I had just walked back from my stand to the truck to meet the kids. Dressed in sweatshirts, jeans, muck boots and still sporting bed-head, they were ready to get into the woods and help track my deer.
Cam: Dad! You got a buck?
Jonah: Where is he?
Cam: Man, I can’t wait to see him. Is he big?
Bird: How many points, dad?
Three kids, my pack, bow and towing a trailer, I drove the golf cart toward to northwest corner of the course behind the 15th tee. Two days rain had given way to a thin, overcast mid-morning sky, as we made our soggy way between pines and locust trees, steering clear of greens, fairways and bunkers. As we passed a couple pairs of golfers and one foursome, the kids waved, drawing smiles and waves in return.
My in-laws own a public golf course with a good patch of hunting woods behind it. On morning hunts, I walk the dark quarter-mile from the clubhouse where I park my truck to the back corner where I drop into the woods and pick my way to my tree stand. I’m usually settled in and having my first cup of thermos coffee by 5:30, listening blindly to the ink woods around me.
The walk in always takes me back to my first few seasons as a bow hunter. After dad and I would part ways from the tailgate with a good luck and shoot straight, it would take me forever to walk the forty yards to my stand in the dark. The inability to make out my path forward, and the nagging thought that some sort of dangerous, nocturnal, Upstate-NY animal had to be right in front of me was paralyzing. First light would’ve just barely arrived and I’d still be 15 yards from my tree. Fortunately, I’ve learned how to unwind that overactive imagination in the years since.
Dad and I have talked about how the sound of the woods changes as shooting-light creeps in. We’re always surprised at how the light itself arrives imperceptibly, until we blink a few times and suddenly the shades of gray have picked up more contrast. Trees start to stand apart from the thorn-brush, swale and each other. Everything has gathered faint color.
This is when the sound changes. With sight, our inadequate human hearing shifts its intent from the close sounds of potential danger to the comfortable universe of sunrise. The constant re-balancing of our survival-instinct. Of course, while our survival-instinct and the deeper biological/anthropological importance of our senses are cool things to ponder, my dad and I also agree that the dark before the dawn is also a great time to catch a few more Z’s.
As we headed into the woods, the kids knew that being quiet is part of the deal. I brought the boys with me and my dad to track a doe of mine last year— my daughter electing to pass on the festivities. It was their first time following a blood trail and like young hound-dogs after a scent, their 7 and 5 year old enthusiasm would not be contained. This year was different. All three walked with me, talking in hushed voices, trying their best to pick quiet steps, keeping their eyes peeled for more deer, shush-ing each other every now and again.
I pointed out my stand. Awesome. We crossed the creek below my tree and picked our way to the rotted blow-down, 21 yards away, where the buck last stood before I let go of my arrow. I pointed out the first drops of blood and the direction that I had watched the buck bolt and all three immediately went into sleuth-mode.
While I kept an eye out for the deer, they strung together the path of blood drops like one of their dot-to-dot coloring book puzzles. Not long into the search, Bird found the arrow. When we got to the swampy, tall swale (not wanting my half-pint help blindly leading the charge into the thick stuff) they filed in behind me. Four steps in I spotted him and the high-fives and hollering commenced.
After the kids were satisfied with the feel of his hair, hooves, antlers and where the arrow went in and came out, I rolled up my sleeves for the work at hand. They pointed out the liver, intestines and pinched their noses at the stomach-full of grass and corn which smelled like dairy farm silage. I showed them the heart and where the arrow passed through both lungs. Cam offered his approval. Yea, he’s not going far without those, right dad? Shades of conversations I’d had– still have– with my dad in the field.
Back at the truck, I poured another cup of coffee and stood, quietly appreciating the beauty and good fortune of the morning–Bird, Cam and Jonah proudly recounting the details of tracking dad’s deer to each other, their cousins, grandparents, my friend Grant and any golfers who happened to be near.
There’s not much in this world that’s better for my soul than that.
Photo credit: Grant Taylor