as it was half-way drawn, the arrow quickly shot out in the air, passing at least 15 feet above the deer. “I can’t believe I did this!” I yelled at myself internally, falling into a long list of personal insults. I had just missed what I thought had been the shot of the season.

The doe looked straight in my direction and started walking towards me as if thinking, “What was that? I thought I heard something there.” She walked a mere 10 feet away from me, stopped and stared in my direction. In full camo with my back-up of branches and leaves it was possible that she couldn’t make out my shape, but she was staring right at my glasses. I wasn’t moving even an eyelid, expecting at any moment she would bolt out of sight as soon as she smelled me. Instead, she continued slowly beyond me. I got thinking, “This animal is too stupid. She’s going to throw herself in front of a car today or tomorrow. She’s dinner for us.”

I waited a few seconds until she was a bit further away, picked up a new arrow, got up on my feet, positioned my body as I had been practicing for weeks already, and thought of my form. Feet shoulder-width apart. Breathe. Relax. The deer went around a large tree and I drew the bow. Feel the kisser button and focus on your pin. As she emerged and became visible again, she was quartering away. I focused on my target and released the arrow.

In slow motion, I saw the arrow leave the bow, arc into the air and then land in the deer with a thump. She then jumped and escaped, each action moving slower than the next. What took a mere second felt like minutes. There is an intimate relationship between the archer and its prey, as one touches and sees the arrow and draws the string from one’s own strength. The power of this moment surprised me. I never suspected that I would feel this connected to the animal I was about to kill.

Throughout my life, I’ve always been involved in high-adrenaline activities: competitive downhill skiing, motorcycle riding, martial arts, and currently, mountain biking, trail running, and rock climbing. Despite all of these, nothing prepared me for the jolt of adrenaline that traveled throughout my body the instant I released the arrow from the bow. My whole body trembled and my heart palpitated. I immediately started breathing hard and got tunnel vision.

Without any delay, I texted a message to Frank, my hands shaking so hard I had a difficult time pressing the right letters on the small keyboard on my phone.  “Got one – lung shot I think – how long do I have to wait?” My phone rang seconds later. “What happened? Tell me in details.” As I told him my story, I started to second-guess my shot. I wondered if it was as good as I thought it was. “I think the arrow might be stuck in the shoulder. I didn’t see it go through. I saw it jump and saw the arrow too.” He told me it was too soon to tell, but to go and “sit the arrow”. “What’s that?” I asked. “That’s when you take time to get rid of the adrenaline in your body and shake it off because until then, you’re useless. Go walk, but not in the direction of the deer. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

As my heart raced, I stared at the woods in front of me, unable to move forward, absorbed in the moment. I had just shot a deer. Even though I had spent countless days visualizing this action while hunting and sitting for hours, nothing of what I had imagined came remotely close to how I felt at that instant. What gave me permission to start to hunt was a very thorough rationalization I developed of how tasty and healthy the venison was going to be on my plate, that hunting helped cull their overpopulation and consequent ecological damage done to the environment. Yet, this reasoning meant nothing now next to the act of killing. I had taken life away.

Confused by conflicting emotions, I walked in the woods, in circles, still breathing hard, trying to calm myself down, and slowly release the adrenaline that had taken over my body. Then, as I took deep breaths to try to relax, I started to fear the worst, doubting myself on just about everything that had just happened. Was it a good shot? Self-doubt is prevalent in most of what I do, thus pushing me to excel and try my best. But here, it was different. The last thing I wanted was for the animal to be injured and suffer a slow and painful death.

When Frank finally showed up as promised, I was so worried I might have only injured the animal, my utmost nightmare, that I told him, “I’m now quite sure I didn’t do a good shot after all”. He stayed calm and asked, “Show me where the animal was hit.” I showed him where I was sitting and where I marked the area of the shot with fluorescent tape. He started looking for the arrow. “I’m telling you, I’m pretty sure she ran with it,” I insisted. “We’ll see - I’m not so sure” was his reply. Within a few minutes, he found it. “See? Here it is.”

Surprised and relieved, I walked over to where he stood. He started “reading” the arrow. “There aren’t any bubbles in the blood, so you didn’t do a two-lung shot. It isn’t green or brownish, so it didn’t hit the gut area either. So that’s good. I don’t see any dark red on it, so most likely, it missed the liver. It looks like it might be possibly a heart or lung shot. Nice job! Now let’s start looking for the blood trail.”

Recovering the animal is referred to as the “second hunt,” oftentimes harder than the first. He told me that we should find the animal within about 70 yards of where it was shot. There was little daylight left and we put our headlamps on. I honestly had no idea what I was looking for. All the freshly fallen leaves were red, orange and yellow. I was bent over and stared at leaves, looking for something to jump out at me when Frank exclaimed, “Found the first drop!” He was about 20 feet away from where we found the arrow. I walked over and gawked in complete amazement at the small red drop on the dark orange leaf. “This is what I had to look for? It’s crazy! I can’t believe you found THIS drop!” To me, it felt like an impossible task. I was grateful he was there to help out. From this point on, there were larger drops at regular interval, which were easier for me to follow. Frank warned me that it would probably, at some point, become a dead end. Sure enough, soon thereafter, the blood trail stopped suddenly.

He explained that an arrow shot from a tree stand will create an exit wound, given the angle, that will sometimes allow for a greater amount of blood to drip, thus rendering tracking a bit easier. With a ground shot however, we didn’t have this advantage.

“Now what?” I asked. “Now we have to look back at the direction it took and look ahead and follow the most likely path. We do arcs, going back and forth looking for the next trace of blood.” It was dark by then and looking for small drops of blood on red, orange, and yellow leaves with a flashlight was becoming a difficult task.

Ed’s land is infested with deer and the forest floor is riddled with foot prints, but Frank found one that stood apart, deeper than the others, as if the animal was kicking hard. “There’s no real way of telling if this is by that deer, but it goes in the right direction,” he pointed out. A solid half an hour went by with no other traces to be found when he said, “I’ll save you some time. I just found your animal.” He pointed his light at about 30 feet away. “See, in the dark, sometimes you can scan your light in the woods and catch an eye. And I was wrong, she’s 100 yards away from where she got hit, not 70.”

I had imagined this moment dozens of times already, and thought I’d be filled with sadness, guilt, and remorse. Instead, I felt relieved. I was just so thankful to have found the animal, and that it was, indeed, a good shot. She wasn’t lost in the woods, injured, suffering a slow death and never to be found. And, finally, I had venison!

I walked over. She looked like she was sleeping, her head resting on her front legs. “Is it dead?” I heard myself ask, stunned that she looked so peaceful. “Of course it is!” he answered, probably wondering why I asked such a dumb question. “And she’s not a doe, by the way, he’s a button buck.” “Really?” completely surprised, as they both looked completely alike to me. “See the little buttons on the head? This would be, next year, where his rack would grow,” he explained. “It also explains why it was so dumb. Button bucks are pretty darn stupid.” Which somewhat explained how I had gotten lucky that day.

I had also rehearsed dozens of times in my head the ritual I would do next to the animal I had just killed, offering my gratitude and prayers. Instead, none of that happened as I simply forgot, too charged up with adrenaline. We examined the entry and exit wounds. Frank asked if I wanted him to dress the animal (a rather poetic word for what is the worst part of the hunt, gutting the deer from its windpipe to the other end) or if I wanted to do it. “I’ll start and you tell me what to do. If at some point I can’t do it, you’ll take over,” I replied.

There are no words to describe this gruesome chore other than wanting to get it over with as soon as it starts. This necessary task has to be done promptly to help cool the meat and avoid bacteria growth. Once done, Frank showed me how to tie him up and I dragged him out of the woods. I was suddenly relieved that the truck was just a few hundred yards away, not miles. Even if he was small, I could see how a big one would take a lot more effort, especially on less-than-ideal terrain. Once the carcass was in the truck, I went to the young buck and said, “I’m so sorry.” Frank looked at me and mentioned that he had already taken time to thank the animal for its life.

We got to his garage, rinsed the carcass and hung the deer. Frank would show me what to do on one side as I watched, then I’d do the other as he watched. Once skinned, we started butchering. Frank is no small guy. Of solid Irish descent, he’ll proudly remind you how he can handle his beers. He towers a solid foot above me and with his arms up, I could barely see what he was doing, craning my neck back as far as I could. I’d either have to climb up a small stool or he’d lower the animal, so I could see and reach.

We shared an amazing meal of loin that Frank had prepared with caramelized onions after all the butchering was done.
“I’m not a virgin anymore,” I said, a bit proud of myself.
“And the next one, you’re doing it on your own!” he replied.
“I still can’t believe I took that really bad shot through the bushes though,” I added, still mildly embarrassed by my impulsive reaction of the morning.
“I have a mantra for that: Just say to yourself ‘This is not my shot. This is not my shot’ and repeat it until it sinks in.”
“I’ll have to remember that.”

Between his last breath and my freezer, a mere five hours had passed. Many hunters age their venison first before butchering it, to tenderize the meat. To age it properly, one needs just the right temperature and humidity level, and unless these criteria are met, it’s difficult to age meat well. When I asked Frank why he doesn’t age his meat he explained, “After the meat has aged, which is truly a controlled rot, you have to trim part of the meat that has dried out and I’m honestly too much of a cheap skate for that... I want to eat every morsel.” If Frank doesn’t need to age his meat, I figured neither did I. Over time, I found out that there were quite a few other hunters that didn’t bother with this. The older the animal, usually the tougher the meat, so I figured I’d have to experiment as time went by. This young buck didn’t need any tenderizing though. The next day, during our family dinner, we ate one of the tenderloins and it was the best filet mignon we’d ever tasted.

The day after this successful hunt, our soon-to-be 13-year old dog Méo had a stroke. He was mostly blind and deaf, but had developed amazing navigational skills over time. Now, he was walking in circles, completely disoriented. He became incontinent and confused. It was just too sad to watch. We waited a couple of days just to make sure and decided it was time to end his life with dignity. It was a very difficult decision to make, but we had vowed, when he became diabetic almost three years earlier, that we wouldn’t let him suffer if he got really sick. Before going to the vet, we hand-fed him some venison, and his little tail wagging will forever be remembered.

The day he left us was a very sad day, but a few hours after he passed away, an early fall snowstorm began and the whole world turned white. It was magical and a perfect setting to mourn the loss together. They predicted 9” of snow by the next morning. I asked Frank if this would be good hunting conditions. After explaining the pros and cons of snow in regards to hunting, he added, “It might be best not to hunt after this trauma anyway. I know folks that have gone hunting after losing a dog, and some of them have let good shots walk away, just as a way of giving life after having to take one so dear to them. Think hard about what you want to do before going out. You already know how emotional a successful hunt is, and the added emotion may be a bit much. Or it could be a cleansing thing, like some folks do. Just think it over and have a plan before you need to choose to draw back your bow or not. Firing arrows is another Zen-like behavior: the less you try, usually the better you do.”

These words weighted on my conscience until I made peace with my decision. My eagerness to go out in the muted soft snow battled against my need to introspect on life without Méo, to mourn his sudden departure. As soon as I resolved the intricacies of this conflict, I decided I’d go out, but shoot photos instead of arrows and honor the beauty of life.

The next morning, grief-stricken, I headed into the forest, the branches heavy with snow. Since it was late October, many maple trees still had colorful leaves on their branches. The contrast of seasons and colors was moving. I saw many fresh deer tracks, and some that looked like a chase between a coyote and a deer. From a distance, I saw a buck and took a photo. Then I saw another one, much bigger than the first. But, as I looked for my binoculars to get a closer look, he saw me and ran away. My first bucks of the season!

I have hiked and backpacked for over 25 years. However, I have never seen as much wildlife as since I started hunting. Sitting still, walking slowly and quietly, being on the lookout offered a host of sighting opportunities missed when traveling with determination towards an objective, such as when backpacking. The ability to get a glimpse of many different types of animals was a bonus I hadn’t anticipated when I started hunting.

In early November, bow hunters in this area enjoy the best part of the hunting season: the rut. As Frank explained it to me, “For about two weeks, the boys chase the girls,” he said. “As the rut goes by, the boys throw caution to the wind as they compete to mate. The chances you can call in a buck are never better.” Frank took a few days off just to hunt and was keeping me updated from his favorite spot near his home. The first morning, he saw three bucks, four does, and a coyote trot by, but the deer were all too far or behind bushes. When hunting, we keep each other abreast when there are sightings. Cyber-hunting is a great way to feel the camaraderie, even if one is alone in the woods and miles apart.

I was eager for my first outing during rut season. I arrived at my destination before dawn, after a short walk into a nature preserve where I’d seen the two bucks ten days earlier after the snow storm. I sat for two hours. By then, it was the second week of November, and all the leaves had finally fallen. Sweet smells from the rich soil permeated the air, especially early in the morning. Even though the woods looked dead, they stirred with life. A Pileated woodpecker was pecking away at a tree filled with insects, birds were chirping, and a curious chipmunk came just a couple of feet away from me. I didn’t see any deer, but saw a red tail hawk who flew close to the ground and found its breakfast. Later, another one landed a mere 10 feet away from me on a fallen tree, oblivious of my presence. It was a nice gift.

When I came back from my morning outing, I picked up the small urn we had just received of Méo’s ashes in my hands, and realized that it was his birthday. He would have been 13 years old. Since he passed away, every time I’d come back to the house and backed-up into the driveway, I’d think of Méo. His joyful welcoming routine was so missed. That night, Rich made a delicious stew with a venison shoulder as a way to commemorate his birthday. It was, by far, the best stew I’d ever eaten.

I decided to take a day off to extend a weekend of hunting in the peak of rut season. I got to Ed’s land before sunrise. I had found the perfect spot on top of a mound that gave me a vantage view point of all the herd paths, leading to an intersection, from where I could gently sweep the horizon of the whole hill from the river up. After two hours of sitting still ninja-like and being really proud of myself for doing so, I got bored and picked up my phone to email a hunting friend just to tell him how eerily quiet the woods were. Half-way through writing it, a really healthy eight-pointer buck mysteriously appeared out of nowhere and was sniffing at the doe estrus juice I had sprayed on a log just 12 yards away below me. The perfect shot.

Sitting above him on the mound surrounded by light bushes and branches I had gathered from downed trees, he never saw me. I went to put my phone down, but with too much adrenaline suddenly flowing through my body, I clunked it on my range finder hanging on my side. He heard the noise and looked straight up at me, then trotted away, while I watched, in utter disbelief. I’ve been haunted by this scene ever since. It was the closest I’d ever been to a rack this size, aside from a wall mount or at the zoo.

Later, he came back and was flirting with a doe at 60 yards. She displayed no interest and kept stumping her foot down as soon as he’d try to get closer. It was an all-too-familiar scene for many species. My enjoyment grew per each passing minute, and I found myself secretly rooting for the buck. Eventually, he got her message and gave up. Two other does were at 50 yards, in the other direction, but he never bothered to give them a try. Soon thereafter, all the does left too. Even if all these animals were all too far for me to take a shot, the thrill of watching them interact in their natural environment was extremely rewarding and entertaining.

Another half hour passed and I decided to shoot a tree stump for practice (and to relieve some of the pent up tension from my major mistake) before heading out. In order to spare my broadhead, I changed my arrow to one with a field point, took my shot, and then noticed that behind me, 20 yards away, were two does watching me. There I was, staring back at them, with no arrow on my bow. At least I had something to look forward to in my next outing. Moreover, the sheer pleasure of hearing my 80-year old mother’s roaring laughter over the phone as I told her these stories made it all worthwhile, even if I would not see another deer for the rest of the season.

During my next outing, I met my neighbor. While I sat on the mound, I meticulously scanned the horizon for any sign of movement. All of a sudden, right next to me, a mere five feet away, a black and white furry figure caught my attention. A skunk was coming back home to its den after a night out. I stomped my feet so it would become aware of my presence (not a good idea to surprise a skunk), and since it faced me, I felt no threat at all. It looked up at me, shook its whole body as if to let go of its night, then entered its den, undisturbed by my presence.

Wild turkeys, roosting high above in hundred-year old trees, started dropping to the ground, one by one, as the sun rose. It was loud and ungraceful. It’s almost a miracle to me that they can fly, given how large, heavy, and clumsy they are. A flock of 20 turkeys were roaming for food on the forest floor 10 yards away. I had a turkey hunting tag, but figured out the amount of effort to put forth per pound of meat ratio and decided it was not worth it. I watched them go by.

Towards the later part of the morning, still kicking myself for missing the perfect shot of the season a week prior, I sat there counting how many hours I’d sat since that day, seeing no deer at all. I was still in the process of adding hours in my head when, in the corner of my eye, a young buck walked by. I checked his rack, but he was too young. Legally, in the area I was hunting, a buck has to have one antler with at least three or more points that are at least one inch long to show that he was old enough to be hunted. A few minutes later, a doe walked up and I drew my bow. But before I could shoot, I noticed little spikes on her head. A buck... I couldn’t get a good read on how many antlers were on the most prominent side as he kept moving his head away from me. It was a perfect 20-yard shot. It was very tempting to take the shot, but regrettably, I let him go. When drawing the bow in the basement, the 40 lb draw weight required effort. However, with adrenaline flowing, it felt like nothing.

Once I calmed down, straight ahead of me, another buck was coming up about 70 yards away, this time with really long antlers. Surprised and excited, another surge of adrenaline got me hopeful, and this time I took my binoculars to count the points: two on one side, one on the other.... It didn’t matter that each antler was at least one foot long: he was not legitimate and I watched him go by. Three bucks in half an hour and none were legal for harvest - what a tease. At least, I had broken my streak of no sightings.

Now that I had experienced bow hunting, there was no turning back to hunting with a gun. But since I had my gun-hunting permit, I could still go out during their season using my bow, and I welcomed my extended opportunity to hunt.

During the three weeks of gun season, which starts the weekend before Thanksgiving, I didn’t see any deer at all. I didn’t even hear that many shots either, which meant that I wasn’t the only one that wasn’t seeing anything moving at close range. I saw plenty of other hunters however, too many for my liking in fact. The empty woods of the preceding month-long bow season had completely spoiled me. I wanted those woods back.

I saw deer in my dreams though. I had many hunting dreams, bow hunting, spear hunting, and stalking dreams, which made me hopeful and gave me the motivation I needed to go back out, even though I wasn’t seeing anything. Some mornings, I secretly wished for rain so I could sleep in instead of getting up. However, the anticipation of having nothing to do but stare into space dissolved any resistance I had. In addition, during this time, I ate quite a few amazing venison meals, thus feeding my new-found passion for going out to sit and hope to be lucky.

Hunting is both exhilarating and exhausting. First you have to get up in the middle of the night, then you walk into the woods, stay idle for hours without moving, which is akin to torture for a type A personality like me. If you see something, adrenaline rushes through your body, yet you have to keep it cool and steady. Then, you may see nothing again for hours on end, but you can’t fall asleep. The wait, at times, can be excruciating, with each passing minute more painful than the last. It was hard to go out a dozen times and not see anything. I started doubting I had what it took to handle the boredom and constant disappointment.

When late bow season started, right after gun season, I felt relieved, as the woods got empty and quiet again. For over a month, every time I went out, I didn’t see a deer - not one. The occasional suicidal ones jumping in front of the car didn’t count. I decided to make the most of my last weekend and try to go out as much as I could.

I went to one of my favorite spots to include a hike and enjoy its beautiful landscape. I got to the top of the ridge and settled in a natural ground cover I had put together weeks prior. It was a sunny and beautiful day but quite cold, as it was more than past the middle of December already. A brisk wind picked up and after about an hour of sitting, I decided to rest my eyes just for a minute and warm up my eyeballs. Suddenly, I dozed off. My head came down fast, and I scared the living daylights out of two does a mere 20 yards away from me that were heading in my direction. Stunned, I watched them go, thinking that it just wasn’t meant to be.

Really annoyed for having fallen asleep, even for just a second, I gave myself a hard time. Suddenly, I had a revelation as I said to myself, “You have to learn to live with your mistakes.” As a high achiever, it’s a very difficult thing for me to do. When I make mistakes, especially ones with severe consequences, I usually get caught in a loop of “what ifs”. I then can’t get past the fact that at some point I made a decision which led to some actions which led to a mistake, making me 100% responsible for what happened and its negative consequences. Then I feel guilty or ashamed, and usually can’t go beyond this emotion. As I sat, reflecting about this insight, I decided it was time to try to change this pattern, that I needed to give myself a little slack. After all, everybody makes mistakes, big and small.

After I came back home from my morning outing to eat and warm up, I gathered my courage to face the cold and went back out again. On my way there, I drove by a field and saw a rather large herd of deer foraging. I pulled the car over to the side of the road, took my binoculars and counted 12 does. This is a common area where they are usually seen tending to their appetite and every time I would drive by, I had this thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to ambush them?” Unfortunately, there is no hunting allowed on this land by the owner.

Given there wasn’t much daylight left due to my late departure, I decided I was going to have a little fun and see how close I could get to them without getting detected, instead of going hunting.

I drove around to the next road and parked behind the forest, about 300 yards away. I left my bow in the car to avoid any temptations, and proceeded to make my way through the woods until I reached the edge of the field. I had already walked a third of the way towards the herd. Aside from having a very limited color spectrum visibility, deer also have a hard time seeing three-dimensional objects, but they can detect movement very easily. They just can’t figure out how close or far it is. For this short-coming, they’ve developed a keen sense of smell and hearing. Fortunately, I was downwind from them. All I could do was try my best to move as slowly and quietly as I could.

I positioned my body in front of a very large downed maple tree, whose pattern was duplicated on my camouflage outfit. Very slowly, I walked forward and took two or three steps, then stopped for a few minutes. All were eating without much of a worry except for one, who I called the “Matriarch”. She was all eyes, ears and nose, scouting the horizon away from where I stood. Suddenly, she turned towards me. I must have made more noise than I thought. I froze in place, for at least ten minutes. She kept staring at me, moving her ears back and forth. I was still quite far and really wanted to get closer. I stood still and waited patiently. She finally let her guard down and I proceeded forward. Two steps, stop, pause, three steps, stop, pause, and so on. The Matriarch looked in my direction every now and then, and in response, I became a statue until her gaze would go away.

Steadily closing my distance, I was about 100 yards away from the herd when the Matriarch decided that she had enough, she wanted to see what was going on, and started to walk in my direction. I immediately crouched down in tall grasses. She stopped, stared for a while, then advanced, seeming even more determined now to find out what this was. A very bold and curious doe, followed by two smaller ones (her daughters?), started to head my way. She walked, military style, stomping her front legs as she came closer and closer. I took my range finder, 70 yards, then 60, 50, 40... The suspense built up. How close would they come? They kept going, the Matriarch stomping her feet defiantly, the two others following nonchalantly, seemingly oblivious of the mission taking place.

At 35 yards, she stopped and pointed her nose towards me. I was barely breathing. A long minute went by when suddenly, a loud noise of branches falling down came from the forest and spooked them away. A bit frustrated by this unfortunate circumstance, I watched them flee and run back to the herd. Yet, despite this sudden ending, I was fully satisfied by my impromptu adventure, and with barely enough daylight left, I made it back to the car.

The last night of the season, I had back-to-back archery and bow hunting dreams, teaching friends how to use a bow, hunting deer, turkeys and coyotes. It was almost as good as going out and doing the real thing.

I had a couple of hours at the end of the last day of the season and decided to go say goodbye to the woods I had bonded with so much. As I sat on my mound at Ed’s land, in my mind, I saw the bucks and the does I had missed go by, one by one. I saw the scene of the fruitless flirt, and replayed my first successful hunt. Even if I hadn’t seen much of anything in the last month, the first one sure made up for it. I reflected on my lessons learned, such as to be more patient with myself and tolerant of my shortcomings. I also gained wisdom from the mistakes I had made. It was a good season after all. And Sheena had venison!

For the Chronicles of Sheena - Years One and Twoclick here.

© 2012 

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