In the deer stand, we remember how much of life’s richness exists in memory and anticipation.
It’s difficult to communicate the joy I feel seated alone in the darkness of northern Wisconsin on the third Saturday of November.
I’ve come to these woods bordering the Brule River State Forest nearly every fall since my father first brought me here, in 1972, when I was 13. Of the hundreds of things he’s done for me over the years, introducing me to these dirt roads and logging trails, these ridges of oak and maple, poplar and birch, is one for which I’m most thankful. I can’t imagine not being here. I have a backpack filled with food and gear, a rifle across my lap, a song in my heart.
I found this stand location, a brushy ridge overlooking several well-worn deer trails, one October many years ago. I built a large nest of fallen timber a few feet down the ridge, facing northwest, so the rising sun would warm my back. Now I sit on a chair here in the cold. The main trail traverses an oak ridge and turns east to follow an overgrown logging road marked by four or five large scrapes. Six years ago, with my oldest son sitting beside me on his first opening morning, I shot a nine-pointer on that trail. Two other trails pass through thick cover to the west, and fresh rubs shine in a tangle of alders nearby. None of this is visible yet. If I look straight up through the branches, I see a black sky spangled with stars.
I inhale deeply and smile. Except for patches of early snow shrouding north-facing ridges, the forest floor is a rusty blend of fallen leaves. This mat of decomposition is the secret to the scent of the autumn woods—the spice of oaks and maples, the smoky, almost lavender odor of blackened poplars. This is the odor of decay, but the scent is warm and welcoming. Beneath that surface layer, the leaves will soon return to the dark earth they rest upon, as will we all. I kick a boot through the leaves, and the sweet elixir fills my lungs.
The woods are so quiet I can hear the tick of a falling oak leaf careening off branches, the muffled squeak and rustle of a curious mouse beneath the leaves near my feet. If I’m lucky, I might also hear the hooting of an owl, the yipping of coyotes, even the howl of a timber wolf. If snow flurries blow in, the hiss of snowflakes on leaves will sound like the static of a distant radio station, the falling snow drawn around me like a gauze curtain.
The temperature is 20 degrees, a mild morning for November in northern Wisconsin, yet the cold air feels like steel against my face. My breath billows, steaming the bottoms of my glasses. Below zero, the trees would be popping, a phenomenon I love but don’t understand.
So much of the world’s beauty fits into that category. Opening day of 1985 it was 15 below, and the trees popped like firecrackers. I smile again as I remember a hunt a decade earlier, my sister’s first gun season. Our great-uncle found her sitting covered with two inches of falling snow, her fingers dipped in a steaming cup of cocoa. She dislikes the cold and doesn’t hunt anymore, but memories like that, and dozens more, are partly what make deer hunting so joyful. The seasons accumulate, the ritual builds upon itself, becomes so much more than any one season, any one deer killed. Deer hunting reminds us how much of life’s richness exists in memory and anticipation.
I don’t know if it’s true that the hour before sunrise is the coldest time of day, but it usually feels like it. It may be the darkest, too. I huddle deeper into my orange coat, burrow my gloved hands into pockets, tuck my chin into my collar, close my eyes for a time.
Two of my sons, my father, two brothers, a brother-in-law, and four nephews—11 of us in all—are scattered throughout these dark woods. A couple miles away, my older brother is perched 20 feet up the same tree he’s climbed for over 15 years, in an area he calls “Buck Valley.” (Among his many colorful habits—wearing a lucky belt buckle, belching to imitate a grunting buck—he insists on naming his favorite locations. There’s the “Valley of the Big Pines,” and the “No Bucks Here” stand. This year he found a spot for his oldest boy he calls “the Cove.”) From his precarious climbing stand high above “Buck Valley,” he has killed the most and the largest bucks of anyone in our group. His patience is legendary, his aim less so. The first time his .30-06 booms, he’s just warming up the barrel—shooting freehand from a swaying tree challenges his accuracy—but after three or four shots, he usually has a big one down.
I think about my father in his elaborate ground blind, complete with a raised wooden floor, and how much being surrounded each night at the cabin by sons and grandsons means to him. He cooks breakfast every morning at 3:30, wakes us with his happy singing, the smell of frying sausages. He’s 73 now, with a bum leg, so he hunts closer to the road than he once did. Not that long ago, it seems, he had the strength of a bull and could roam these ridges without tiring. A religious man, he’s now happy to sit still all day, thankful simply to be surrounded by God’s creation. I can see in his eyes the bittersweet understanding that his past deer seasons outnumber those in his future, which makes each opening morning all the more special.
Dad’s killed many nice bucks and had his share of adventures, few as baffling as the eight-pointer he bagged several years ago. He set down his rifle and walked the 50 or so yards to where the buck lay dead, arriving in time to watch it struggle to its feet and run away. We still don’t know what happened, but we figure maybe Dad’s bullet hit the buck at the base of the antlers and knocked it unconscious. As he watched his resurrected buck bound over the ridge, Dad shrugged with his endearing humility and said, “Well, the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”
My son Tyler, 19, and stepson Riley, 13, sit a couple hundred yards apart, a half mile north of my father. By leaning to the side, each has a small window through the trees to see a sliver of orange worn by the other. Both are comforted by this proximity. Ty arrived at his love for this November morning somewhat later than I did, but he’s now as addicted to its pleasures as I am. He shot his first buck at age 14. Over the years, the highlights of his hunt included regular visits to his ground blind by white-footed mice (he was feeding them almonds to quell his boredom) and a surprise encounter with a curious weasel that sniffed his boot. He already understands that many of deer season’s joys have little to do with shooting deer.
Toting a .270 that once belonged to his grandfather, Riley is excited to be hunting alone for the first time. He hunted with me last year, one of the coldest seasons in memory, and spent most of the time deep inside a sleeping bag. He loves everything about the hunt, though, especially the evening poker games. His biological father doesn’t hunt, but Riley carries his dad’s Buck Knife, and he and Ty hope to use it this afternoon to gut Riley’s first buck. I have no doubt that somewhere his deceased grandfather will be pleased that the .270 he once carried in the piney woods of Virginia proves just as accurate on the oak ridges of Wisconsin.
East of my father, my younger brother sits near his youngest son. My brother-in-law, likewise, sits with his youngest son, and my two grown nephews are out here, too, waiting silently in ladder stands, their chests swollen by the expansive hope that comes with this day. Bringing your boy into the woods is a little like introducing him to someone you love. You want him to love her as much as you do, and you hope he’ll introduce her warmly to his own boy someday. My younger brother has killed his share of deer over the years, but like me he’s happiest now to see his son in the woods, sharing what he loves.
The earth continues its slow roll to the east. I take another breath and open my eyes. A soft gray glow now spreads beneath the horizon. I can begin to distinguish individual oaks, poplars, and birches along the ridges, spruce and tamaracks in the lowlands, the towering white pines behind me. Far away, I hear the rhythmic crunch of something moving on the frozen leaves: another hunter heading toward a stand, perhaps, or a deer nervously seeking a place to bed. My heartbeats quicken. I hold my breath to hear, strain my eyes to see. But it’s too dark yet, and the sound grows fainter. I take a deep breath, close my eyes again.
The daylight sneaks in almost imperceptibly. I can barely tell the difference from one minute to the next, yet each time I open my eyes I can see a bit more clearly. Gradually, the blacks and grays become a wash of color, a trick of light that delights no matter how often I see it. A breath of wind moves across my face and through the trees. On still mornings, the breeze seems to arrive with the dawn. A lonely, lovely, peaceful sound high in the pines.
I load my rifle, return the hammer to the uncocked position. It’s a lever-action Marlin .30-30 purchased secondhand for $75 when I was 12 years old. I’m 50 now. The rifle still sports an old 4X Glenfield scope, slightly fogged and in need of replacing, but I’ve killed so many deer with this rifle I’m reluctant to make any changes. I killed my first buck with it, and Ty killed his first buck with it, too. When his time comes, my youngest boy will use it for his first deer as well. And someday I trust a grandson or granddaughter will be holding this rifle somewhere in the woods on this November morning.
I hear the steady whoosh of wings overhead and look up in time to see a raven passing over the treetops. Two nuthatches appear, noisily sliding up and down the tree trunks like feathered little elevators. Chickadees and a downy woodpecker compete to make the most noise. The woodpecker taps its sturdy beak into a dead birch, while the always-curious chickadees flit so close I can see the golden glint of the new sun in their tiny dark eyes.
I hear a muffled ka-whump in the distance, the first gunshot of the season. I sit up higher in my chair, grip the rifle tighter, and begin scanning the surrounding ridges for movement. I am joyful, hopeful, as content as I’ll ever be. The earth has rolled over and awakened, and I have been seated on the edge of the bed in sweet darkness, waiting. It’s opening morning, again. n
Ron Rindo hunts and fishes in Wisconsin, where he and his wife live on five acres with five children, six Shetland sheep, and a small flock of chickens. His latest short story collection is Love in an Expanding Universe (2006). He chairs the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.