In Montana the last day of the general/rifle deer, elk, and black bear season is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which provides many folks with a last extended weekend and psyche-up. This year I was among them, and in the early afternoon Sunday trailed confused deer tracks across an open face; burnt sticks spaced across the hill below, sentinels to a decade old fire, the ground here at 6000 feet packed with a foot of snow. Out of the sight, north and curved around the hill, was the meadow I had slept in last night, where a spruce tree two feet in diameter kept my fresh mind safe from the single digit night. Also out of sight, and directly in front, was the canyon I had ascended to that meadow. Directly level this bottom was tight and rocky, narrow dampness had kept that fire out, and the dark green mat hid cliff bands which forced you out of the bottom every hundred yards. There snow was lesser, but unchanged by sun and wind, and I saw everything in the six inches of fluff: grouse feeding delicately back and forth across the wash, deer moving east to west, a pair of bobcat ascending and showing me the best lines across stacks of boulders and pools thin with ice.
Hiking and then climbing a canyon bottom from road to peak isn’t the most proactive way to hunt anything, my gambits were limited to bumping something just unawares enough to get a shot, or tracking something fast and fresh enough to do the same. Neither worked, though in the upper reaches deer and elk tracks were in enough abundance that neither seemed naive strategies. And this year I decided I’m willing to sacrifice probability for aesthetics.
I’ve had a post entitled “35%” in the drafts cue for 4 months now. Littler Bear, aka Little Cloud, was born in April, and like his brother became fat and happy and needy quickly, the later no more than most babies, the first two rather more than average. By four months the Cloud was precisely half the weight of the Bear, who remains a not-small toddler. The weight of a summer overnight pack is not welcome in a creature which cannot yet hold tight its own head. My thought at that point, as the Cloud settled into a peaceable sleep pattern and the Bear continued to fail to express much jealously, was that we were, from a functional perspective, a hair over one third done with child number one. Chronologically inaccurate as this thought was, it injected optimism into a time of quiet desperation.
That I never finished those thoughts was not a coincidence, insofar as that vowel-replete word is always a proxy for one’s world, unexamined. My adult world has closed in tightly since, with to little space between joy, profundity, and despair for anything but the thin ends of the bell curve. Neurologically and developmentally the Bear is at least a third finished; we spent three year maximizing his potential and will only now watch his brain prune itself back. But increasingly that’s a source of anxiety rather than satisfaction. Time reveals flaws in essays, carpentry, and children, equally.
I can’t take time in the woods as just itself this year. Each day is freighted as a trade off, with hours being the least concern. 9 days of 10 I run out of will and attention before bedtime, the lack of space echoing no other time except college in wondering how many months, and perhaps years, it will take for my brain to be able to catch back up with the rest of me. And that is why those days are so precious; if all I need worry about is keeping my feet warm glassing, and picking out the freshest path from a miasma of tracks and beds on a sunny hillside, things like the clarity to string these words together can at last find me.
So I’m thankful we’re here, in Montana, where deer tags are dirt cheap and doe tags easy to get, and for all sorts of interesting areas where you can hunt antlerless deer in wild corners management did likely, strictly, intend. I like eating fresh meat, but even more I like having the whole experience of walking back, looking, tracking, puzzling, sneaking, planning, shooting, cutting, and packing. I learn things by force when meat is on the line, and time and circumstances limited. In this case, the deer were below me, feeding, predictably, on the three hundred yard swath of ponderosa park almost melted bare by just enough hours of sun. I rushed the downhill scoot, leaning up from sitting so that just my eyes went above the horizon, and the small herd got spooked and moved off, slowly enough that I was sure they just knew something was off. They gave me a shot and I took it, but I hadn’t brought belief enough along, and committed the generic sin of shooting over its back, mistaking the range for longer than it was. That got them moving, and on the last day, with nothing better to do, I follow them.
Snow makes tracks easy, as does a half dozen critters running towards one place. Persistence brought me luck the second time I bumped them, something I could only appreciate when I stood over the carcass and looked back. The deer had first run into a grove of small, tight, ponderosa regrowth, and when I busted them out of it and took their place had a dark backdrop, which gave me enough seconds, ticking against the clock of their prying eyes, to thread a bullet into a shoulder from 200 yards.
For Thanksgiving we recreated this recipe, with the other rear leg of the same deer I shot near Whitefish, when Little Bear was 3 months old. That was a long time ago. The Bear gobbled rich red venison chunks and ignored everything else, while the Cloud gummed biscuits and forged his way slowly towards the polysyllabic world. I was tired most of the day, not because of strained muscles, but from a minds eye which had been obliged, out of desire and necessity, to see just too broadly for too long. Three years ago, and in the third season of my hunting career, I was just learning to see properly. I saw that whitetail at dusk, 80 yards out, at the far range of my right eyes edge, and shot it before it saw me. The latest November deer was remarkable for the punishing packout, side hilling through the snow to the nearest trail, as well as the lofty perch in a timber island just off a ridgecrest, looking down at nearly the full course the eventual snowmelt would take to the ocean. It was even more remarkable because that deer saw me, at least four separate times, and yet had not vanished into the miles.
The sun was finally warm, so I took my time butchering, built a fire, and roasted a chunk of loin seasoned with a ramen packet. Stretched a little and stuck twice on a stick the purple meat faded slowly and almost indistinguishably into red with black edges, the old dried lodgepole twigs providing less heat to the meat than they did to my hands and face. Eating it was imbibing of success, of the moment, and on the terms the world had offered. The brilliance of hunting is in the way seasons restrain imagination, human rules compressing the coal of thought into the diamond of opportunity. Utterly predictable in form, unlike ski or river season, if infinitely less predictable in particular and content. My previous hunts this year had been overwhelming in their beauty and success, but the days and months had stood out the way memories, packed in and peaking, too much water flowing through too little space, the wave crests unknowable in their patterns. Every few weeks, I wonder just how much of the sediment that forms my being will be eroded away, but for an hour now I can eat fresh venison in a bright place in the snow and be content.