Aleida shot her first deer, a healthy 2 year old four-pointer, during archery season last year. It was her first trip into the woods as a hunter. We had made our way to the buddy stand in the dark, following the soft circle of light from my headlamp, and sat next to each other listening to the close sounds of pre-dawn, waiting. At one point she even leaned against me, putting her head on my shoulder for a short snooze. A small thing to her, but a giant gift for the father of this fourteen year-old.
The buck walked in ten minutes after shooting light started to push the shadows out of the mid-October woods. She spotted him at forty yards, browsing his way towards us, and nudged me to point him out. He’s a good one, I said. You ready? She nodded. Up to that point I had already steeled myself for the possibility that she may say that she’s not ready when she finally saw a deer.
There is a huge difference between what a first-time hunter pictures while shooting with field-tips at a target in the backyard, and the reality of being in a stand, coming to full-draw, and releasing a broadhead on an actual whitetail. When you exhale, settle your sight behind that deer’s shoulder, and let your arrow jump from its rest, you immediately gain a whole new understanding of life and death. You become an active participant in an ancient custom and rite of passage which takes one life in order to sustain many others. You become a provider. That’s heavy stuff for any first-timer, let alone a teenager.
For three months prior to their first season opener, she and her brother had spent an hour every day they were with me (the divorce had our time split 50/50) fifteen paces from the foam block target. Aleida shooting my old Mathews MQ32, which was my dad’s before it was mine. Cam shooting a new Mission Hype DT. They had a routine for each practice session, from set-up to pack-up, and knew the range of their shooting universe. Three arrows apiece getting closer and closer to each other each round they shot. Siblings getting closer, too. As I sat and watched proudly, memories of my own routine and time spent as a teen in my parents’ backyard 10, 15, 25, 30 yards from a hay bale came rushing back. The range of my own universe, and the ethics, commitment, and passion I learned from my dad coming to life in my own kids. They would be ready when they entered the woods. Ready to make their own choices, earn their own success, and own their own mistakes. Life could bring it on.
At forty yards the buck dropped his head to browse and Aleida stood her bow upright on her knee. At thirty yards he passed behind a couple smaller trees and she stood up. As he passed behind a big, old oak she came to full draw, leaned into her harness tether, and followed him out. 20 yards. He’s a little outside your universe, I whispered. Put your pin just an inch or two higher. She nodded. I grunted to stop him. I could hear her count to one in her head and then the arrow was gone. The green and yellow fletching appeared exactly where it needed to behind the buck’s shoulder and he bolted into a thicket, stopping on the far side where he wobbled and went down without another sound or move, 35 yards from our stand.
I started bow hunting with my dad when I was 12, and was in the woods with him every season till I graduated high school and left for the Army. It’s been many years since my dad and I have bowhunted in the same woods. Years since we’ve ridden together in his pick-up before dawn with coffee and high hopes that the rut and an overnight snow will have the deer moving. Years since we’ve laced up our boots at the tailgate, shook hands and said Good luck. Shoot straight before heading into the dark. I miss it.
It took 17 years from that first mild pre-dawn October morning when I picked my way to my stand as a 12 year old who was scared of the dark before I killed my first deer with a bow – a sturdy 8-point. I was in a small patch of woods that I scouted myself, in a stand that I had hung myself. Dad was in his own stand of timber about a 15-minute drive away in the hills of South Bristol. I still don’t know how I managed it, but I grunted that buck away from two doe to within three steps of my stand. My shot was true, and I field-dressed him where he dropped 25 yards away. After a great deal of individual effort, once I got him packed into my old Volvo wagon, I drove the 15 minutes south, parked next to my dad’s truck in the gravel lot across from his woods, and waited for him to finish his morning hunt and walk out. I was in tears from the moment he waved as he walked out of the tree-line toward me. I didn’t think I could’ve felt any happier or more proud than in that moment. Of course, sitting next to Aleida after we watched her buck fall – after I had watched her confidently extend the range of her universe – proved that yes, actually, I could.
I bowhunt almost exclusively. Not that I don’t like shotgun or rifle, but more because I don’t have access to property that would make gun hunting worthwhile. I hunt close quarters and I’ve been fortunate to keep meat in the freezer pretty consistently in the years since my first deer. For many of those deer I leave the woods to get my kids because they love being a part of tracking and finding dad’s deer – my latest buck included (and which I’m still in shock from – story to come). My dad comes out for some of those excursions, too, and I catch him smiling at the kids and just how happy they are to be there, hunters themselves in the thick of it all. I still don’t miss a chance to help my dad track a good buck that’s proving hard to find, or is simply to heavy for him to drag solo. It’s an important part of the fabric of our family. And it’s a tight-knit fabric at that.
Aleida’s first request after we saw the buck fall was to text papa, nana, and the boys. See if they can come out, she said. They’ve got to be here. After asking when we can climb down and find him, she stated that the best part, dad, is that we don’t have to sit in the woods for two more hours and can go get breakfast. After almost two more hours of work, with her brothers, grandparents, and cousin in-tow, we finished dragging her buck up and out of the woods, and did just that.
This story has taken more than a year to find daylight, and I’m not sure why. It’s probably one of the most important and significant experiences I’ve had as a father. And with Cam already settling into a very mature level of comfort in the deer woods, and Jonah on deck for next fall himself, I know there’s more coming. But maybe the venison chili we’re still making with her deer needed to simmer on the stove longer (everyone asks if it’s her deer we’re eating). Or maybe I needed the context of a year’s-worth of life passing to fully appreciate it. Regardless, I’m grateful that my kids are reminding me just how important it is to pay attention the range of my universe, as much as they’re finding the boundlessness of their own.