View from a deer stand. Wilton, North Dakota. Courtesy of my father-in-law, Clark.
The worst part is, hands down, getting out of the pick-up. That is when the regret, tingling as it settles into my spine and creeps its way through my weary body, hits me. It is when I realize I could be in my cozy bed for two more hours, only to wake up, take a warm shower, hop in a heated car, and go shopping with my mom and sister — now that is luxury. However, here I am. Freezing. Exhausted. Blinking into the darkness.
“Alright, grab your gun.”
That was my husband. What a cruel thing to say: That statement indicates that he is actually expecting me to walk to the cabin. No one has been in that cabin all night. The fire is not started. It will be 20 degrees in there, whereas, here, in the pick-up, it is roughly 90 due to my complete unwillingness to turn down the heat — not under any circumstances. My poor husband has been sweating since we left the city. However, I am entirely satisfied with the temperature in the pick-up. Although, through the years I have learned that the hotter it is inside the vehicle during the commute, the more brutally cold it is outside the vehicle.
The sound the snow makes as we walk toward the cabin echos the loneliness of the woods that surround us. Inside the cabin, I mostly stare at the digital clock, attempting to calculate how many minutes I will need to clothe myself in roughly 16 layers, while my husband starts the fire. Once I figure the timing, I stare at the heap of clothes on the bed trying to determine how my flourescent orange will ever fit over long johns, long sleeves, two sweatshirts (one thin, one thick) and my winter coat. I panic when I realize I forgot to pack the hand warmers. That is when I see my husband pull them out of his bag. What a relief; that’s why I love him.
I have been a hunter for as long as I can remember. I guess my desperation to be just like my big brother got me started. I shot my first deer when I was 14. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I didn’t really think hunting would be my thing, until I shot that buck. Then, I was hooked. For life. My granddaddy was there, with his innumerable years of hunting experience. He, to me, was a relic of hunting stories and wisdom. As a first-time hunter, I was to listen to and immerse myself in every word he said.
We watched a 4×4 buck many minutes before dawn: pawing the ground, grunting, rubbing his horns. It was the first time I had observed an animal in his natural habitat for any length of time; he was beautiful. Ironic–since I would be responsible for taking him out of that habitat in a few short minutes. I was lucky enough to be able to lean on an archaic fence post to steady my rifle. This has been a nearly necessary crutch during my hunting career as I haven’t grown taller or wider since my first hunt. I am still a 100 pound 5’3” girl who hunts with a youth rifle, but don’t let that fool you, I rarely miss.
“Okay, it’s time. The sun is 30 minutes out; take your shot,” my dad says as he tries to control the eagerness in his voice.”
Granddaddy doesn’t have any problem steadying his voice, “Lift your gun. Get him in your crosshairs. It’s a lengthy, but easy shot; he is broadside to us. Don’t get excited. Just do what you know.”
The world halted for just a moment as my finger caused a deadly chain reaction. The shot echoed through the woods, and my body forgot how to breathe as I watched 8 points crumble to the brush below. He was down, and I was smiling.
Since meeting my husband, hunting looks differently than it did when I walked mile after mile, shelterbelt after shelterbelt, with my brother to my right and my dad to my left. They were the only two that mattered. Although, generally, we were hunting with a number of distant relatives that I never bothered to get to know. I downed many deer with my dad’s voice in my ear and my brother’s eyes causing me anxiety.
Now, they are 200 miles away, but the feeling is the same; the reluctance to dress and walk; the uncertainty that I even remember how to load my gun. As my husband and I walk quietly toward the woods in the blackness of the moments before the sun reveals itself for another day, the feeling between us of anticipation mixed with hesitation is almost tangible. My desire to impress my brother is still present, eleven years later, as is my dad’s voice.
As I sit in the first tree stand of the season, and take a deep breath of pure, untouched air, loaded gun in my stiff, cold fingers, I remember why it is I put myself through this year after year. It is because of the thrill that runs through my veins when I hear the slightest sound of a twig snap. It is because of the peace of being separate from the familiar, and yet entirely in the company of chirruping birds and chattering squirrels among the branches.
Suddenly, my thoughts are interrupted by a sound that doesn’t quite belong. That crackle of snow could only be caused by one thing. My breathing turns rapid and shallow while I raise my rifle to my shoulder. As I zero in on my target, I stop breathing all together. Breathe. Be calm. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Squeeze… It is my dad’s voice, echoing through the memories of many similar moments like this one. Then, I pull the trigger.