By Robert Russo
My boot was untied so I knelt down to ground level to lace it back up. Everything changes at ground level – the sounds, the sights, the smells. It was still dark, so I could only really perceive the outlines of pine trees and my trail, with scuffs from the morning before. I could smell the ground, it was more robust.
The dirt and pine needles filled the air. It was an overwhelming rush of … alertness. I was awake now. I was alive.
I stood back up and regained my composure. My bow lay in the back of my truck, quiver unattached. I slowly and methodically looked over my equipment. My broadheads were still sharp to the touch, and my bow drew smoothly. The arrows cleared the cables and the rest operated properly. I attached my quiver to the bow, and then attached my bow to the pack.
I set off slowly, one foot in front of the other. With each step I took I grew more excited. I often remember a quote from John Muir when trying to describe my time on hunting trips like these. “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out til’ sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in”. As I got closer to my stand, with each step I take, everything else seems to fade away. My job, money problems, relationship issues. Everything slowly fades into the darkness behind me.
I’m moving more swiftly now as I approach the familiar trail that leads up to my stand. Each log and stick imprinted in my mind as if it were daylight, stepping over them quietly and effortlessly. I’ve walked this trail a hundred times – but I am still no master. I can hear in the distance a creek trickling quietly – I am close. As I get just within earshot of the creek, that is my code.
I have 100 yards to go now, before the base of my tree becomes visible. As I reached this waypoint I began to slow down again, moving only when absolutely sure I can do it without making a sound. I walked over moss covered logs, and ducked around low hanging branches. I moved slower, but my heart raced more.
It happens every time; when I knowingly exhaust myself after a weeks work to put my soul at peace. An idol of mine, David Goggis, US Navy SEAL, said it best when he spoke; “I push myself every day in order to see what I’m made of. To see if we as humans really have limits, and if we do have limits, if I could ever reach them. I always go further, and further could be anywhere. Where a door stands, I will always open that door.” We as hunters owe it to our prey to live that kind of life. To always push ourselves while hunting an animal of such capability. It is always my goal to do more, and try harder. To go further, and open those doors. Today, I was going to open a door I hadn’t opened before.
My trail streamlined and the base of my tree was within arms length. I slipped off my pack and removed my bow, hooking it to my pull rope. Putting the pack back around my shoulders, I gripped my climbing sticks and made my way up to the stand. Reaching the top, about 23 feet up from the ground, I again removed my pack and placed it on the hook next to me, unzipping it to reveal any contents I would need to access during my hunt. I slowly pulled my bow from the ground and hung it out in front of me and to the left on a hook. Turning around to face the tree I arranged my gear as ergonomically as possible, turning back around I then took a seat.
Like a child getting into bed for the night, to fall into a different world of Zelda and monsters and fighting knights and medieval times, I fell into my own world. I drifted far into that world, leaving off on my journey I had to depart from the season before. I glanced at my watch, the illuminated face showed 6:00AM. It would be another hour and a half before I saw first daylight. I closed my eyes, and everything else took off. …The creek in the background quietly flowing, hitting against the rocks with a constant splash. The leaves of the trees would rustle every couple of minutes, and it seemed to add another layer to the song of the forest. Unknown creatures scurried the ground below me, rustling sticks and leaves. Acorns fell, and dropped to the forest floor.
I climbed down out of my treestand, and began to move in deeper within the forest. Everything glowed green and brown. Animals seemed to notice me, but not care. Bucks bigger than I had ever saw walked around me, eating the acorns as they fell. Squirrels danced on their backs. I approached them, and they didn’t quiver. I introduced myself to one of the deer. We sat and talked about hunting, and the bucks seemed to understand their purpose on earth. They showed no sadness. They acted on no grudge. We talked for hours about my hunts, trying to make them understand my motives and reasons for pursuing them. They already understood. They nodded and accepted their fates without hesitation. So we talked merrily, without any boundaries. We swapped stories of successful hunts, and likewise they noted how many times they’d evaded me and my bow. Trust me they were winning. Eventually though, we had to depart. After all, I had made my way to their land to try and harvest one of them, and I intended on doing that today. We exchanged contact information and I headed back to my stand.
The entire walk back I thought to myself, they would probably follow me, and never walk by my stand again… Opening my eyes I looked back down at my watch – it was 6:25 AM. I had faded for 25 minutes and now I woke up with so many questions.
Looking around, I could see a bit clearer as my night vision had been enhanced from being in complete darkness for so long. It would still be another hour before first light, I tried to pass the time. I second guessed everything and I questioned my tactics and stand placement. I wondered if I had done enough before the season to have a successful bow hunt this year. My work ethic was questioned and little things I could have, should have, would have done, soon filled my mind.
I figured it was best to drift off again at this point in order to salvage my sanity and the experience I was having. Hunting for me isn’t only a hobby – it’s an experience. It’s a challenge I put myself up to each year and something I work very hard at. With that kind of responsibility I place on myself though, comes a lot of expectations. Expectations lead to disappointment. For hunters like us, it’s sometimes a battle. A constant battle that you fight from the season’s beginning, through seasons end, and through the off season too.
So I closed my eyes again, this time though nothing would take off. I wouldn’t drift into another world. I would just sleep. I would sleep and refresh, and wakeup finally ready to hunt. I had been awake now for 30 minutes, and it had been shooting hours for about 10. My mind was refreshed and I was scanning and observing each section of the woods carefully. No deer movement yet. They were moving somewhere, but not within sight. I could hear them in the distance. They were playing. They were jumping around and playing like they had in my dream. They were crunching on acorns and squirrels were probably on their backs. I observed the area the noise was coming from for several minutes, waiting for a glimpse of a deer. I could still hear them moving, but they would never show themselves. They drifted quietly and further away.
I had thought of the deer I had talked to while in my stand before light; how he mentioned how many times they evaded me that I didn’t know of. Like they knew where I was located. I figured these deer were probably associated with them. Word gets around quick in the forest. So I took a deep breath and sat back in my seat, waiting and listening for the next event to come about.
As quickly as I could sit down, 25 minutes after light, antler appeared out of the corner of my eye to my right side, 15 yards out and slightly behind me. I took one slow glance over and instantly began to make the move to my bow – it was a shooter buck. He was at least a 4 by 4, with antlers well outside of his ears. He would be the second biggest buck I had seen while hunting, and a true Michigan trophy.
He moved quickly and with purpose. In the 30 seconds I interacted with him, I had been humbled. The deer moved in all the right spots, avoiding all of my shooting lanes. He was 15 yards away, 10 yards away, 10 feet away, and then drifted out further in front of me quartering away. I was amazed. I had never thought this would happen so quickly. I never thought I would be in my stand as an animal of such… power, prowled through. He moved with grace and clear intent. His intelligence showed as he evaded me like his friends had talked about. For a brief second though, he would make a mistake.
It might have been the last mistake of his life. As the buck quartered away on a slight angle he stopped, right in a shooting lane, the last lane he could walk through before he exited my life. As he stopped I took five seconds to aim, and let my arrow fly.
Time froze and I watched my arrow connect. In a quarter of a second my arrow left my bow and connected with him. The arrow went in halfway and stopped. A sure shoulder shot I thought, and I was instantly devastated. In a quarter of a second my arrow hit, and in another quarter of a second I was broken. I wish I could recall the period I felt for the next ten minutes, but all I can recall is uncertainty. All I can remember is thinking, and knowing, that I had made a less than sure shot. Everything else a blur. I could no longer hear the wind blowing, or the leaves moving. I couldn’t hear the creek flowing or crashing against the rocks. I couldn’t hear the birds chirping. I heard nothing except my own blood flow. A loud and annoying noise piercing through my mind. It covered up all of the beautiful things about hunting, and made itself lead chair.
I listened to my blood flow for an hour, and finally got down out of my stand. How I felt when I first climbed up was not how I felt when I climbed down. The forest around me seemed to mimic my feelings. The trees seemed to be darker, and the sky seemed to close up. The birds only stared at me. I’m sure they had things to say. I walked to the last spot where he had been before I shot and found blood. I found enough blood to keep my hopes alive, but enough to keep him alive as well. Alive, and suffering.
Fast forward to today – early 2014, four months after my encounter with this buck. The harsh reality set in long ago, and my heart hurt for a long time after. I tracked that buck for days. I put my soul into his recovery. I tracked through the nights and came back in the mornings. I left work early and tracked through darkness until sunrise would come again. Three eight hour spans of tracking had come and gone, and it was apparent to me at this time that this buck would not die here. If he were to die, it would perhaps be on someone else’s land, miles away. He was dishonored. I let myself down – but more importantly I let him down. Him and all of his friends.
After the third day of tracking I sat up against a tree and just stared at a stump across from me. I remember thinking I no longer wanted to hunt anymore. I just wanted to pack up all of my gear, and go home. Hunting just wasn’t for me. I could sell my gear to a fellow hunter who would put it to good use, or maybe I would just burn it.
As these thoughts rolled through my head, placing heavier burdens on my shoulders, I began to drift again much like I had when I went out that morning and wounded the buck. I drifted far, and for far longer than I had wanted. Exhaustion came over me quickly, and I was gone. Like David Goggis said, “many times in life and in training you come to a door. You either open that door, or you turn around. Turning around is choosing to quit.” I hunt to see what I’m made of. To see if I can really find a limit to the human soul. To see after everything goes right, how I feel, and when everything goes wrong, how I cope. As a hunter, wounding that buck was the worst experience I have ever had – but I know he’s out there somewhere. I know he lived on. I know, after talking with his friends on that cool morning in October, how good they are at surviving. How he won’t hold a grudge, how he understands. More importantly though, I know he will be back. Just like me, he will try his skill-set again against my wit. He knows his purpose and his place, and he taught me mine. – Robert Russo