COOK, Minn. — Among the meatier challenges a person can face is finding a deer in this part of the Minnesota. Of course at night driving north or south on Highway 53 between Virginia and International Falls, opportunities abound, manifesting themselves as eyes that reflect the glow of oncoming headlights. But try it now, during deer season, to know the actual difficulty of the task at hand.
Saturday morning, sunrise came late for us, 7:59, with shooting time a half-hour before. Often on opening day, clocks have already been turned back for the winter, and we’re good to lock and load about 6:30. Not so on this first day of this season.
In our venison quest, my brother, Dick; his son, Brian; my son Cole and I hunt a back 40 that I purchased in 1975 after ending a journeyman-like career as a long-haul trucker. In recovery from that trade, I realized that dodging white stripes and deep ditches for three years had left me fun-deficient. As medication, I bought the land, a boat, motor, trailer and a Toyota Landcruiser in a span of four days.
Through the years, we’ve had friends hunt this country with us. But few return. Unless they’re from the Iron Range or northern Wisconsin or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, they seem not to fit in. This is close-in country, and while looking for deer we pass long days scanning relative postage-stamp-size pieces of landscape. You want to shoot a deer here, you have to wait for it.
My brother and I were born in North Dakota. But we grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and first hunted deer there with our dad. Those were good times, though being the younger brother, I recall never quite having a rifle of my own. Typically, a neighbor or other friend would loan one to me, sometimes a .30-06, other times a .270. But it was my dad’s .30-30 lever action that I really pined over, a woodsman’s rifle and all you ever needed, Dad would say, to kill a deer.
In the still-dark Saturday morning, Dick, Brian, Cole and I reached the spot where we typically split up. This was about a half-mile from the nearest road, and there were no other hunters around. For a short minute we chatted in whispers. Then Dick continued farther south, as did Brian, while Cole and I split up in other directions.
Waiting for each of us were stands we hoped had been well-placed. Some we had fashioned homemade-style from trees, branches and brush. Others were garden-variety metal stands we had hauled in earlier this fall, or previous falls, and placed along trails, or one-time trails, hoping there to intersect deer.
Yet we were realistic about our chances. Commonly years ago, we would see two or three deer apiece on opening day. Some of these were only flashing tails escaping through heavy cover. But they were deer, and they left obvious signs of their ramblings: scrapes, rubs, beds.
The point is we hunt this country despite the long odds, anymore, of filling all of our tags.
About this we don’t complain — too much. Wolves roam the area, we know that, and kill some deer. But we realize also that these woods, like all landscapes, are dynamic and ever-changing. So too, then, the birds and animals that live here. Or once did.
All of this and more was on my mind as I settled into my stand, surrounded in the gathering light by aspen and spruce. Experiencing this while cradling a rifle in one’s hand might be an acquired taste. But the air was fresh and the presidential campaign a very, very great distance away. A good feeling all the way around.
Morning broke to almost no shooting, until just after 8, when a discharge echoed in the distance, from the south. That would be Dick, I figured, with his .308, squeezing off just a single cartridge from our most productive stand. With luck, meat on the table.
By then, the ravens had awoken and were rasping their haunting calls just above the treetops. A patchwork of snow covered the ground and squirrels skipped atop it, alerting me as if a 12-point buck were approaching. Commonly this time is called “the woods coming alive,” and it’s a fair description.
Lunch came and went, and then afternoon, windless and with a clear sky. Wolf hunters, wherever they were, would have a hard time of it on this day, I thought. Little seemed to be moving. Few deer, and certainly fewer wolves, which are smarter still.
In graduated shadows, sundown revealed itself, and in a sort-of hunter’s conga line, we filed out of the woods the way we came in: in the dark. We had the one deer Dick had shot, a doe, along with us, and alongside a darkened back road in a very dark part of northern Minnesota, we lifted it unceremoniously into a trailer attached to Dick’s truck.
Thus ended opening day, memorable like all of the others. For what was shot, certainly. And for what wasn’t.
“Let’s get dinner,” Cole said. And we headed out.
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