Nick and I woke at 6 am to prepare for our hunt. I’m not an early riser. I’m more of a 9ish, have-a-cup-of-coffee, scan-the-news, and futz-around-the-house-until-noon kind of riser. I suppose this must change if I’m to be a successful hunter. Jeremy, Nick’s buddy, showed up close to 7 am, and we enjoyed a little coffee as we waited for dark to lift.
We plodded through neat rows of conical-shaped Noble Fir Christmas trees. Gray sky and misty fog limited visibility. Nick slid into teacher mode, and despite his whispered delivery, he came across as the subject matter expert on all things Deer. “Good morning for hunting. No moon last night. They’re just starting to feed about now.”
Jeremy nodded in affirmation and began his own whispered lecture. “Deer don’t have night-vision like people think. They got to wait for light to feed. Pointless to get up at the crack of dawn after a clear night with a moon. May as well drink beer all day and hunt closer to dusk.” I liked the idea of near-dusk hunts over crack-of-dawn hunts, but I doubt drinking beer all day serves as a wise technique before picking up bow or firearm. But what do I know, I am just the apprentice.
We crested a hill and stood in a clearing muddied and scared by tractor tires and littered with tree harvesting equipment. The harvest season was nearly over now, but rows of tiny green triangles striped rolling fields of grass in the promise of Christmas future. I scanned the tree fields, an orchard, the meadow, and a sea of mature timber behind Grandpa’s old red barn. My eyes inventoried distinct shades of green, reminding me why I love the Northwest and all that the rain promises.
Grandma’s tidy farmhouse stands beyond the last row of organized green triangles. The house is picture-perfect white, complemented by babbling brook and weeping willows. The view reminds me of Sunday mornings and sour-dough waffles. If I try, I can almost smell the sticky-sweet of maple syrup wiped on my sleeve. Behind Grandma’s house, an old orchard of late apples and fall pears serve as the perfect feeding ground for deer.
The ten-minute walk from hilltop to orchard was extended while moving in hunter mode. I mimicked Nick and Jeremy’s exaggerated gait, and suppressed giggles. My mind wandered, and I pictured an episode of Scooby with a cameo appearance of Elmer Fudd.
Nick signaled a rally, and Jeremy and I moved in. Charades replaced spoken word as Nick played out the story of a cougar tracking one larger deer and a smaller deer through the trees. Jeremy popped thumbs up and communicated proper licensure and hunting tag to kill cougar as well as deer. My heart sunk. The deer hunting was impromptu, and I didn’t feel fully prepared, even in my apprentice, A.K.A. gutter roll. I definitely was not ready for cougar hunting.
The boys abandoned the orchard quest, and we made our way into the forest. I followed close behind, careful not to stray too far. My eyes remained fixed on the forest floor scanning for soft moss to quiet my steps. I didn’t want to be the one blamed for sounding like a rhino and chasing away the game. I didn’t have to worry. Jeremy’s boots squeaked and he sneezed twice. I was glad not to be “that guy” for once.
We heard a crack in the woods, and we all froze. We stood motionless on an old logging road and listened to twigs break and the crunch of brush under foot. It sounded like a small herd was moving toward us. I worried my heart might be heard beating out of my chest. I wanted to see deer, but wasn’t certain I was ready to see one die. And I knew I wasn’t ready to gut one even though I promised in a moment of displaced machismo. Worse, I dreaded a sighting of cougar stealth on an unaware herd.
The crunching and snapping grew louder. Jeremy and Nick dropped to one knee and readied their bows. I dropped to a knee and fidgeted with my mittens. Nick saw him first. I knew by his smile and sigh that it wasn’t deer or cougar. With thumb and pinky extended, Nick pantomimed horns alongside of his head. Horns not antlers. A brick-red heifer poked her head from the brush. A woolly black steer pushed past to investigate. The pair of spring calves separated from the greater herd to track and investigate us. Curiosity got the best of them, and they edged dangerously close. I snapped a couple of photos before Nick rallied the hunting party back together.
We transitioned back into Scooby-doo mode and made our way through the forest. Brush under foot and snapping of twigs followed the party. We had picked up a tail, two of them. The calves followed us through the woods.
The hunt ended without a single sighting of live deer or cougar. Nick broke the silence first. “Well, we had a nice walk.”
“Isn’t that what losers say?” I pretended to be disappointed.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what losers say. But did you have fun?”
And then the part I’d been waiting for started. Jeremy broke into the first hunting story. He told about the time he was in a wood draw surrounded by elk. How he could hear them mooing all around but couldn’t get a clear shot. How he climbed over a log and what he believes to have been a cougar leapt over his head. “The thing moved so fast, I never got a good look. I all but shit my pants hightailing it out of that canyon.” Hunting stories and jokes about honey badgers continued all through breakfast. It was a good first day in the woods.