The sound of ice cracking in the cedar swamp signaled it is deer moving and they are coming fast.
Through a screen of hemlocks I see a flash of one deer, no two. A doe stops to survey the woods in front of her. It takes fifteen seconds for the second deer to materialize. In that time, my mind paints a picture of a ten pointer stepping out of the cedars. Instead a fawn ambles into view and follows its mother into the cedar swamp to the north. I realize then that I am shaking.
After pondering for a couple of hours why I was shaking, I conclude that it was the picture painted in my mind of the ten pointer. That brief moment on opening morning of the Wisconsin gun season has made my season worthwhile. That excitement is what hunting is all about.
Thanksgiving morning. Fresh snow blankets the Chequamagon National Forest. Moving along some hardwoods bordering a spruce bog, the woods seem to turn an exquisite peach color. I enjoy the light show for a minute before the emerging sun puts an end to this scene. It adds nothing to the meat pole, but it is beautiful if only for a few moments.
I cut a pair of tracks on the edge of the hardwoods. For three hours these two lead me on a merry chase from one bog to another before heading out into the hardwood ridges to the north.
I call a truce, turning south, heading for some ridges which keep watch above a wilderness lake. I encounter a pair of wolf tracks. Maybe they too were enjoying this beautiful day for hunting. Who could blame them? After following them for awhile, I wish them luck and set a course for the lak
I notice a large track moving up into the ridges. My heartbeat picks up as I scan the woods for that ten pointer I have chased in my mind for years. I follow the track to the last ridge above the lake. The sun has dipped below the trees so I end the chase.
That night at camp I think about what a great day it had been. The only sign of other hunters I had seen were the pair of wolf tracks.
On Sunday morning I walk back to my truck with the melancholic realization that a year must pass before next deer season. I come upon a fresh scrape under a balsam limb. That sight will keep me company until next November.
My tag went unfilled. I always paraphrase Aldo Leopold, “What was big was not the rack, but the chance. What was full was not my tag, but my memory.”
Hunting does not come with guarantees other than a communion with sunrises and sunsets and the chance of a ten pointer stepping out of the cedars. That may happen in the next five minutes, just as all seems hopeless. Maybe that never happens. But there is always the chance.
The interlude from one November to the next makes deer season so special. When the bright October woods give way to the steely November landscape, the excitement reaches a fever pitch. I feel a primal pull towards a cabin on the crooked shores of Lake Namakagon in Bayfield County. There is no more special place and this is a special time. Our deer camp will gather to write the next chapter not really knowing how it will begin or end. That’s as it should be. No matter what comes or doesn’t come down the trail, for nine precious days each November I am the luckiest guy alive. As hunters, aren’t we all?