An Unforgettable Thanksgiving Mule Deer Hunt

“The Long Stalk” was published in the December 2007–January 2008 issue. Field & Stream

BLESSED WITH an elk early in the year, I have been able to afford the luxury of passing up bucks, on the occasions that I am fortunate enough to see any, and it is halfway in my mind that I would like to wait until my younger brother B.J.—visiting from Texas—is with me, before possibly taking an animal. It certainly does not work that way—the hunter never does all of the choosing, and is never capable of determining in advance on which date, if any, an animal might be taken—but still, it’s in my mind that if it works out that way, it would be nice for B.J. to participate in a good backcountry hunt. In order to not yet kill the one mule deer allowed to me each year, I’ve been passing up shots, but with the season winding down, this makes me a little uneasy knowing that each little buck I see might very well be my last opportunity—only seven days left in the season, and then six, and then five.

The plan calls for B.J. to fly up from his home in Austin to Spokane, arriving the night before Thanksgiving, and to then wait six hours in Spokane before catching an Amtrak train after midnight that will travel east to Libby, arriving about 5:30 a.m. I’ll drive over the summit and pick him up, and since he can only stay two days, we’ll go hunting straight from the station on Thanksgiving morning.

I pack our lunches the night before and gather up gear for both of us. I go to bed excited and wake up at 3:30 the next morning and drive up and over the snowy summit, my excitement building—it’s perfect tracking weather—and sure enough, B.J. gets off the train, and it’s great to see him.

In the train station, he stares blearily down at my hunting boots and gaiters, and tries to rally. He goes into the restroom and splashes water on his face, comes back out, looks out the dark window at the snowstorm, and tries to summon the desire for a dawn hunt. But it’s not there, and I feel like a crazy person, an Elmer Fudd kind of fanatic, for having even dreamed that it might be.

It’s just that I’m so anxious to get him into the winter backcountry, and we have so little time.

“Do you think we could go out later this afternoon?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” I tell him. And driving back up and over the summit, driving through the night while he sleeps, finally sleeps, in the front seat, I know we’ve made the right choice, and I’m just thrilled that he’s come all this way. There’s nothing like having family here for Thanksgiving. When we get back to the house, he sleeps some more. We’ll hunt later.

As B.J. naps, the house smells incredible. A fire is going in the woodstove, and there is the fragrance of pies and rolls baking, fresh coffee, and citrus peels being zested for the evening recipe, spiced tea, and roasting garlic. The snow is still slanting past all the windows. Music is playing on the CD player, and such domesticity helps ease me toward the necessary transition of the end of hunting season. Three and a half days left.

Peel the potatoes, slice and seed the jalapeños, dice the onions—prep work mostly. I leave the real cooking to my wife, Elizabeth, though I do mix up some pastry dough for the dessert and set it aside to rise. And then it’s time to go up onto the mountain, and B.J., who is feeling a hundred percent better, is able to accompany me.

A Track Is Cut

This is the pace I like, at this time of year—the cresting and the building. It makes no sense—the equinox has come and gone long ago, all harvest should pretty much be laid in, and any sane or balanced individual would be taking it easy, altering his or her rhythms to adjust to the foreclosure of both the days’ light as well as the disintegrating year itself—but I love to keep pushing on, filling the shorter days with more energy and motion than it seems they should be able to hold. The glutton. It seems astounding to me that yesterday B.J. was mucking around up to his ankles in Texas floodwaters, pulling carpet and stacking boxes and making calls to the landlord, etc., and that since that time, he has flown halfway across the country, and then taken a train through the snowy darkness, across the northern tip of three states, and then ridden up and over the summit, and has napped at my house, and is now getting out of the truck, high in the silent mountains, with no traffic out anywhere, and that we are starting up the trail, hunting in the wilderness. Or in what passes for wilderness, in this day and age. What should remain wilderness, now and forever.

We cut fresh buck tracks less than five minutes into our walk. They are huge tracks, so new and fresh that we cannot be more than a few minutes behind him. He must have been standing here in the forest and heard us drive up and get out, must have heard our truck doors opening and closing, must have heard our voices.

The deer is smarter than we are, and stronger and more graceful. Of course we want it.

His tracks turn around and head back up the mountain, disappearing into the dense forest like a ghost. Except that now he cannot disappear, not entirely; and we follow him, and disappear ourselves into that seemingly impenetrable forest, passing through snowy fronds of cedars, and slipping sideways between the upright bars of lodgepoles, laboring up the hill, invisible now to the rest of the world-entering the forest as a key enters the gears and tumblers of any one lock: This is what I wanted B.J. to see. My Thanksgiving is already complete.

We hurry along behind the deer, silent in the new snow. Maybe the buck will think we will not find his tracks. Maybe he will think that we are not going to follow him. As long as he does not hear us or scent us, maybe he will not know that he is prey.

He is not running. He is only walking, and for a while, we’re excited, thinking we’ve got the drop on him, because he’s passing through some fairly open areas—places where, if we were close enough behind him, I might have a good shot.

The wind is quartering from south to north, from left to right, and so we try to follow his tracks and yet at the same time tack northerly to help prevent him from slipping downwind of us. We keep drifting to the right, trying to get out ahead of him, and looking back into the wind, hoping to catch a glimpse of him standing stock—still in all that timber, watching us, even if only for a couple of seconds. That’s all we need.

The fantasy we have of possibly sneaking up on him undetected, as if coming upon him while he is merely out for a stroll in the woods on this fine stormy day, lasts for about six minutes. Perhaps he heard a stick snap, or the thumping of our hearts, or felt the heat of our living bodies radiating through the falling snow. How do big deer like that know anything?

Soon enough, his trail veers directly into the gnarliest tangles of lodgepole blowdown and cedar available to him—ridiculous obstacles of wind-sprung root wads, and the bristling dry spires and branches of trees long-ago dead. There are those who view our forests as compartments or agriculture, who believe that only a tidy, upright stand of young and quickly growing trees is of any use to either man or wildlife; but in trying to manage for such forests, these agrarians would take away yet another of the mysteries that has helped craft such rare but durable individuals as the spiny-antlered old hog that is leading us confidently on a game of cat-and-mouse, just a hundred yards ahead of us.

We play his game anyway. He has led us already into a black hole of blowdowns where the only way out would be to turn around and go back down the mountain; and so we follow him, trying to be as quiet as we can, climbing over and under and through, but unavoidably snapping the little twigs as we do so, and making little slithering sounds, little leafy and brushy sounds—and yet even though we know now, beyond certainty, that he knows we’re behind him, we persist in the myth of the stalk, as if observing some extraordinarily formal code of manners.

We continue to whisper, as if our presence—our pursuit—is still a secret, and likewise, as if obeying that same strict and formal code, the deer does not panic, does not break and run, but instead continues to calmly thread us deeper and deeper into the matrix of the most difficult—the wildest—route available to him.

Is it a waste of a sentence to say that I know we are not going to sneak up on him-that he is playing us like a yo-yo at the end of his string?

It’s wonderful anyway. I want B.J. to see, revealed in this new-falling snow, the inner workings of this deer’s mind. The deer is smarter than we are, and stronger, and more graceful. Of course we want it. What would it look like perhaps seen from above, or a great distance—to see that huge deer threading his way over and through 50 yards ahead of us now, but so completely in control of the situation that perhaps he is even stopping from time to time to look back and listen to our earnest but awkward pursuit?

The deer calmly evaluating the mountain around him—knowing the mountain around him, knowing each crevice and gully as well as if it were his own body, or his own mind, magnified a millionfold.

Our mother died when I was 33, when B.J. was 17. I often feel aware of a breath, a pulse, of her-in-me, encouraging me to keep an eye on him, to help finish the job—the job that is never finished—and though I can feel that she doesn’t care in the least whether we get this deer or not, I can feel also that she is looking down with pleasure at her two boys trailing that deer through the snowy wilderness on a Thanksgiving afternoon, as unseen to the rest of the world, in that forest jungle, as she is now to us.

What it is like, sometimes—what happens, sometimes—is that the hunt becomes like a living thing itself, breathed into a life of its own, there on the mountain, or in the forest, and occupying the space between the hunter and the hunted. And that is what happens this day, as we labor, to the best of our abilities, to stay up with the big deer just ahead of us, this deer which is so clearly our physical and intellectual superior, on this mountain at least.

A New Hunter Joins the Stalks

A young mountain lion slips in between us, somehow, coming in from downwind—catching the scent of mule deer buck, and of the humans climbing right behind him. The tracks suddenly before us show where the lion has come in from the north and joined in on the stalk, maneuvering itself into that compressed space just behind the deer, but just ahead of us: the newly pressed white snow glistening with heat. The lion belly-wriggling under the low boughs of yew and cedar and hemlock, and with its big padded feet, and the litheness of its spring-steel muscle, surely as silent as any single strand or current of water within a larger river, and nearly as silent as any one thought, over the entire course of a day.

What it is like, sometimes—what happens, sometimes—is that the hunt becomes like a living thing itself, breathed into a life of its own, there on the mountain, or in the forest, and occupying the space between the hunter and the hunted.

For a while, the lion follows the deer directly, riding silently in that space between man and deer like a leaf riding raftlike on that flowing river; but then the lion appears to make up its mind about something—as if having adjusted itself to the pace of both the pursued and the pursuers±and shifts its course out to the side, downwind, and lengthens its stride. It seems clear to us, with the back-knowledge of the tracks beneath us, that the lion is trying to capitalize on the deer’s focus on us.

The tracks are so fresh. We strain, listening for the possible sounds of struggle, just ahead. A big deer, two men and a lion are all jammed in together, all gathered within a 100-yard sphere on this mountain, and none of them can see one another; and three of the four parties know of the existence of all the others, though it seems certain, by the deer’s casual gait, that he does not yet know of the lion.

Seen from above, would it look like a parade? The great deer, with his huge crown of antlers; and behind him, the lion, threading the same course; and behind the lion, the two men?

And behind us, what? A single raven, perhaps, following silently, flying coal-black and ragged through the falling snow?

In the buck’s snowy tracks, it’s easy to see when time fractures, like placid water stretching suddenly over a span of stony riffles. The buck never panics, but he must have finally glimpsed or scented or heard or somehow sensed the lion, for he suddenly abandons his leisurely, wandering game of cat-and-mouse and begins ascending the mountain directly, climbing straight up the steep face not like a deer now, but like a mountaineer. Not lunging or running but climbing straight up and out, traveling up a mountain face so steep that no trees grow from it; climbing through waist-deep snow, belly-deep snow; and the tracks before us indicate that, once busted, the lion follows for but a short distance before abandoning the hunt, choosing instead to conserve its calories, and to try again at a later time, once it has regained the element of surprise.

We indulge in the luxury of not being bound by any such limitations of being able to be ceaseless not just in our desires, but in our pursuit of them and we continue on up the steep slope, warming now, in our exertions, and with hearts hammering, and breath coming hard.

No Man’s Land

We follow the deer for the rest of the afternoon. We push hard, floundering in the deep snow, thinking always that we’ll see him just over the next ridge, and our labors are made all the more tantalizing by the fact that he is out in the open now, passing across wide steep-tilted parks and meadows; and still his tracks are new—cut in the storm, still he is no more than a minute or two ahead of us; and we surge to rejoin him, to close the distance, like one river seeking the confluence of another.

But the land, and time, will not yet have it.

Our spirits lift, at one point, when—nearing the top—the buck’s ascent begins to flatten out, as if he is finally growing weary.

It’s as if some madness or obsession has come over us, to be following him down the back side like that—into the deeper timber, and into the darkness.

He begins sidehilling, clearly tiring; but like a magician, he keeps the perfect distance between us and him. The snow is coming down harder, so that he’s granted extra protection beneath that cloak, and he heads around to the southern end of the mountain, and then climbs up and over the final windy ridge, and travels straight down the back side of the mountain, down into the dark timber of his home, as if trying now not just to escape, but to break our spirit—we cannot help but think of how hard the climb back out will be, and with a Thanksgiving dinner engagement awaiting us, shortly after dark—but still we follow him down into the next valley, almost hypnotized.

It’s as if some madness or obsession has come over us, to be following him down the back side like that—into the deeper timber, and into the darkness. At one point, his tracks head straight into those of another herd of deer, trying to blend amongst theirs and this last gives us a bit of confidence that he might be wearying (as are we), and that he might soon make a mistake.

We must have closed the distance considerably, over the course of our afternoon-long pursuit—30 seconds behind him now? 20—because his tracks now show where, for the first time all day, he has begun to run, bounding straight down the near-vertical slope in the high-prances of his species. Still we follow, like wolves, as quiet as we can, down a slope so steep that the snow barely clings to it. To lower ourselves down, we grip leafless alder and willow with our gloved hands, as if rappelling.

Perhaps, in so doing, we have called his bluff. There is only half an hour of light left, and a dim cold blue light, at that—but finally, he ceases his descent and begins angling to the north, sidehilling his way slowly back up to the ridge.

We are a long way from our truck.

We’re getting tired and sloppy, and losing our hunter’s edge, I think, at a time when it should be growing sharper, with not very many minutes left in the day. We’re looking into the dark canyon below, and at the snowy crags in the blue distance, as night slides in over the wilderness; and it seems to us, in the way that the icy spits of snow are striking our faces, and in our exhaustion, that we are somehow in a much wilder place than when we started out, and that it is all the more beautiful, for that extra or added wildness. We stop and rest, pausing to admire the sight of such wild country before the night takes it away.

We can see where the buck has stopped to rest, also, and even where he must have sighted us, for his walking tracks will suddenly disappear, punctuated by 20-foot leaps, for which the only possible explanation, particularly given the state of his own fatigue, can be that he waited, looking back, to see finally the face or name of the thing that was following him, and glimpsed it, two upright creatures moving slowly through the dimness, 50 or a hundred yards behind…walk and run, walk and run; we close the distance, with our brute endurance, but he opens it back up again, stretches it farther once more. We never see him—only the places where, looking back, he has seen us—and finally, though it is not quite yet dark, it is time to head on back, so far are we from our truck, and home. It’s been a great hunt, with every single minute of it filled with the possibility of making game—saturated with the possibility, and at times even the likelihood, of making game—and we have no regrets.

A Surprise Visitor

We pause one more time to look out at the mountains, and then we turn back toward home, no longer hunting, but merely trudging through the deep snow, passing through the forest: In my mind, there is a feeling like I have released the buck; as if, in my letting-go—my grateful letting-go—I have snipped some thread or leash that has connected us, all afternoon.

I have gotten what I needed; I have gotten what I came for. It’s snowing harder. We pass out of a grove of dark lodgepole and into a small opening, and I look downslope, and see, in the dimness, nearly 200 yards away, a doe mule deer peering out from behind a tree—she too is about to pass on into the same clearing—and then I see the buck just behind her.

It’s almost as if in this last wedge of light, and with us having worked so hard, she has appeared to lead him to us.

He is facing us, looking upslope, and has his head lowered, in the way that big mule deer bucks will sometimes do, when evaluating something. Unthinkingly—as if with the momentum of desire, rather than the previous burning essence of it, I raise the rifle to put the scope on him. Even at this distance, I can tell he’s big—that it’s the deer we’ve been following—but I can’t find him in my scope, I’ve forgotten to keep it clean, in the fog and snow, and I’ve got to lower it and rub it clear with my sleeve.

I lift the gun quickly—desire has now resumed its path with mine—and even at this distance, the target of his heart-and-lung space looks ample, and I squeeze the trigger.

He is gone, vanished immediately. The doe that was standing next to him is still there, prancy now—after a second, she whirls and trots away—and the snow begins coming down harder, as if the sound of the rifle shot somehow punctured some reserve or restraint; and I watch and wait, wondering where the buck went. There is the chance that the bullet struck him and that he is poleaxed, sleeping already the sleep of eternity—but there is the chance too that I missed him cleanly, especially at that distance. And there is the chance also, regrettable but ever present, that he is only wounded—perhaps fatally, perhaps not—and that if B.J. and I wait quietly, he will lie down to rest, unpursued, and will die quietly in the falling snow.

I don’t have a clue.

Under normal conditions, we’d sit down and wait. Rushing down there isn’t going to change anything: If he’s dead, he’s dead.

But if he’s hurt, I want to know it. In this falling snow, we’re not going to have the luxury of letting him lie down to die quietly. We’ll have to stay with him, following him—and any spotted trail of blood he might leave—through the night, before the falling snow can obscure the sign of his path.

As if we might be destined to follow him forever, like a set of constellations eternally wheeling across the winter skies, their distance never varying. We wait about five minutes, to see if he might come back out into the opening—sometimes a startled or even slightly injured deer will retreat to the edge of the woods and then stand there for a long while, as if betranced, before finally resuming whatever he had been doing before the shot, as if intent upon completing his goals. As we begin to walk, I measure the distance, counting the paces.

It is 175 yards to the place where he was standing. We examine his tracks—the doe ran north, while he turned and bounded down the mountain, to the west—and I can find not a fleck of blood, nor even any hair.

When a bullet exits a deer, it will cut hair on the way out. There’ll almost always be a fine spray of blood, bright upon the snow; but always there is hair, long hollow deer hair that reminds me of larch or pine needles.

There is no hair, no blood, only air, space, white snow, absence. I thought my aim was good; I felt good about the shot.

I examine the tracks more closely. They look awkward to me, in a way I can’t explain: not the usual choreographed dance steps of whirl-and-bound alarm, but something else, some indecision or confusion charted in the snow or so it seems.

We follow the tracks down the hill. Even though I saw nothing, in the blink that followed my shot, I feel as if I should have hit this deer.

That I did hit this deer.

Out in the middle of the steep clearing, there is one lone bush, a large leafless willow, limbs and branches stark against the snowy evening.

“Look,” B.J. says, pointing to the base of the tree, where there are branches, wide branches, beneath the other branches, and a dense dark sleeping body that is already being covered with snow.

Giving Thanks

He’s heavy. It takes both of us to pull him into the forest, for shelter from the snow, where I gut him quickly, and peel the cape of his hide back, to help cool him down. The bullet never exited, which is why I never found any hair or blood.

We tuck the deer in tight beneath a big lodgepole, so that he won’t be buried by snow overnight. I wrap one of my jackets around him, so that lions and coyotes and lynx and wolverines will be less likely to fool with him—hopefully the bears are all sleeping, this late in the year—and I scrub my hands in the snow, wipe them on the green bough of a lodgepole; thank the mountain and the deer for one of the best hunts ever, thank B.J. for being part of it, and for helping with the tracking, and for spotting the big old deer dead under that willow tree-and then, in the darkness, we start up the long slope to the ridge, and back down the mountain toward our truck.

The next day, we will sleep in, until eight o’clock, and then return to quarter and debone and pack out the deer, both of us struggling beneath loaded packs, and each dragging a deer shoulder behind us as well, like a sled—and the day after that, B.J. will return to Texas, and I will begin butchering and wrapping the deer for the freezer. But that evening, even though we have many more chores ahead of us, the hunt feels wonderfully complete, almost magically so; and all the way down the mountain in the darkness, I keep exclaiming to B.J., “Man, what a wonderful hunt that was!” and, alternatively, “I so love to get an animal on Thanksgiving!” until I’m sure he must wonder if perhaps I haven’t turned into a bit of a simpleton, to be made so euphoric by such a simple act, the taking of one animal.

And except for the fact that he was there, he might think it so. But he saw it, and felt it; and though he cannot know of the other 364 days, he knows of this one and understood, by the way I kept repeating it, that it wasn’t just the one day I was grateful for, in being presented with that deer at dusk on Thanksgiving, but instead, the whole year; the entire year that just passed by, and the whole year to come, as we ate on that deer. Everything. 

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