You get to the trailhead half an hour after sunrise. You meant to wake up earlier, to be out there before dawn, but your bed was warm, and even the thought of the cold, dark woods drove you deeper below the covers. How much could it really matter anyway? So you slept in a while. But you’re here now. You rub the sleep from your eyes.
It is still very cold when you start down the trail in the thin morning light. Your boots crunch on the gravel and fallen leaves. You feel strange but happy, excited. Slinging the rifle over your shoulder and walking down the trail makes you feel important. You’ve never carried a weapon before, there is a strange sense of purpose to it.
You wonder if you’re walking too loudly. You have not really put in the time or money that you have heard stories about all your life from drunk deer hunters. You don’t own any actual camouflage, and you certainly haven’t been airing out your hunting clothes to let the wind carry off your human stink. But again, that’s probably a little over the top, right?
Eventually you find a clearing in the woods with a stream running through it. It seems like a place that you might find a deer. So you find a tree to sit against and hunker down. You have some doubt in your mind–is this actually a good spot? How long do I wait before giving up on this spot? What if I don’t see anything today?
When you sit still a while all the critters move around as if you weren’t there and the clearing comes to life. You become so mesmerized with the world around you that when you look down at your watch an hour has passed with you hardly noticing. You wait a while longer, appreciating how the world moves when you aren’t there.
A rustle in the woods behind you brings you back into the moment. You pick up your rifle off your lap and try to turn slowly to find the culprit. The rustle stops as you move, but begins again a few moments later. With a tinge of disappointment you find the the source of the noise–a squirrel digging in the leaves. Another day that might be your quarry, but today you brought your 30-30 and you probably can’t shoot a squirrel with it. At least there would not be much left.
After another hour or two you decide that this plan is not going to work and it is time to change your tactics, so you gather up your things and go for a walk. You follow the stream as it meanders toward the woods. You search and listen as you walk, wondering where a deer would be. It is a new way to look at the landscape–if I were a deer, where would I go? How often do I drink? What foods do I eat this time of year? What makes a comfortable place for me to bed down during the day?
The sides of the stream become steeper as you enter the woods again and the area becomes thick with brambles. You move slowly through this, but dodging the prickers is distracting. And that’s when you hear it: across the stream there is a quick rustle. You’re jolted into sudden awareness and see a white tail bouncing away. You bring your rifle to bear and patiently try to aim, praying that it will stop for a moment and give you a chance.
But today is not your day. The deer continues its prancing run through the woods and in only a few moments it is gone. It takes a while longer for your heartbeat to slow and the adrenaline to leave your bloodstream. You replay the moment–would you have gotten it if you had paid better attention while you were walking? Maybe if you had not been so distracted by the briars? Or maybe you were just moving too fast and too loudly. You are disappointed, but also encouraged. There are deer out here, you just need to do better.
So you find a spot nearby, reasoning that if one deer liked it here, maybe a second will come by. You spend a few hours waiting and nothing happens. You go for another walk and nothing happens. It’s getting late and you decide to head home.
You relive the day as you walk back to the trailhead. It was your very first day in the field. You had read some books and watched some tv shows, but it still took a long time for you to work up the courage to go out by yourself and try to kill a deer. You probably did a lot of things wrong. There are certainly things that you could have done better. But even just in this first day you learned a lot. And you almost had a shot. If you had been paying a little more attention or that deer had been a little less wary, maybe everything would have been different.
You may not go home with meat today, but you go home with something. You have changed. You have engaged with the natural world in a different way. For the first time in your life you were an active participant in the food chain. You are a hunter.