Watching a boy become a man has to be one if the most rewarding aspects of fatherhood. Last weekend, my son took a major step in that direction. As is often the case in fatherhood, it was one of those experiences where the whole was greater than the sum of the individual parts. And it was a fantastic reminder of the things that are good in life.
As you know from my previous posts (see here and here), I started hunting a couple of years ago. Like too many men, I realized that I (1) spent far too little time in nature and (2) had far too few masculine skills. So I started hunting in 2017, and my oldest son (now 13) joined in with me in 2018. As you now from this post, my goal for 2019 has been to learn to hunt with a bow. Here’s what I’ve learned: public land bow hunting from the ground (not in a tree stand) is a helluva challenge. But it’s been sooooo much fun. I’ve learned tons about hunting and about deer. But it’s late in the season, and I haven’t killed a deer yet with my bow. That means my freezer is running low on venison, which is not a good thing.
Fortunately, my son and I were drawn to participate in a quota hunt on public land less than an hour from home. I had participated in this same hunt in 2018 and was fortunate enough to have one of the toughest (and best) experiences of my life during that hunt. Check out the video below for the full story.
This was a gun hunt, so we each took a few shots Friday afternoon with my 30-06 rifle to make sure it was still sighted properly. We then hunted Saturday morning, but only saw one doe, which we spooked as we were walking around searching for a better spot. We could never quite find a spot that was (1) not near other hunters and (2) put us downwind of where we expected the deer to travel. Since we had to get back home for my youngest son’s first basketball game of the year, we left in the early afternoon with no success.
We returned the next day determined to find a better spot. We found a parking lot that was empty, then spent the next several hours searching for a spot that had good terrain and was downwind of the expected travel corridors. While my son and I enjoyed the day together, we only saw one deer throughout the day as evening approached. But our luck was about to change.
Deer are crepuscular animals, which means they are much more active in the hours around dark, both in the mornings and the evenings. Right on cue, just before sunset, Silas whispered to me that he saw a deer. We both slipped on our ear protection. Seconds later, he fired. The deer went down, then got up and ran about 40 yards down the embankment before crashing to the ground. Deer down. We were both pumped, to say the least.
We waited 10 minutes or so to make sure the animal didn’t get up and try to keep going. My son then headed over to check it out, while I packed up our stuff. As I was approaching him and the deer, I noticed him staring at me. Eventually, I figured out that he was motioning for me to stop because another deer was walking just above us on the ridge. I saw it and motioned for him to shoot it. Alas, it ran off before he could get a good shot.
So, I continued on, and we spent some time admiring the deer. It was a huge doe, and he’d executed a perfect shot through the heart. As we were checking it out, we noticed another deer cross the valley. I picked up the gun, and the deer stopped and looked right at me, about 40 yards away. I slowly worked the bolt to put another round in the gun. The deer moved on, heading up the other ridge away from us. I followed it in the rifle scope, hoping for a shot in the approaching darkness. A few seconds later, I got my wish: it stopped. And then I stopped it. It fell straight down, never to get back up. Boom. Two deer down. One doe and one button buck. Plenty of meat. A couple of high-fives were in order.
There’s an old saying among big-game hunters that “the work doesn’t start until the animal is on the ground”, noting that getting the meat off the animal and out of the woods is often much more difficult than the killing of the animal. And we had two of them. We were only about one-half mile from our truck, as the crow flies. The trail meandered a bit to add some distance to the journey, but it wasn’t that far. The problem was that we were hunting at the bottom of a ravine. That meant that we had to deal with a severe elevation change to get out of there.
Normally, this issue would be mitigated by the ability to skin the animal, remove the meat, put it in game bags, then pack it out in our backpacks. But, on a quota hunt, we were required to bring in the entire animal for weighing and aging by the local conservation officers. That meant we two entire animals to get up that ravine and down the path and back to our truck.
By the time we got the animals gutted, it was well after dark. My son gutted his deer for the first time, along with a few helpful cuts by his old man. My initial thought was to tie the animals’ legs around a heavy branch and carry them out on our shoulders. So, I rigged them up with some rope on a heavy branch. As soon as we picked it up, the branch promptly broke in two.
So, I sawed down a much sturdier log and repeated the process. Unfortunately, the weight, combined with elevation and the uneven terrain, was simply too much for a carry out. We were going to have to drag it. So, I cut more rope, tied it to the animal and my belt, then did the same with my son’s pack, and we started dragging that deer up the hill. It was beyond difficult. I felt my hamstrings and glutes with every step. We’d drag for about 15-20 yards, then stop to rest, often bent over with our hands on our knees.
It probably took us 20-30 minutes to get up that hill and back to the trail, and another 10-15 minutes from the trail to the truck. Once we got to the truck, we threw the animal in the bed, then headed to the check-in station. Once the first animal was checked, we headed back to the woods. We hiked in and repeated the process. The second drag was much easier since (1) the button buck was smaller than the doe and (2) we left the rifle and our packs in the truck.
As we neared the top of the that ridge dragging the second deer, feelings of significant pride began welling up inside of me. We were almost done, and my son had never wavered throughout the process. Didn’t complain. Didn’t shrink back. Didn’t ask for a break. He just went to work with his dad. He did a man’s work like a man. I could not have been more proud.
I was proud that we could find deer. We spent a lot of time picking our spot, walking up and down, checking wind, and looking for deer sign (scat, scrapes, rubs, tracks).
I was proud that we had the skill to put them down without suffering. 75 people hunted that weekend and 26 deer were killed. That means 2/3 of the hunters got nothing. We doubled up.
I was proud that we were able to gut the animals cleanly. We even kept the heart and liver from the button buck. The heart from the doe had been blow apart by Silas’ bullet.
I was proud that we figured out a way to get those deer out of there. We tried a few different methods until we found one that worked.
Most of all, I was proud to have worked hard with my son, and to see him rise to the challenge.
- Outdoors? Check.
- Long hours? Check.
- Cold? Check.
- Skill and knowledge required? Check.
- Lots of physical activity? CHECK!
- Discomfort? Check.
- Opportunities to complain? Check.
- Mission accomplished, together? Check.
It’s great to have plenty of free-range, organic meat in our freezer. We’ll enjoy it a ton over the winter. But the highlight was the memory. And the memory doesn’t happen unless you pursue the adventure. Do hard things. Do ambitious things. Be strong. Be courageous. Learn new skills and apply them. Go out into the wild country. And, when they’re ready, take your kids with you. Encourage them to jump in. As they demonstrate responsibility and earn trust, give them the freedom to participate. Make them share the work. Don’t make them do the work, make them share the work. With you.
Because, when you do, you’ll stand at the top of that ravine with a deer tied to both of you, and you’ll share a moment together that won’t soon be forgotten. You’ll see him embrace the man’s life. And you’ll feel a satisfaction and pride that words cannot describe. This is the man’s life. May we all build it. Godspeed.
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