Now I completely understand if you are dead set against hunting – that is your prerogative. While this story is indeed about hunting, it is more about the folly around two seemingly intelligent human beings being toyed with by Mother Nature.
It was humbling!
I have hunted in the north since I was 17 years old. I have had some adventures and misadventures along the way to be sure. But, as in most things, experience is a great arbiter in how you handle things. I have learned a lot – sometimes the hard way.
In the woods, there are a few major principles that should never be underestimated nor ignored. Moss grows on the north side of a tree, water is found at the bottom of a hill, you should always carry a knife, a flashlight/matches/lighter. No matter the distance you are travelling, you should ALWAYS carry a compass and more importantly your should ALWAYS trust it.
Despite how you may think you will react under adverse conditions, or when confronted by a wild animal, you often react quite differently. The mind can sometimes be your worst enemy. The importance of staying calm and to fight the urge to panic when confronted with adversity cannot be understated.
Having preached these fundamental rules of survival to my adult sons for decades, I too have been guilty of the “do what I say – not what I do” dictum.
Deer hunting in our area consists of 2 weeks each fall – always beginning on the Monday of the first full week in November. For my good friend and hunting companion Bob Will and I, it was a time of bonding with our sons and an escape in which we could all relax and enjoy our time together, with no work pressure. Simply making memories.
Over the past several years, Bob and I enjoyed a few days of hunting with our sons, followed by a week with our original group – the “Ranger Bay Boys”.
On this occasion, it was during the transition period between when our sons left for home and when the others joined us, that we found ourselves on our own for a couple of days.
The remainder of the Ranger Bay Boys were to arrive the following day, so in our infinite wisdom, we hoped to surprise them to find a deer hanging when they arrived – primarily a surprise as Bob and I were perhaps the least likely to harvest, let alone see a deer at the best of times. Our contribution to camp life was more often as comic relief, or camp wench – than someone to be counted on to bring home the venison.
As the day developed, we did some chores around camp, chopping firewood, filling the wood box, cleaning up, doing dishes etc., in preparation for the arrival of the gang. Having completed our domestic duties, we decided on a late afternoon “sit”.
Around 3:30PM we began to prepare. Donning our orange hunting gear, it was determined that Bob would walk about 5 minutes to the north of camp and sit on a ridge overlooking a meadow. I was going to trek about 10 minutes south, to a tree stand – affectionately known as “Mike’s” stand – named after our good friend Mike D’Angelo who had recently passed.
I loved to go to that stand. It is hard to explain to non-hunters, how peaceful it is to sit in the woods with no one around and listen to the cacophony of nature envelop you.
You never know what you might see or hear – chipmunks clucking, chattering red squirrels, playful otters, a meandering bear, the majesty of a bull moose, the thunder of a grouse taking flight etc.
It never ceases to amaze me how a chipmunk, scurrying though dry leaves can sound like a much bigger animal – or how a red squirrel upon seeing an unwanted visitor can scold you from afar – and warn the entire forest of potential danger.
The best part of sitting in Mike’s stand though, was allowing my mind to wander to the many good times we spent together in years gone by.
I climbed up in the stand, around 4pm and as per my usual routine, got comfortable. In Mike’s honour, I lit a cigar, loaded my rifle, safety on – expecting to sit till around 5:15 – and having once again not seen anything, would reverse the process and simply climb back down and walk back to camp, having had an hour or so of letting my mind wander, while enjoy the solitude of nature.
It was so quiet and so comfortable, I even nodded off for a few minutes. Dusk was beginning to settle around me, as I was considering calling it a day, when I heard the soft crack of a breaking limb. Likely a chipmunk I thought, but nonetheless was now on high alert.
Another snap! – then I saw the them.
Straining my eyes against the backdrop of pine trees, I saw the cause of the noise interrupting the silence around me. 2 deer had tentatively exited the swamp below and to my left – one behind the other.
Despite running this scenario through my mind a thousand times, and thinking how calm I would be – I could feel my heart racing.
It was getting dark . Should I shoot? They were now about 75 feet away.
My instincts said “don’t be an idiot”.
My brain said “screw it – let’s go for it!”
I raised the rifle to my shoulder, took the safety off, aligned the scope and took careful aim.
I gently squeezed the trigger. The accompanying BOOM reverberated throughout the trees, and violently attacked my eardrums.
It was dark enough that I actually saw flame escape the muzzle of my .308. My intended target jumped and began to run. But within seconds, I heard the unmistakable sound of something sliding in the leaves – a sure sign of a mortally wounded quarry.
Knowing I had little time before darkness fully enveloped me, I climbed down from the stand and began to track the deer.
Scanning the forest floor for tracks or a good blood trail, is when I quickly realized I had neither a good light nor a compass!
Despite these impediments, I soon located the deer about 100 yards south of the deer stand. Calling Bob on the radio, I reported proudly. “Bob, I have a deer down. I am near Mike’s stand. Can you bring the ATV and trailer?” .
His response was something like “WTF were you thinking!! Do you know what time it is?”, but reluctantly agreed to come to my aid.
My flashlight growing dim, I proceeded to field dress the deer as quickly as I could, given that natural light was fading fast. Knowing I had to get it off the ground, I tied a rope around it’s legs, threw the rope over a limb and tried to lift it off the ground.
Wasn’t happening! I was not nearly strong enough on my own. This was a larger specimen than I had anticipated.
It is now pitch dark in the woods. the cloak of darkness had falling like a curtain over a theater. With the canopy of the remaining leaves and limbs, I can barely see my hand in front of my face. It was like I was in a tomb of my own making.
Finally, I heard the rumble of the ATV. Bob was getting close. The trail was roughly 150 yards to the west.
He radioed me. “Where are you”.
“I’m at the north end of the swamp”. Just follow my voice.”
Soon, I heard “give me a yell”.
I hollered “over here”.
A few minutes later – “I can’t find you. Where the f#$@ are you??”
“You sound like you are at the south end of the swamp. Keep coming this way. My flashlight isn’t working. Follow my voice.”
Soon I hear “For F@#$ Sake I can’t see a GD thing in here. F@#$ing limbs slapping me in the face!”
Then nothing but eerie silence for a few minutes.
I am afraid to leave the deer in case I can’t find it again in the dark. Then I hear something crack over my left shoulder!
“Bob. I’m over here”.
“Bob. Over here”.
“Bob?????” I pick up my gun. My spidey senses are tingling.
FINALLY a voice: “I am over here. I couldn’t see shit in here” .
“Fer chrissakes bud, did you not hear me? I thought you might be a freaking bear looking to cash in on a free meal, so I picked up my gun!”
Catastrophe avoided, but I may have soiled my pants just a little!!!
“We need to get this deer hung. We can come back and get it in the morning. Let’s get out of here and back to camp.”
Between the 2 of us, we were were able to get the deer off the ground and hung from a limb in a nearby tree.
Dumb and Dumber
Problem solved. Now for the short walk back to camp.
Except, turns out neither of us had a freaking compass. Apparently neither of us thought we needed one since we were so close to camp!
Or so we thought.
My flashlight was dead by now. Bob had enough light to barely illuminate the ground in front of us.
No problem. We had about 150 yards to the trail. All we had to do was travel west until we hit the trail and then south to camp. We can’t miss the trail. It’s at least 10 feet wide.
Except we DID miss the trail. In fact we walked right over it.
With the poor lighting it was impossible to see where we were relative to the trees and terrain.
We have hunted here for 25 years. We know that if you go west of the trail, you will come to a ridge running north and south. All we have to do is get to the ridge and follow it back to camp.
Except we missed the ridge!
Without a compass to trust, we were walking slightly southwest, rather than straight west. We were a half hour into a 10 minute walk by now and getting more unsure of where we were by the minute.
My brain reverted to guidance my father had given me years ago. “If you are not sure where you are, just stop. Stay where you are until you have daylight. You will make a bad situation worse if you continue to wander.”
But how would we explain to our buddies that we got lost and had to spend the night in the woods – 10 flipping minutes from camp!!!!
Male pride is not our best attribute.
Again, my brain misfired. Despite knowing we risked getting further lost in the bush, without a compass, a light or matches – we put our tiny little brains together and decided to press on.
It was so extraordinarily dark that we could not see more than a few feet in front of us. Even the light of the moon and the stars were not able to permeate the dense velarium above us.
Certain that we were heading west, we came upon a babbling steam. The area looked vaguely familiar, but we knew that the water was flowing north – likely into the south end of Ranger Bay. Surely if we followed this stream we would come to the end of our bay and to the comfort of our cabin – and the salvation of our pride!
Now this sounds easier that it is. In the daylight, you can follow a stream and when necessary, move one way or the other to avoid protruding rocks, downed limbs, burdocks and other forms of potential discomfort.
Not so much in the dark.
One of my many flaws is a lack of patience. When I get frustrated, I just bulldoze through things. I was definitely frustrated at this point and maybe a little angry and embarrassed.
Taking the lead, I began following the stream north. Stumbling over any number of obstacles in the dark, I would swear, get up and carry on.
One habit I seem to have picked up over my many years on earth, is the ability to fall in water. If there is water in the vicinity, like a golf ball destined to locate a pond, I seem to have the same propensity to inadvertently find the wet stuff.
This adventure was no different. It wasn’t long before I had tripped over a branch and went in over my boots. Now I am wet, pissed off, frustrated, and have gone straight past embarrassed to flat out exasperated.
Soon after, Bob spotted our first flicker of hope. There was a light in the distance north of us. Had to be a cottage on Ranger Bay. All we had to do now was follow the stream and use our newly discovered guiding light to get home.
I was not going to deviate from our path. I was going north – straight north – damn the consequences. Bob, in his wisdom was content to let me lead.
We went through briars, bushes, beaver dams – at one point we had to walk backwards to get through thorny bushes – losing my hat in the process. That hat is still out there somewhere. I was too frustrated to go back for it.
After another 15 minutes or so, we came across the path leading to our camp. That stream, the cottage light and our limited common sense got us home safely.
We had left the camp at 4PM. I shot the deer at 5PM. It was now 8PM.
Mike’s stand was not more than a 10 minute walk away.
Hungry, grumpy, embarrassed and humbled, we determined this experience was never to be shared with the rest of the group. We would surely never live it down.
I guess it is time to come clean!
There is no one that I would rather be lost in the woods with than Bob Will. He can find the humour in any situation – and takes particular joy in seeing me exasperated. This would be an escapade that he would never let me live down.
Lordy, Lordy what an adventure.