I’ve been hunting during the November deer season in Minnesota for two years running now. I’ve driven out to a remote cabin heated only by a wood-burning stove. I’ve selected layers upon layers upon hand and foot warmers upon hats and gloves upon all other manner of winter weather gear for the subzero temperatures. I’ve risen far before the dawn to vacuum a breakfast off my plate, dress in the aforementioned accouterments, and stumble out into the dark. I’ve loaded a muzzleloader by the light of a headlamp and confirmed my readiness. I’ve sat completely still for hours just for a glimpse of a viable, in-range target. I still haven’t fired a shot, though. Not one.
As is often the case with “firsts,” my first hunting trip remains most vivid in my memory. The stove’s slow smolder through the evening had heated the upstairs loft where I slept to a stifling temperature. I woke, as I regularly do, 2-3 minutes before my alarm sounded, gathered long johns and wool socks, and dressed preliminarily. On the cabin’s main floor, my father and brothers in-law were putting on coffee and unwrapping mammoth Costco muffins; while the brown juice bubbled and gargled through the machine, we ripped open warmer packages and set them on the table. From the moment air began to circulate through the beady packets, the pouches got hot. Very hot. After I stuck them to the bottom of my socks and put on my boots, I recall thinking that, taken with the toasty feel of the cabin, there was no way my feet would cool down—at least not until the end of the 5-8 hours the directions promised. I laced my boots snug but not tight, as I had been advised that the Thinsulate and Gore-Tex lining would be less effective without airflow. Finally, after climbing into camouflage coveralls and putting on a sweatshirt, coat, and blaze-orange vest, I was deemed fit to go outside and shoulder my weapon.
Muzzle-loading rifles, unlike others, require a careful sequence to ensure proper firing. Though not as primitive as in Revolutionary War depictions, muzzleloaders still have several parts that must work in unison to ensure an accurate shot. After cleaning and greasing the barrel, which is to be done beforehand, powder capsules are dropped in. Then, using a ramrod, the bullet is pushed down the barrel and “seated” at the bottom. Next, a primer is placed near the hammer mechanism—this small device, when struck, lights the powder, which in turn expels the bullet. Once comfortable with handling, a wielder must carry separate caches of powder, bullets, and primers, not to mention a light and gutting knife, among other optional materials. It was in this fashion—weighted not only physically, but mentally, with the seriousness and responsibility of a loaded firearm—that I ventured out into a black forest, following the glint of dime-sized reflectors on birch trees to my stand.
Hunting is unique in that it taps into and stirs our most primal need for survival, yet, in our modern era, may be a practice which some never attempt—especially if the activity is not already a mainstay in one’s lineage. Growing up, a number of my classmates embarked on inaugural hunting expeditions at a mere 14 or 15 years old; I watched them pass through rite-of-passage and into experience, hearing stories of perfect shots where the animal dropped on the spot, mistimed shots that led to labyrinthine tracking through wood and snow, and of course, renditions of “the one that got away”—a phrase that, strangely, would at times later apply to each of our searches for a mate. I saw the proof often on display when I would visit these families’ homes, manifested as anything from a salty chew of homemade jerky to the animal’s replicated likeness stuffed and showcased on living room wall. To this day, none has been more impressive than the bison head I observed on a band tour homestay in college, a mass of fur and face that extended several feet into the family’s den. Not only does such a mount indicate familiarity with weapons, but also patience, guile, and dedication. I can imagine few more menacing deterrents for thieves.
My wife’s family introduced me to hunting, as my family tree and close family friends held few to no hunters. I did join a family friend for a brief duck hunt once in my youth, but the ducks were few, the weather was cold, windy, and rainy, and the one duck my friend saw and shot was a coot with tainted meat. Needless to say, I have treasured my deer hunting outings thus far, as the occasion inspires a special bonding. A plan is set in place en route to the spot, but once the walk begins, voices are left behind. When two or more people spend extended time together without speaking, they are forced to communicate and be in one another’s presence in unfamiliar ways. Sure, one person can tell another “who they are” with a few rehearsed phrases, but hunting, like few other ventures, affords an opportunity to show those things. On my first hunting weekend, I spent one morning in a tree stand with my wife. Hunting surveillance requires as little movement as possible, and absolutely no sound. I like to think I learned things about her in those few hours that were imparted to me subconsciously and drew us closer together, though perhaps not romantically.
I’ve walked trail and off-trail numerous times with her father and brother, all the while using only the simplest gestures and most deliberate movements. Even they—hunters who have multiple times shivered through the morning, afternoon, and early evening without a filled tag—eagerly continue year-after-year to set aside a weekend or two for the annual gathering. In the few times we’ve been out together, they strategize for my opportunity to take a buck—not their own. Before we even arrive at whatever spot, they plan to sacrifice some of their time so that I might take my first shot. Of course this is due to their generosity and the love we all share as a family, but, from my observation, they also know that the joy is not contingent upon a harvest, and that inspires me. They’re content not to fire, yet they are not bored or dissatisfied. That example, fortunate for me, is the one I follow as I prepare for only my third year hunting.
My wife grew up eating wild game; our freezer still holds steaks from her father’s successful antelope (technically, “pronghorn”) hunt earlier this year. For her and for me, the eating is not an optional secondary pursuit—it is central and primary to the process. The distinction between trophy and treasure is another essential choice the modern hunter makes. Rather than “treasure” as the only choice, which once existed out of necessity—to feed, to clothe, to shelter, to honor land and life and luxury (relatively speaking)—hunting now exists as sport alone. To me, when a kill is made solely for the pleasure in the shot, it becomes no different than a three-point swish, a netted goal, or a sunken putt. It becomes trivial, entertainment alone, and entertainment alone in the midst of a life-and-death confrontation is disturbing. It is a fearful brush with Richard Connell’s popular fiction, The Most Dangerous Game. It is a far cry from the Native American philosophy of using the entire animal and the ingenious developments therein in the hope to leave nothing behind. It is waste, and willing, needless waste, to my mind, is a tragic thing.
I have learned that the moment of the shot, the decision to raise, aim, flip safety to “off,” and pull the trigger, is not the determinant of a hunt’s success. A hunting journey is not a waste if it is without a shot, and in fact can satisfy in ways a person does not expect and can find nowhere else. As I mentioned, a sport hunter is no different than an athlete playing a game, and though a game has its own satisfying sensory accompaniments, a gymnasium or rink or even carefully manicured field cannot replicate natural, untamed wilderness. I like to think of hunting as a feast; I begin with an empty stomach, and each subsequent course works to sate my hunger, though they enact themselves on my palate separately and distinctly. The morning of preparation is my salad, the walk through the woods my soup, and the climb up my stand the appetizer. The main course, bite by bite, is every individual thing I see from the stillness of my roost: a squirrel rustling through leaves, a bird swooping and singing in and out of fallen logs, a doe nosing through drifts for her own food. It is the savor of grouse and geese calls and dew drips from branches as the sun yawns awake. When I approach the end of such a meal, I am wholly satisfied. I need nothing more. And yet, if the Host offers after-dinner coffee and dessert, I find room, and I add it to the whole of the meal as an equal. That is the shot.
On a more recent hunting trip, my father-in-law and I hiked a long section of terrain near Lac Qui Parle Lake in Southwestern Minnesota. We saw doe after doe, sometimes only yards from our position, pop out of tall grass and bound away, but no bucks. The cattails and tall grass were covered in diamond-like hoarfrost, and the temperature hovered at a lovely 30 degrees, no wind, plenty of sunshine. Such weather afforded the chance to shed a few layers, especially when I posted near a creek as my father-in-law attempted to drive deer toward my position. I visit that spot in my memory often—near the end of shooting time, sitting comfortably on a stump, rifle across my lap, legs and ankles pulsating in rest, feet warm and unburdened in new boots my father had given me. I felt tucked back into a corner of the world that I most certainly would never have seen had it not been for the hunt. I listened and heard no vehicles, no human voices, almost nothing at all. To my left, a few hundred yards down on the frozen creek, a small group of deer tentatively stepped out onto the ice. I looked for antlers but couldn’t see at that distance. It didn’t matter, though, because I was full. Someday I’ll be offered dessert, and I will gratefully accept, but in the meantime I am not even close to starving.
Bryn Homuth has recent poems published or forthcoming in The Maine Review, The Tishman Review, and The Turnip Truck(s), among others in various print and electronic journals. His work has previously been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for the Best of the Net Anthology. Bryn currently lives near Minneapolis, MN and is working on his first full-length collection of poetry while teaching English courses for Crown College.