By Joe Hogan, MTI Contributor
I was born to an outdoorsy family in Upstate New York. My maternal grandfather was a consummate outdoorsman, who’s lineage had been roaming the forests and mountains of the Northeast since the colonial era. My father was brought into the lifestyle by marriage and the stories of their Adirondack deer and trout camps together riveted me as a child. Unfortunately we followed my dad’s work into the Midwest before my earliest memories and the tradition lapsed. Then my parents divorced and dad moved back East. I was left to learn to hunt on my own. My mother supported my desire but did not join me. My dad would discuss the things I was learning over the phone but could not be by my side while I learned them. His relationship with his former father in law remained on good terms so we joined him for a camping and fishing trip every summer. No one held me back and I was becoming a fairly skilled outdoorsman in my own rite, but I always felt as if I’d missed the golden era of our family’s deer hunting legacy.
This changed when I was 24. My father, grandfather and uncle Mike decided to put together a hunt just south of the high peaks region of the Adirondacks and I’d finally reached a point where I had the freedom and budget to join them.
It was late November and snow had been on the ground for a solid week when we arrived and unloaded at the club cabin. The place was like a museum. The walls were adorned with yellowing photographs, beer posters and cobweb coated antlers. The kitchen was rough but efficient, with a massive griddle and one of those 1970’s refrigerators that run forever.
“I helped unload my grandfather’s gear, it smelled of wool and pipe smoke.”
As the wood stove began to push the chill out of the cabin I felt as if I’d been brought into something ancient and sacred.
Our bunks were laid out and supper was cooking before sunset so I excitedly loaded my father’s vintage .44 carbine and headed out to explore the surroundings. Snow was falling steadily as I approached a nearby meadow, rimmed with towering pines. The irregular edges allowed me to still hunt the perimeter and peek ahead into the various pockets. As I approached the furthest end of the clearing I spotted the square body of a deer feeding at roughly 100 yards. I dropped to a knee and waited anxiously for the deer to raise its head. I had not made a sound beyond the slight squeak of snow as I settled into a solid posture but the deer’s head shot upright revealing a dark set of antlers that spread beyond his searching ears. I flipped the safety off and narrowed my focus over the iron sights. The buck looked almost black against the fresh snow. Dense cedars hemmed the scene in as if we were trapped in a snow globe. Fogged breath and swirling snowflakes hung in the air between us. The moment remains burned into my memory to this day. I squeezed the trigger and watched the buck kick and bolt into the trees, knocking clouds of snow from the branches as he ran.
I quickly located where the buck had pawed away the snow and then a faint spray of blood and dark tipped hair. My heart pounded in my ears. The Adirondacks are known to be one of the toughest places to find and kill a mature buck and I had just done so in less than an hour! Or so I thought. As I followed the easily identifiable trail, the blood quickly dried up. Within less than a few hundred feet the deer’s prints mingled with others and the blood was gone. I searched until dark and then continued by flashlight for another hour. The following morning I returned and searched until lunch. I had failed to compensate for the drop of a .44 bullet and had skimmed the brisket of a beautiful north woods buck. I was thankful the wound was not mortal but I was disappointed in myself.
We remained in camp for a week. Each of us would visit a separate spot on the map and hunt it most of the day alone but the evenings were communal. While it was never mentioned aloud, the older members of my family seemed to recognize that we were in the twilight of a long tradition and they sought to savor it. My father was an outstanding camp cook and set his schedule around our meals. He was also the life of the party, constantly joking, singing or busting someone’s balls. Uncle Mike brought a laid back positivity, athleticism and calm presence that seemed to balance out my father’s energy. My grandfather was mostly quiet, as was his custom, but his few words carried tremendous weight. By this time the arthritis in his hips kept him from hunting with us but he served as the keeper of the fire, literally and spiritually. Each night he and I seemed to find time for quiet conversation. We had always shared a special bond and the intimacy of the snowed in cabin intensified that feeling.
“As the junior member, I had the honor of washing all the dishes, carrying firewood and being the butt of most of the jokes. It was sublime. “
The hunting was just okay. While not particularly high, the elevation change was aggressive and could easily confuse someone not watching their map. Deer densities were low and the visibility usually poor. Still, I managed to navigate the dense cedar thickets, hardwood ridges and swampy marshes and saw does and fawns every day. An inch or two of snow fell each night which made tracking possible, yet a second chance at a buck eluded me. No one saw a buck, but it didn’t matter. We were hunting a region that our family had hunted for generations and doing so together. The days were a dichotomy of intense beauty and loneliness while the evenings were filled with camaraderie, humor and acceptance. In this I found the perfect environment to sort out much of the insecurity and ego that roil under the surface of 24 year old men. I was no longer a child but I felt as if I was still faking adulthood. I had recently begun a career and relationship but the success or failure of those endeavors remained unknown and I was terrified. The men in camp with me had already seen that arc in their own lives and exuded the confidence that I lacked without a hint of bravado. They were lighting the way for me. In hindsight, that week of isolation in the snow covered mountains of Northern New York were as formative as any week in my life.
I skipped breakfast and packed my lunch on the final morning in camp, not wanting to miss a moment of daylight. Once again, fresh snow had coated the ground overnight making my steps silent. The poor shot on my first evening and a week of hard hunting had muted my expectations yet there was a spark of hope remaining. I planned to wind slowly through a nearby logging area where I’d been seeing does in route to the eastern face of the nearest mountain. Perhaps I could cut the track of a buck and follow him back to his bed above the clearcut. No matter what, I was going to hunt out my last day in the deep woods.
I’d been creeping for about two hours when I approached a steep ravine, falling off to the left of a logging road. The area had been cut and skidders had removed the logs, leaving only small hardwoods and occasional brush piles between the road and the shallow creek two hundred feet below. Something awakened my instincts. I paused and scanned. It just felt like deer. Gentle snow drifted downward with almost no wind. Only the distant croak of a raven interrupted the pregnant silence. Suddenly a puff of snow exploded from the back side of a nearby brush pile and a deer bounded downhill and away from me. I have no memory of swinging the carbine or even consciously thinking about shooting. I simply remember seeing a glint of small antlers and the white of the buck’s rump bouncing through the thin cover. I heard myself shoot as he passed through a gap. No time to evaluate. He passed through another opening and a second shot cartwheeled him into the deep snow where he kicked weakly.
I slid down the slope, stumbling excitedly over hidden stumps and limbs until I reached his side. A young buck, barely sprouting six points was taking his last breaths when I reached him. Exhilaration mixed with melancholy. The buck was dying and helpless. Somehow it felt obscene to shoot him again. Too removed from the reality of it all perhaps. I laid my dad’s carbine against a stump and unsheathed the knife my grandfather had given me as a teenager. I opened an artery and stepped back as a wave of hot blood melted the snow around his neck and his eyes clouded. To this day, I cannot put words to the emotions I experienced. To be honest, I would not even describe myself as emotional at that point, yet I can place myself there at will.
“I remember all of it. How the air felt on my face. How the smell of blood mixed with the cordite from the rifle. How the stag handle of that knife felt as I eased it back into the scabbard. The raven croaked again.”
A neighbor near our camp had offered the use of his tractor if we killed a deer near a trail but I dared not disturb this moment. I was young and strong and I somehow knew that I would never get this moment back, so I slowly dressed the deer, wrestled it to the road, hoisted him onto my back and walked all the way to the cabin alone. My father and grandfather had begun to break camp by the time I arrived. They did not greet me with high fives or end zone dances. That kind of behavior was foreign to them. Rather, they offered me a steaming cup of coffee and a warm slap on the back. As if we all quietly recognized that something beautiful had ended well, but ended nonetheless.
That camp was sold off within a year or two. My dad did come into another camp and I made it out to hunt with him, but my grandfather’s health and mobility had declined too much for him to join and Mike was often busy with work and family. They are all gone now. First Gramp, then my dad several years later and Uncle Mike just last year. All of their living children have a love for nature. Some hike, some fish, some camp but I’m the only dedicated deer hunter left in the family and I haven’t been back to the Adirondacks in many years.
I’ve killed a pile of deer since then, including some magnificent bucks. I do most of my hunting alone but I do join a group every year for Iowa’s December gun season. We usually camp out of a barn or machine shed instead of a log cabin and hunt small patches of timber, crops and grasslands instead of densely forested mountains. But the feeling is much the same. We have running jokes, good cooks and young people full of excitement and energy. We love each other deeply but never come out and say so. It’s one of the highlights of my year, but I know it won’t last forever. Someday the land we hunt will sell and we’ll die off. I just hope that I’ve helped someone else to bank the kind of memory I have of a little six pointer on a snowy hillside.
Joe Hogan is a retired Fire Captain and accomplished naturalist in the Midwest.
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