Saturday, November 30, 2013

Day 202 - Hunting

I have never been hunting. Despite the fact I grew up in a rural Wisconsin community where annual hunts are almost considered a rite of passage, the idea of trekking into the woods with weapons and killing an animal for sport or for a form of sustenance was never something that piqued my interest. Neither sitting in the cold for hours on end or the idea of taking a life were things I found appealing, which resulted in me openly rejecting the idea of hunting during the first 30 years of my life. Participating in the hunt may have been a big deal to many of my friends and family, but I was absolutely fine with its absence in my life.

As the years passed, this perspective remained largely intact, but a curiosity about the experience of spending a weekend in the woods with some good company started to creep into my mind. When my friends and brothers would share their annual stories about the hunt as the holiday season began, I would be left feeling as though I was missing out on something. I still had no desire to take an animal’s life, but the opportunity to spend time sharing and making stories left me rethinking my aversion to the idea of hunting. Eventually, this perspective caused me to begin tossing the idea of going on my first hunting trip during my “I have never...” year. I wasn’t going to actively pursue the opportunity, but I convinced myself I would take on the experience if the opportunity presented itself.

With that in mind, I began planning my “I have never...” events for November several weeks ago. As I worked, the majority of the month posed little challenge in finding daily events to fill the weeks with the exception of one day, Saturday November 30th. My efforts to schedule an event for the day hitting a dead end at every turn, I began to think about pursuing a brief hunting trip to cover my bases, but the thought remained a last resort as I pressed forward in my research.

Still uncertain as to what new experience I would pursue on the last day of the month, I decided I would wait to look for more opportunities later in the month. As luck would have it, my brother Ian reached out to me a few days later with a brief email asking me if I wanted to join him hunting the last weekend of the month. Realizing the opportunity to gain the experience had fallen into my lap, I decided I would take him up on the offer, which set the plans for today’s new experience. Still hesitant and slightly uncertain about what to expect, I gathered as many warm clothes as I could and I headed up north for my first hunting experience.

The cabin

After arriving Friday night, my brother and a group of hunters immediately welcomed me to our hunting camp, which was stationed at the beautiful Northwoods cabin owned by some family friends. Within minutes of my arrival several members of the group were offering me food and drink and giving me a primer on the next day’s plans. It was easy to settle in and get comfortable with such hospitality, which was only amplified as we worked our way through dinner. Around a spread of hearty food, members of the group traded stories and told jokes to pass the time. It was clear everyone in attendance was happy to be there and ready to kick off another weekend of the annual deer hunt.

Settling in...
As the night wore on I spent some time playing games with my nephew, Bennet, and his friend, Nick, who was also the son of Ian’s close friend, Jason. Over a deck of cards we played some simple games and placed bets with stacks of gummy bears, which sparked a competitive spirit among the kids and left them with more than enough sugar before bed. Ultimately, the night wound down for some members of the camp, which left a group of six ready to gather around the table and play cards. With high spirits and plenty of beer, the guys gathered stacks of coins and settled in to place some wagers playing Sheepshead. Unfamiliar with the game, I watched on as the group worked through hands and shared some laughs. Everyone at the table was more the helpful in helping me learn the game as they played, which inevitably made me feel ready to give it a try. As a result, Ian offered to let me take his place at the table so he call it a night, which I reluctantly agreed to do.

Although it was clear I was still green, everyone at the table continued to help me through the game until I found a sort of rhythm. As we played, we filled time between plays with wise remarks, jokes, and stories, which made the time pass quickly. Eventually, we realized the clock had breached 3:00 am, which surprised everyone at the table equally. While I’m sure we could have continued playing until the sun rose, we all agreed we should get some sleep before the morning hunt. In turn, we decided to hit our bunks as the night made its steady march toward daybreak.

Finding the stand
The next morning nearly everyone at the camp rose early. Despite the fact many of us had very limited sleep, the jovial spirit and energy from the previous day remained. It was clear everyone was excited to get into the woods, which made it hard not to feel the same as I bundled up in preparation for spending a few hours in the cold. Once I was finished, Ian, Bennet, and I made our way out to a tree stand in the woods. Although we had a later start than we had hoped, we quickly took our positions in the forest hoping we could call some deer out of the space around us. As Ian and Bennet climbed high into the tree stand, I set up a portable camouflage blind and took a seat inside. It wasn't necessarily my ideal choice for my first hunting experience, but I realized the blind would serve as my post for the next few hours. As a result, I did my best to get comfortable and stay warm as the hunt got underway.

Several hours later we had seen no activity in the woods around us with the exception of a few woodpeckers and a squirrel. Our stomachs growling, we decided to head back to the cabin to grab a bite to eat and soak up some warmth. As we found our way back to the cabin, we took a brief detour through the woods to see if we could track any deer, but our persistent bad luck remained. By the time we reached the cabin, we had seen little more than some old tracks, which left us disappointed but determined to give it another try later in the day.

The view from the blind

Following a quick meal, I decided to take a short nap hoping the rest would help me stay awake through the late afternoon hunt. As the rest of the group rejoined us in the cabin, I listened to similar stories of little activity in the woods, which left some of the hunters motivated to get back out in the woods and make the most of the remaining daylight. As soon as I woke from my nap, Ian and I decided in was time we too made our way back out to the woods to try to catch activity as the afternoon moved to evening. With Bennet tagging along, we took our positions back out in the woods and set up for a long haul into dusk. To my surprise, the hours moved quickly as I constantly scanned the woods from my stationary position. Like earlier in the day, the forest around us was silent for the extent of our time in the woods, which left us empty handed as the sky became heavy with the first signs of night. Defeated, Ian, Bennet, and I packed up our things and walked back to the cabin to end my first experience hunting.

Back at the cabin I gathered my belongings and prepared to head home after the day’s experience. With the remaining members of the group trickling back to the cabin, it quickly became clear no one in the group had any luck throughout the day. While it was frustrating to some, the fact we didn’t see any activity during our hunt was somewhat of a relief to me. The persistent struggle I have with the concept of taking an animal’s life made me hesitant about the experience from the beginning, and the reality is the absence of deer made me realize the hunt is about so much more than sitting in the woods hoping you shoot an animal. The time I spent hanging out with some good people, having some drinks, and playing cards were the most memorable parts of the event, and I honestly believe that would have remained the case even if we had been successful in our hunt.

Brothers on the hunt

Stated simply, in our time together the group formed bonds and gained a camaraderie that is rare in any experience. We came together around the idea of spending a weekend in the woods pursuing an elusive animal, and with that came great stories of our time spent in the Northwoods. That takeaway was entirely unexpected, and it left me feeling as though I may have been missing out on something truly special all these years. Sure, I might not ever convince myself to kill an animal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself escaping to the Northwoods again next year. If I don’t, I’m afraid I won’t have the chance to make some amazing memories, and that’s something I don’t want to miss.

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