The Unhappy Hunting Grounds

        At some point in my early thirties, a friend of mine who grew up in Hong Kong, we’ll call him Adam, since nothing screams ethnic Chinese like the name of the first man in the Bible (also it’s his real name), expressed an interest in hunting.  I had not hunted since I was about sixteen years old, but, having not learned how to keep my mouth shut in the intervening years, I agreed to take him out in the woods with a loaded weapon.

        To say that I was an experienced hunter is like saying the Seattle Mariners have playoff experience.  I dabbled a bit for a few years, but I’ve spent more Octobers at home than on the hunt.  Some of this is due to me growing up in Seattle after my parents divorced and the nearest viable hunting location is at least two hours away.

        The real reason, I believe, is that I failed an early test of sanity.  I knew growing up that my dad hunted.  One day, while he was cleaning some rifles after a trip to the range to prepare for an African safari, five year old me asked the following question.

        “Why don’t you hunt rabbits with a chainsaw?”

        Whether he admits it or not, I’m fairly certain that he spent the next couple years watching to see if I took a Hannibal Lechterian turn.  I didn’t help my cause when, while watching a documentary on South African farmers who deal with nuisance birds by detonating fireballs under the trees they roost in at night, my dad asked me what I thought of that, not sure if I would have nightmares for a month or ask for bags of fertilizer and a lighter for Christmas.

        “That’s one way to kill a bird,” I said with the expression of one who has devised more efficient methods of avicide.

        It would be another year until I was given my first BB gun.

        With a rifle borrowed from my dad’s arsenal, Adam and I camped out at his wife’s family’s property in Kelso, Washington.  We had camped there before with our wives and seen deer up in the surrounding hills.  That was in July.  October in western Washington is a different beast.  A cold, wet beast.

        We spent two days, from dawn to dusk, searching for the elusive blacktail deer in woods more conducive to Ewoks than humans.  Completely soaked and utterly defeated, Adam returned to his job at Amazon.  I figured he had lost the bug, but within days he started sending me articles about hunting blacktail deer, which are euphemistically called the Pacific Ghosts.

        Having now infected me with his hunting bug, I asked my brother-in-law, Sam, to take me out for a late season hunt.  Despite knowing him for almost five years at the time, Sam wasn’t completely convinced I wasn’t the liberal dickhead he took me for based on his Facebook stalking of me before our first meeting.  He grudgingly acquiesced and we drove up near the Canadian border.

        He dragged me all over three mountains that day.  We stomped through brush so thick even rabbits would be loath to enter.  Explored game trails with nary a sign of ruminant or human activity.  Glassed hillsides that we assumed were chock full of game, despite the game warden (who I almost handed a loaded weapon to) telling us that he hadn’t seen a single deer taken in that area all season.

        With the day winding down and Sam giving me side eye over our encounter with the warden, we headed down the mountain in his truck.  As we rounded the corner a huge buck trotted across the road before casually disappearing into the trees.  Without saying a word Sam slowed down and I climbed out, leaving the door open so the buck wouldn’t hear it close, and Sam drove further down the road so as not to let the buck know we had seen him.

        With a stealthiness not normally in my repertoire, I snuck up into the trees, eyes scanning, ears listening.  I stepped ever so gently over the mossy ground, making sure not to snap any twigs or rustle any bushes.  For two minutes that felt like two days, I searched with terminator-like focus.  And then he appeared.

        I froze.  The buck walked into a clearing in the heavy timber and stopped, listening to the sound of Sam’s engine.  I raised my gun.  He couldn’t have been more that twenty yards away.  I remembered every bit of advice my dad had ever given me about targeting.  Stay calm.  Wait for the perfect shot.  Breathe slowly.  Be confident.  There is no perfect shot.

        The buck was quartering away from me.  I knew how to compensate for the angle, but I waited for him to give me a better profile.  Moments later he obliged, turning broadside.  He looked like a diagram in a hunter’s ed manual.  Video game simulations don’t give you shots this perfect.

        I exhaled as I put my eye to the scope.  When shooting from a bench or prone, I’m an excellent shot.  But today I was standing up.  I don’t have what one would call particularly great fine muscle control.  The reticule was moving all over the place.  I wanted to kneel down to stabilize the shot, but I was even more exposed than the buck.

        Borrowing a trick I had seen in movies, I wrapped the leather sling around my elbow and flared my arm out to the side.  This worked for a few seconds at best.  Knowing I only had a couple more seconds before the buck spotted me or wandered off out of boredom, I exhaled, flared out my arm and squeezed the trigger.

        The buck took off like a track star.  By the time I chambered a new round, he was two hundred yards away and headed for the next mountain.  Sam and I scoured the area for nearly an hour looking for blood, but the lush, mossy environment made looking for dark spots on leaves impossible.  The only tracks he left were where he took off in a cartoon cloud of dust.

        Though Sam was convinced that I had missed a deer I could probably have thrown the rifle at and hit, my dad was of the opinion that I had ‘penciled’ him.  When I borrowed his rifle, a 300 Weatherby Magnum, he could only find 180 grain protected point ammunition in his stash.  Traveling at 3,200 feet per second, this is a fine round for elk or moose or frost giants, but for small deer like the Blacktail, it’s like using a sledgehammer on roofing nails.  The bullet went in one side and out the other before it ever started to expand.

        The next season Sam stayed home and sent me to the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Eastern Washington (Pronounce that how you will.  I have yet to hear a consensus opinion.).  All hopped up on internet research and unwarranted optimism, Adam and I scoured the west side of the valley for nearly eight hours.  We looked behind every bush, checked every grove and glassed every draw, but came away with nothing.

        Skunked again, we headed back to the car.  As we approached the bottom of the hill, a gray haired man who had been sitting in a folding chair next to a truck mounted camper walked up to us and asked how we’d fared.  We told him there were so many trophy bucks that we couldn’t make up our minds, so we didn’t shoot any.  He copped to the same predicament.  We bemoaned the loss of open range for hunting (not that Adam or I had ever known such a time, but we agreed with the gentleman that landowners had a right to restrict access to their land).

        As we were about to leave he pointed to a grove of Aspen that had caught my eye while we were up on the hillside.  I had avoided it since the incline got markedly steeper right there.  He told us that in his youth he had climbed up on the rock outcropping next to the grove and found numerous deer bedded down in there for the day.  He found them there every year.  Now, of course, he was too old for such mountain goating.

        We looked at the rocky outcropping, then back at him, then back to the outcropping.

        “You couldn’t have told us this eight hours ago?” I asked, contemplating elder abuse.

        “I didn’t even get out of bed until ten,” he replied, picking the shit from his grin.

        As I drove the five hours back home I decided I needed a place of my own.  I had fond memories of summers and winters spent at my stepfather’s cabin in southern Idaho.  The difference, of course, would be that whereas he would start so many projects there that almost none were ever finished (including the cabin itself), I would put the bare minimum of effort into this recreational home, so that I could better enjoy it as a vacation spot.

        Money would also factor into my decision as I was in no position to purchase the kind of homestead Bob had built, what with its man-made pond, trap range and volleyball court.  I was fairly certain, however, that I could do considerably better than the plywood cabin my old man built for me when I was five.

        Set back in the trees around our house, the ‘cabin’ was a single room with a slanting roof and no door.  Upon realizing that virtually no sunlight could reach the cabin on any but the brightest of days (we lived on the west shore of Puget Sound, so you might not need both hands to count those days), my dad cut a window (i.e. a hinged flap of wood) into the side and added a couple of opaque skylights to brighten the place up.  I did my best to use the cabin, since even at that tender age I was prone to being a hermit, but ultimately I had to abandon it when, after its first winter, it was overrun with spiders (Charlotte’s Web had no positive effect on my opinion of arachnids, which continues to this day in an uneasy truce wherein spiders found outside are allowed to do as they please, which is generally helpful (except when they build webs across my door in a clearly provocative incursion on my sovereign home), and any spider caught inside my home is made an example of to the others).

        A quick search of the Washington Fish and Game records showed that eastern Washington was the place to look for deer, partly due to their increased presence there and partly due to the abundance of open land (homeowners and law enforcement get litigious when you fire guns in residential areas).

        I was going to get a deer.  It may be the most expensive deer in history, but I was going to get one, by God!  I may have also romanticized the hell out of Walt Whitman’s Walden and envisioned myself sitting at a typewriter in a rustic abode committing deep thoughts to paper.  Obviously, I can be a bit pretentious.  Of course anyone who has ever committed words to paper with the assumption that other people would want to read (and even pay for) them has an intimate familiarity with the inside of their own rectal cavity, but we’ll get back to that.