Even the sun was reluctant to rise. It just seemed not to want to break an otherwise ethereal calmness following a night of brutal freeze. Probably I was just impatient, but it seemed like too long a long time to show its eastern halo, small and dim as it might be at the start. An occasional hare's cry in the throes of death or the seldom hoot of a bored owl was all that I can remember that night and that's because I slept more lightly than usual. It was a frigid minus 18 degrees F. When the smoke of a wood stove escapes vertically straight into the night and the leaves of a lone red oak don't stir, it is cold.............'colder than frozen snake shit on a snowshoe' as Dad used to say. A gangly top heavy beech, stiff with the cold that no living thing escapes, creaked ominously without the benefit of wind and every critter within hearing range paid attention, most with acceptance, some with trepidation. Predictably, my Silverado turned over on the second crank and I left it running while I paid a hasty trip to the outhouse lest run the risk of getting stuck to the seat.
This is the setting, no more no less. I clocked my distance at 5.4 miles from camp and as I drove I actually wondered whether the truck's heater would make a positive difference before I arrived at the place where the day before I had watched a monstrous buck fill the plowed frozen dirt road some 200 yards ahead as I returned to camp into the waning rays of a sunset clouded by a dirty windshield. The memory had not cleared, and my curiosity was awakened. As I neared the place where I would park I reflected on what I was trying to prove by getting up earlier than anyone in a camp of five good buddies who had played cribbage after a hearty feed of deer meat stew with turnips and that's right - deer meat..... if you're from NY it's ok to call it venison. It was them, not me, who had yakked late into the night and when I fell asleep it was with the idea of intercepting the buck on his early morning trip to the Connecticut River at a spring hole where the water refused to freeze over. I had stumbled on this robust spring while traipsing the banks of this legendary river years earlier fly-fishing. Its water was so cold it burned my teeth.
The snow was two inches fresh from the night before layering 17" of settled old snow which really made it a study to figure the size of the whitetail leaving its trail. The drag marks told me I wasn't chasing a doe. I'm sure this stag knew exactly what it was doing and that's because I am in my 62nd year of pursuing whitetaiis; l could only hope that I might be the lucky hunter to see him at the very moment he carelessly showed himself in an open space. No one respects wildlife more than me and the white-tail is the king of forest creatures. The 45th parallel is just about the most northernmost range for these deer and through the centuries these critters have adapted to the harsh climate of winters and the plush valley meadows of the summer months with an apple orchard or a cornfield mixed in. To truly appreciate the lifespan of a mature deer one must first acknowledge the trials and tribulation that they must overcome just to survive. In no way however, does this imply that deer hunters have an upper-hand advantage because they don't. Almost every advantage, if it is fair to coin it that way, belongs to deer, especially the bucks, who send does out to test the waters before they show themselves, The survival skills possessed by mature bucks are second to no other animal 'dans les grand bois du nord', in the great north woods.
I listened to the tires crunching the frosting of snow from the night before. A hundred yards after passing the spot where I remembered seeing the buck, I parked on an elevated rut just above an ice filled drainage ditch that would theoretically hasten the end to the mud season for trucks loaded with tree length logs shorn of their branches enroute to the mill. Two tires on and two tires of, I was pointed directly East. It was about as black as black can be with no light, not even a tree line as the cloud cover blanketed the landscape. Should I wear my mittens and stow my gloves, should I attach my hot-seat to my belt, should I have a hit from my thermos of decaf black, how long would it take my binoculars to de-fog not to mention my scope, how about fresh batteries for the headlamp I would wear; my thoughts were uncommonly helter-skelter though I was trying to be premeditative. I turned off the engine and sat still for a good five minutes, cracking the window to acclimate myself to what I would face when I crept back to this particular buck's run. Then I stepped out, wiggled my toes inside my 80 year old LL.Bean boots and quietly closed the truck door. My old boots actually had belonged to my father, and in my lifetime had been re-soled at least three times. Long underwear and a pair of heavy wool socks fit perfectly inside the high boots. I had slapped the mink oil to them during August and left them in a sunny spot in the wood shed figuring that by this time, any semblance of odiferous nostalgia would have dissipated which is precisely why I had hung my outer jacket and wool pants on the camp porch the night before. I couldn't guess how many more seasons I would be able to scale a ridge or two, but I felt the end coming soon and I wondered if bringing down this one giant buck would be enough for me to hang up the rifle and signal the final bell for all the years and all the deer whose lives I had put a merciful end to before the real winter season fell upon them..
I did my best to look back where I had just come from and started ever so slowly. The chain tread on my boots allowed me every dalliance as I could literally feel an ice ball before it crunched just as I could for every twig that lay ahead of my circuitous path back to where I thought this buck might pass. Never walk so fast that you have to look down at your next step, then take six steps and wait for two minutes.....patience and stealth and whenever possible with the wind currents in your face. It would take me twenty minutes to find a place where I might have a view of any deer moving on the trail, one way or the other. I looked over my shoulder and the sun had finally begun to rise. I moved slowly through the canopy where I guessed the deer might pass, careful not to brush a branch or snap a snow-covered limb.
Have you ever listened to your heart thump while you are in the presence of the Creator and the forest?
Without knowing where the deer had bedded, what time he traveled to the river for his morning drink, had he already passed, his favorite path for certain, and who was I to try to take him for a trophy - lots of things crossed my mind. My next step defined the strategy as I had just broken through a layer of stalactite icy moss which coated the night's snow covering the previous day's scrape. If he was nearby, he could not have missed hearing my misplaced step. My heart skipped a because he and I had now officially crossed paths and neither of us knew the timeline..............or so I thought. The scrape was unmistakably that of the trophy buck I had seen the afternoon before. It was five feet beneath a scraggly hemlock bough that extended a good four feet from the trunk, at this scrape measured at least three rifle lengths in diameter; I guessed my imprint to be six inches deep. A couple of small frozen pools told me he had urinated more than once after his scrape freshening for the day was complete. I could not see any other tracks. I guessed that he had staked his territory successfully. How could I know for certain........these are his woods and he's the one in charge.
I didn't move for at least five minutes, then drew my breath and recalculated my approach having to assume that he had heard my misstep a few minutes earlier. Leaving his track I edged upward and northwesterly. Every fifth step I stopped and adjusted to the waking sun. behind me. Perhaps I had traveled 30 yards before I spotted a fallen hardwood amongst some evergreen trees perfect in height. Out of the wind, my profile broken by evergreens the height of a tall boy, were several rests to lean my rifle on, and a perfect seat upon which to wait suited me regardless of whether I saw a deer or not. I hadn't walked over a mile, but had opted the quietest approach which was deliberate and painfully slow and my legs were already tired. As I rested, I reflected thoughts of my wife and son, and grandson still tucked in their beds, my brother's bout with cancer and my parents and their parents and my upbringing and as frequently I do when I am alone in the forest, silently I begged God to consider forgiving my transgressions.
I may have dozed off. I think that's when I heard the buck and I almost jumped off of the melted seat the log had afforded me. The cholesterol was clearing with every pound of my heart. He was loud, distinct, close, and unmistakable. I have heard does whistle and blow but this was a booming blow with emphasis from a big fellow and he was telling me that he knew where I was and that he wasn't especially pleased. Could I be making more of a deal of this than it really was? I raised my head slowly and looked in the direction I thought the blow had come from and was glad that I was wearing a camouflage cap. The cold had teared up my eyes a bit causing me to repeatedly blink and refocus. I didn't move otherwise and tried to breathe through my nostrils only. Was he watching while he smelled me? My job was to assume yes on both counts so I remained still and did my level best not to move. Could he hear my heart thumping for I clearly could.
After what I calculated to be 15 minutes, I slowly stood and turning my head as little as possible tried to negotiate a plan. Thinking that if I moved and he saw or heard me he would be off and gone I readjusted my weight to my left leg and took a step, and then another and now I was clear of the thicket. Through a blend of hardwoods interspersed with an occasional spruce or hemlock I waited for what seemed an eternity and then the buck blew again. This time his warning came from a much further distance away. Not wishing to further distance myself from him, and knowing that I had agitated him with my misstep of 45 minutes ago, I decided to pick up the pace and try to find his track from which he had startled me with his initial blow. It was from a thicket not more than 35 yards from where I had dozed off and judging by the way his tracks were mixed it was obvious that he had turned and looked back more than once.
I estimated his second blow to be a good 80 yards from the thicket and he was following the spine of the ridge toward the east. With more elevation and less snow on the branches the full sun was now on the horizon and the woods were considerably more open. Knowing that he was being followed, the buck would seek higher ground from which to look back to identify his pursuer. The ridge was probably shy of a half mile long and it flanks were gradual, not too steep if I had to go to the top. Would I follow this animal and hope to find him before he found me or would I double back down into the spruces and take a chance of ambushing him as he checked his path of scrapes, one leading to the next; I assumed his territory would be to top of the ridge, why I didn't know. I chose the latter figuring that the buck might become complacent if he wasn't being tracked, plus down low I would have the advantage of a snapped branch or twig being muffled in the thicker undercover. I could travel faster and out of his line of sight by backtracking so that's what I did.
After crossing a brook and following it to the east for a couple hundred yards, I sat down on an old stump, gathered my wits and checked my old 32 Remington pump. The scope lenses were clear and I seized the moment to tighten my sling. I often wondered why I had not removed the sling anyway because I never used it, not even when dragging a deer. I preferred to travel light of heavy clothing and never carried more than five of the rimless cartridges with me. A small sheath knife with a drag rope on my right and a folded poncho on the left hip with two extra cartridges one in each of my woolen side pockets except for a set of mini-binoculars and a compass suspended from a single lanyard fitted me just fine. The sun was now barely high enough to cast shadows and the earlier chill of the morning darkness was gone. A slight breeze rustled through the most peaceful place in the world was where I rested, just the stump of an old tree felled by a two-man cross-saw 50 years ago and me. Maybe 10 more minutes and I would relocate to a place where I could scan the ridge from a lower vantage point. I couldn't be further than a mile from the truck. As I shifted my weight on the stump I thought I heard the buck blow again. The time seemed right to get up and see if I could find this king of the forest.
A souvenir from the last lacier that came through left an elongated slab of ledge twenty feet or so oblong and I got up on it where I figured there might be a vantage point and there was. It was a perfect spot because not only could I see for upwards of 75 yards through the hardwoods, but over the years a thick bed of spongy moss had covered it and my foot steps were quieted. Growing up around this boulder were saplings of red oak and they broke my profile nicely. The only question was how long would I be able to stand essentially motionless before my legs started failing me.
Then it all came together. I saw it....out 20 yards another scrape that needed to be freshened and 30 yards behind standing and staring directly at me a stag that words cannot adequately describe. The buck was no more than a half a football field distant, the sun causing his huge rack to glisten in the morning light. Blaze orange to a deer is seen as white as in snow so only my solid green Johnson woolens and Mossy Oak cap would have stood out. He was too far away to count his points but I guessed there to be six on each side; I dared not raise my arm to put my binoculars on him, but he was the biggest most handsome whitetail buck I had ever seen. His head was held high and his foggy breath was emitted in even exhales. The white patch on his throat showed beautifully against his light milk chocolate and wide tan chest and he stood squared off against me, fronting me perfectly. He did not move and he was hypnotizing me though I doubt if he knew what was happening with his stare. The scrape was between this buck and myself; this was his territory, and an imaginary line of demarcation separated us. He briefly lowered his head then quickly re-sighted to the scrape. Or was he studying me. Fifty yards is a long ways and thankfully probably too far for him to tell if I was trembling from this incredible encounter or from the fatigue my worn out legs were experiencing. It had to be a combination of the two.
Something had to give and it would be me. As slowly as I could I raised the Remington to my right shoulder and found a fork at the perfect height in one of the saplings. I couldn't take my eyes off the deer and I sensed that he sensed that something just wasn't right. Over the years I had fired hundreds of rounds with this rifle and I knew the end would be instant, that my aim would be perfect, and that this buck would feel no pain. Having adjusted my spot-weld, I depressed the safety and it clicked and his head jerked up, ears twitching trying to find the source of metal against metal and he cocked his stately head ever so slightly to one side. I aimed at just below his white patch, A shot there would not spoil the perfect mount, but it wouldn't be my preferred shot. How much longer would he wait was weighed against how much longer could I wait. And while I was thinking, he stepped to the right and cautiously approached his scrape. In all my years I have never shot a moving deer and I would never violate this rule today. Beside I would rather take him in the boiler plate than risk a neck shot. Either way would be swift and lethal and immediate shock would precede his last breath. I owed it to watch over him for the last thrash of his legs and the glazing over of his eyes. He was the most beautiful deer I had ever seen and I would never forget this morning in the middle of the 2013 rut halfway up a modest ridge deep in the heart of Pittsburg, New Hampshire. Testament to this magnificent creature's wisdom during its five or six years of life was his size, and stealth, but on this day he would be out-guessed by a very lucky me.
Somewhat hesitantly he began pawing his scrape, looking back in my direction too many times for me to count. It was when he rubbed the overhanging branch to his eyes that I decided the chase would end. Momentarily he broke his attention to me and I drew a deep breath and placed my trigger finger inside the guard. Then he looked at me for the last time. I gently pressured the trigger, waited and then released my finger while I inhaled deeply again. He stood there staring at me and I felt numb. My head came off the rifle and when he saw me move he didn't bolt, he just walked off to what I thought must be his next scrape and all I could do was watch as he disappeared. He didn't even flag me to show alarm. I could not, would not or should not shoot. I couldn't pull the trigger when I could have.
I never did look back as he vanished silently into the woods. I just sat down on the edge of the rock I had been perched on and smiled out loud for on this 69th year of my life for the first and last time I had been smitten with choosing life over another deer in the freezer. I can't recall all that I was feeling when I winded myself back to the truck, but one thing I did know this would be the last time I would be deer hunting.
The truck was a warm relief from the cold and I let it idle for awhile before I put it in gear for the trip back to camp. The drive took too short a time and when I pulled into the parking area, I could tell the guys weren't even out of their bunks. Had they been, the wood smoke would had been whiter and there would have been a well worn path to the outhouse, besides this gave me more time to wonder what exactly is "buck fever" and whether they would have believe me anyway. Only the Creator, the greatest Buck of bucks and I will ever know what happened that once in a lifetime morning.
Epilogue.........that Christmas, this old hunter presented his son with a pair of weathered LL Bean boots, a half a box of 32 Remington cartridges, a never used 'fannypack', a compass and set of binoculars and a blood stained drag rope (made by a net-maker friend of the family years before) with a trusty old rifle complete with a can of bore cleaner and a cleaning rod. Regretfully he couldn't package the memories.