I won’t lie, I was very discouraged after my first two experiences hunting. I had spent a lot of time, money, and energy learning as much as I could and still come home empty-handed after two full days in the field. I was aware from my reading that this was not only a possibility, but actually pretty likely, but for some reason I didn’t really expect it to happen to me. Maybe I was just fooled from watching too much television, where the woods are overflowing with game and they always come home with a good meal. After my second attempt I let the rest of hunting season pass by. And then the next one too.
The next time I picked up my rifle I’d already lived in Colorado for a year and a half. My friends and I had rented a yurt up in the mountains for a weekend in late November and I figured I’d bring along my .22.
We got up there in the late afternoon and three of us went for a walk while the sun dipped toward the horizon. Together we were far too loud, so after a while I left them to sit on a log while I went for a wander. Adding friends to the mix was a new dynamic–now I didn’t only want to succeed for my own satisfaction, now I wanted to prove to them that I could do it. I had this overwhelming feeling that if I spent an entire weekend hunting and came back back empty-handed my friends would see me differently. As much as I reminded them that I hadn’t ever actually killed anything, they still saw me as a hunter and I liked that. I wanted to keep it that way.
Within only a couple minutes I stumbled upon a pine squirrel. It was sitting on a low branch, maybe six feet off the ground, and no more than fifteen yards from me. My heart leapt into my throat and whatever dam holds back the adrenaline in my brain must have ruptured because suddenly it felt as if there was more of it in my veins than blood. For a moment we just looked at each other. The squirrel sat on the branch, completely nonplussed about my presence while I wished with every fiber of my being for it to stay just a bit longer. I consulted my mental map–the trajectory of the shot wouldn’t in any way risk my friends, on a compass they’d be off by at least 90 degrees. I lifted my rifle and set my iron sights on the little squirrel while he just sat and watched. This was finally it. I was going to be a real hunter. I squeezed the trigger. But for some reason it wouldn’t pull. I squeezed harder–still nothing. God damn it! The safety! I thumbed the safety off and the squirrel finally responded like I would if someone pointed a rifle at me–he took off just as fast as his little legs would carry him, and that was pretty quick. Just like that he’d disappeared into the dense lodgepole. I returned to my friends, again discouraged, and told them how close and how stupid I’d been.
Around eleven the next morning I went again into the woods. I’d given up hope to some degree, and was sporting two things that spoke to that: a sequin shirt and the world’s worst hangover. The night before had been pretty raucous. When I set out the next morning one of my friends pulled a much too tight sequin shirt over my head, insisting it would bring me luck (they might have had a morning beer or two). Dressed in my anti-camouflage and with a dense fog over my brain, I finally made it to the woods where I promptly sat down.
There must have been a bit of luck in those sequins after all. Before too long I heard a pine squirrel call out from just above me. Pine squirrels are also called chickaree because of this loud and recognizable call.
I stood up, flicked off the safety, and took aim. The squirrel was about twenty yards above me, perched on a branch and obliging me by sitting still and looking right at me. Maybe it was the hangover, but I was steadier this time. I squeezed the trigger. The rifle cracked. And then there was a little pine squirrel in the snow in front of me.
The bullet had passed just below its left eye. It lay in the snow breathing heavily but not moving, and I wasn’t sure what to do. The shot had been good but not perfect. I counted out a few seconds in my mind and, when it was still breathing at the end, I shot it again. This time my aim was good and after the second shot I could find no evidence that it ever had a head.
I put the squirrel in a plastic bag in my backpack. Pride started to well up inside me. It was only my third day in the woods, but it had taken two years for me to get my first kill. And there would be plenty of friends to show off to tonight. Too many friends. One tiny pine squirrel wouldn’t feed them even a bite each. I needed to get back to work.
I spent the next few hours repeating what brought me the first squirrel. I would walk a short distance and sit a while until that familiar “chickaree” broke the silence. From there I homed in on where it was coming from, moving toward it and pausing until it called again. Eventually I would find it up in the canopy. The squirrels mostly sat and stared at me, more curious than afraid.
At the end of the day I returned to the yurt with three squirrels. I had shot a fourth, my best shot of the day, but it fell into the high branches of a leaning tree and fifteen minutes of shaking the tree hadn’t dislodged it. Before leaving the woods I skinned, cleaned, and quartered them so that when I showed back up at the yurt it was with a bag of meat to share.
There were plenty of toasts and high-fives upon my return. Maybe it was my rampant self-deprecation and maybe it was my setting off in a sequin shirt, but it seemed like few among the group had expected me to return successful. There had been even been a small wager on my success and one of them had to toast my success with three shots of aquavit which, if you haven’t had it, is something of an acquired taste.
I sauteed the squirrel quarters with butter and garlic and set them out. Dinner was on the stove still, but we all sat down around the table. There was a fire in the woodstove and everyone had a glass of beer, whiskey or aquavit. The sun was setting, the outside becoming cold and dark, deepening the cozy, warm glow of the yurt. Everyone grabbed a piece. It was delicious.
I’d finally done it. It took two years for me to collect the knowledge and work up the gumption, but now no one could take it away from me. I was a hunter. Sitting around that table watching my friends sip their beers and eat the tasty morsels I’d brought, I couldn’t have been more proud.