I’ve discovered in the last 4 years that there are two basic mindsets when it comes to blacktail hunting in the Trinity Alps. The first mindset says, “There’s no way I’m going to shoot some tiny little forked-horn after all the work it took to hike all the way in here!” The second mindset is slightly different: “There’s no way I’m going to pass up a forked-horn and leave empty-handed after all the work it took to hike all the way in here!” As it turns out, pain is its own sort of truth-serum. A conversion experience from the first to second mindset is a common occurrence somewhere along the mountain and mile-infested quest.
I think part of this drive to shoot a deer, whether big or small, is a product of entitlement. If, as a hunter, you have success harvesting (killing) a buck a couple years in a row, you almost begin to expect this same result each successive year. It’s really quite easy to become so accustomed to a privilege that we make it a right. And then, slowly, in the dark blindspots of time unnoticed, what began as a gift can become to us an idol.
I once heard someone define an idol, at the core, as ‘anything we don’t think we can live without.’ I really like that definition; it’s a fantastic (though uncomfortable) self-diagnostic tool. For instance, ‘what’s behind my ferocious drive to bring home a buck each year?’ I often have to ask myself. Is it to provide, to save money on meat, to enjoy a connection to the land on which I live, or is it really to satisfy some idolatrous right I’ve erected in my heart as something my year can’t be complete without? Do I hunt to challenge myself and to become a more responsible master of my environment, or do I fixate on actually ‘getting a buck’ because I’ve let that accomplishment become something I can’t live without, something I depend on to define who I am, more than I depend on the words of God? I don’t know, maybe these are questions only unsuccessful hunters have the time or thought to ask themselves. My guess is they’re questions still worth asking.
The end of day 3 found me setting up camp in a small clearing off the main trail. I laid out my sleeping bag on lush tufts of grass that pushed their way up through a thick bed of pine needles. These had accumulated over the years under a bank of tall timber, standing patient guard next to a spring that bubbled its way through bright wildflowers before spilling into Bear Creek behind me.
When you’ve been outside, in the wilderness, alone and for some time, strange things begin to happen in your head. For instance, stumps and rocks start to look like animals. Or worse… people.
I was boiling some water early that evening when I looked up and almost fell backwards in fright. There, not 100 yards away, a person sat stock still between the trees, staring at me.
“Hey, YOU!” I shouted (You tend to do everything loudly when you’re alone). The watcher did not move. “Hello?” (a little more tentative this time)-- Then, irritated at the rudeness of the gypsy girl for not responding (because the stump looked like a hunched gypsy girl wearing a shawl), I shouted again—“AAaaaAAAHHHHH!” Nothing. Seeing now that it was only a stump, I went back to watching the water boil and talking to the fire. The gypsy stump haunted me all night.
The morning of day 4 was my last in the Alps. In the dark again, I picked my way slowly up a boulder-strewn slope and discovered at the top a small bowl with good feed, hidden from lower view. Two hours after settling down on a watching rock, I’d seen the fleeting rump of one mystery deer and two bears, which had gradually wandered and fed their way to within about 70 yards of my stand. Bear are great fun to shoot at when you have a tag. When you don’t, they become scenery with teeth. When the smaller bear got within the general area of my comfort bubble, I stood up and stepped into the sunlight.
“HEY!” I shouted. He stopped and looked around, slightly befuddled.
“Are you kidding me?” I said, taking a step towards him. “Helloooo.” That’s when he saw me. It was hilarious. He started suddenly like a cat does, crouching for a split second before tripping backwards over his own feet. Off balance for a moment, he fell sideways into the oak brush he’d been feeding on before finally regaining his footing and scrambling his way straight uphill at full gallop. I watched him ascend the near vertical slope for the next five minutes, stopping his loping gait only long enough to look back and behind him in laughable dread. The other bear, only 90 yards away, pretended not to notice his embarrassing cousin and continued to shovel paw-fulls of acorns into his mouth as I headed back to break camp.
As you’ve read my adventures of four days spent in the woods, you may have noticed I don’t have a whole lot of stories about actual hunting. There really wasn’t a lot here about animals, about stalking, about tense shots over long distances at trophy kills. That’s because when I headed out into the wilderness with a fire in my belly and hunting on my heart, despite my best efforts and gut-wrenching wishes, the trip ended up more closely resembling hiking, with a gun. In addition to the near 15 miles of walking on trails alone, I estimate I hiked at least an additional 10 miles ‘cross country.’
Arriving back at the trailhead late Monday morning, I collapsed into the car and relished the joy of sitting comfortably for the first time in days. There simply isn’t much about nature that’s comfortable. Putting the car in ‘drive,’ the miles now melted away effortless behind me. Contemplative as I drove, I almost didn’t notice the two does standing dead still in the middle of the road until I was about 30 yards away. Then, instead of trotting back off the way they’d come, they spooked at my approach and began running down the center line away from me. On their right was a cliff face and on their left a drop-off, and if I’d stopped, I'm pretty sure they would’ve simply slowed down and watched me pass. But… I could tell that as long as I kept idling along behind them they’d just keep following the road in a panic, the way deer do when you catch them out in the open for a change. I made ‘em run a ways.