With the faintest, furtive greys of the predictably wet November day spreading from the east, I step out onto the deer camp deck and the chill of a pre-dawn drizzle bites into my bare legs. I could have put pants on, but didn’t see the point just yet.
I grab the jug of orange juice off the picnic table and I swirl the grainy slush around inside of it. The drink pours like cement into the red plastic cup and I chug it back as though it were a heavy dram of whiskey. The chill of the ice tightens in my throat as I pour another cup before re-entering the cabin.
The wood stove crackles and pops.
“She’s looking a bit damp.” I announce, and a few grunts acknowledge my observation. I set the jug of juice on the long wood table and a portable radio crackles some trendy country song. In the back room I can hear gear being organized for the day. A gas lantern hisses a yellow haze, and next to it a modern, battery-operated unit glows silent, clean, white light.
I sit in the stiff-backed wooden chair and unwrap a granola bar, content for a moment to watch the primal dance of grown men in tight deer camp quarters. My father and uncles, in their late-50’s or older, are seasoned veterans of this ritual and they move purposefully around the perimeter, eating lightly, pulling on lined work pants, and double-checking their coat pockets or fanny packs. These men travel light in the bush, but don’t ever want for comfort.
My cousins, and others in camp that are of my generation, move less smoothly. We all seem to have more equipment in our ponderous backpacks, and we mill around testing grunt tubes, clipping thick foam seats to our belts, wriggling into space-age, skin-tight athletic shirts, and then pulling thermal hoodies or camo sweaters over those.
I’m a throwback. I wear an old wool sweater over top of my Under Armour.
I get up and move upstairs to my corner of the cabin. From the edge of my cot, I finish getting dressed before I stuff a couple of apples and a candy bar into my backpack. My coat hangs over my bed, and I feel around in the pockets for my gloves and toque. I find my two way radio and flick it on; the ‘full battery’ icon is good news. Descending the stairs, I see that men are already filing out the door.
“Shawn, where’r you going today?” someone says. I had not really thought of that yet.
“Beaver Pond, I think.” It is a snap choice to go to a run of hardwoods that forms a funnel between some ridges and, as the name implies, an old beaver pond.
“Okay,” my dad chimes in “Make sure you stay there until lunch. A deer could come through there anytime.”
“Will do.” I tell him, even though I won’t if the wind changes and gets bad for that stand, or if I just get too cold. Dad nods and heads out. I slip on boots and grab my rifle off of the gun rack on the wall. I’m the second to last one out.
I exit the cabin door, a shining blaze orange beacon. I look to my left and watch similar orange forms slip up the trail, silently headed to their posts. Stepping off the deck, I reach into my pants pocket and find the clip for my .308. With a satisfyingly snug ‘click!’ it nests into the rifle. I check the safety with my thumb and then I work the bolt, smooth and almost automatically.
The familiar, metallic ‘snick-snick’ of the shell being chambered tells me that now, after a year off from it, I’m finally deer hunting again.
I push the safety off and then click it back on again. I picked up that habit from my great uncle Bower, and I do it every time I load a gun. Bower was there in 1995 when I shot my first deer, one of the first on the scene as I recall. He was quite pleased with the little doe fawn I knocked down that day, and so was I. Bower has been gone for over a decade now, but his memory floods back every November.
We smile and laugh when we tell stories of him.
I do not shoot many deer, and it seems that the ones I do shoot are never more than 2 ½ years old. The others in my camp shoot plenty more deer, and those deer are oftentimes a lot bigger, so my lack of prowess has become, in a way, my badge of honour. My feet move quietly on the damp grass and wet leaves, and through wind and spitting rain I hear the cabin door open and close one last time.
I don’t bother looking back, I know who it is, and I know where they are going.
They are going deer hunting, just like I am.