Outdoor Columnist Ben Smith tells of what could be his last hunting trip of the season, struggles and all.
Alright, I’ll admit it. I was among the complainers back in August when you could cook eggs on the sidewalk. I cursed the heat as much as anyone. And I’ll admit that I throw shade toward northerners from time to time about being so sensitive to the heat down here. Moving forward, northerners are either the toughest people on the planet, or the dumbest. You can decide which.
I took what is probably my last overnight hunting trip this season. It’s a trip that I dread each year. It’s not that I’m not excited for baseball season to begin, I’m just never quite ready to let go of hunting season. I love the sounds, the smells, the views, and the fact that there’s nobody else around. I get lost out there, sometimes literally. I’m a better person when I’ve been in the woods.
This trip, however, started out a little different than most. As you know, I don’t stay in a cozy camp on these trips. I bunk in a six person tent that I’ve outfitted to meet the majority of my most basic needs. There’s a blow up mattress, a lantern, a folding chair, a milk crate with a few essentials, and a Mr. Buddy heater. I bring a pillow, a sleeping bag, and food to cook over open flame each time I go up. That’s it. I put the tent up in October and leave it standing throughout deer season. Most of my friends say I’m an idiot, but I enjoy the primitiveness and the challenge.
Weather is the biggest obstacle I face each year. The tent is equipped with a rainfly, but that doesn’t always ensure it will be dry. The tent is made from breathable material, so when we get a stiff wind from the North, it can get a little chilly. Also, on cold nights you have to unzip a couple of windows to properly ventilate the tent unless you want condensation from your breathing to collect at the top and drip on you. That’s a lesson I learned after waking up damp one morning even though there was no rain during the night. While I’m there, I can control most of what happens with the tent. While I’m gone, obviously I cannot.
I arrived on Sunday evening to a disaster. Apparently the storms from last week wreaked havoc on my tent and nearly destroyed it. The winds ripped the stakes from the ground turning the tent into what I’d imagine a grocery bag blowing across the yard. The only thing that stopped the tent from being in the next county over was my four wheeler trailer that I had parked behind the tent. Part of the tent got caught on the trailer keeping it from blowing away. That’s the good part. The bad part is that it also caused it to rip in several spots. The rainfly will no longer serve its purpose. It’s beyond repair. The poles, essentially the bones of the tent, were fortunately okay. The contents inside the tent weren’t destroyed but were all soaked.
I took much of the evening to do my best patchwork to make the tent functional for one more night. Part of me thought to cut my losses and drive home, but the other part of me wanted to test my craftsmanship to see if I could fix it enough to withstand the night of sub-freezing temperatures. After a couple of hours, I had the tent back standing and void of any major holes. I reattached the rainfly, not to keep rain out, but as an additional barrier against the cold and the wind. After an unsuccessful evening hunt, I settled in for the night hoping not to die from hypothermia.
Interestingly enough, I think I slept better the other night than I slept all year. I woke up refreshed and ready to go. I was so excited I almost skipped to my morning stand. And what a morning it was! Over the next few hours I saw over twenty deer. They were undoubtedly filling their bellies ahead of the winter storm that was moving into the area. I sat in the tree until I couldn’t feel my fingers any more before climbing down to take a break. I was actually relieved when a few deer that I’d been watching left, giving me an opportunity to get down. It’s not often that I’m in favor of deer leaving, but I literally couldn’t feel my extremities.
I decided to get back into the woods early for the evening hunt. The wind was relentless and then the sleet began. After a couple of hours, it was either climb down and warm up for a minute or risk freezing to death. I opted to move around for a bit. A last second decision to change stand locations sets the stage for the rest of the hunt. While walking to my new location, I noticed a buck and doe feeding in a field well beyond any shot distance that I’d ever taken. Instead of attempting to get closer, I decided to lay down and take a shot at the buck. Using my backpack as a gun-rest, I steadied my rifle and took a breath. I squeezed the trigger, heard the blast, and watched as the buck buckled and hobbled off.
I was confident in the shot and the reaction of the deer, but I was not confident in the weather, which was getting worse by the minute. Knowing that I had to drive home that evening and knowing that the road conditions were only going to get worse, I decided to call in a tracker to bring dogs. He arrived about an hour after I called, and the dogs quickly picked up the trail. It wasn’t long before they had the buck caught. There was only one major problem. They caught him in the creek and likely drowned him. This particular portion of the creek is pretty deep, and we were unable to recover the deer.
The trip home was about as miserable as any that I’ve had from hunting. I felt horrible about not getting the buck, although I plan to go back and look some more. To make matters worse, the roads were completely iced over with more sleet and snow falling the entire trip home. What usually takes me an hour and a half took a little over three hours (northerners insert joke here). I even got yelled at by an MDOT worker spraying bridges.
I’m not sure if this was my last hunting trip of the season, or not. It will all depend on my work schedule from here. That said, if this was my last trip, I’m grateful for another season of opportunity. It wasn’t always great, but it was always an adventure.
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