The weight of the walk
With the anchor-like weight of a deer tag becoming more and more tangible in the right leg pocket of my camouflage hunting pants and that heft spurring much of my recent outdoor activity, I catch myself thinking ahead, beyond the quiet morning sits and windy sneaks through the countryside as I wait for a buck — at this time, I’d take any buck — to magically appear in front of me. As I do, I listen to the winged world around me as chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and other birds of the creek and river bottoms herald opening hour and then, once I’ve followed the sun through the sky from my vantage point on the grassy hillside, they again warn me of the approaching end of each day afield, pointing out that I have yet to set my crosshairs on my target. In my slow hikes, the ones where I hope to gently nudge my quarry from his daytime hiding spot in the tangled ground cover, other birds greet me, most notably the coveys of sharptailed grouse which abound this particular season, along with a good population of pheasants.
Their whirring wings spark a muscle memory from September and October and despite the dozens of encounters in this halftime of sorts in their hunting seasons, it takes a second for my synapses to override the mechanical motion of my shoulders and biceps raising the unfamiliar firearm in an instinctive snap. Across the brown landscape I watch the hens and roosters fly, pumping their wings and gliding softly over the rises. Their tailfeathers are growing long as the birds enter the back half of November, and the tips of their plumage wave out a goodbye as they disappear over the horizon. Marking each spot in my mind, if not on my GPS, I make note of the public land encounters so that I may return in the late season with my dog, when these birds likely will not flush so close. When in search of deer, it seems, all other species are near.
So it goes when you’re focused on one pursuit and entering the final stretch of a season, with the self-inflicted pressure of a paper tag weighing in on every outdoor decision. The guilt of even considering an outing with my dog for those birds during this stretch is enough to override that brought on by his excited brown eyes when I wake up early and sneak out to the truck in the pre-dawn light, dressed in the kind of hunting gear he has now come to recognize does not include him. Still, it doesn’t stop him from approaching the door, tail wagging excitedly as if its motion could change my mind as I sprint out into the garage, holding my breath and only exhaling as the mechanical door goes up and the engine turns over to drown out the pleading whine I’m certain I can still hear coming from up the wooden steps and behind the walk-out door. The anthropomorphizing is ridiculous, but it doesn’t stop there this time of year.
Just as it appears that all antlered animals learn to read posted signs on opening day or waterfowl can hone in on refuge sites in their migrations or pheasants know the safest spot in the world is next to the front porch stoop of any farm house, the end of the firearms season will bring with it a flip in the encounter ratio, and the buck I seek will come bounding from cover the day after, and probably bring three of his friends with him, laughing all the way. In the process, they’ll sprint off and probably send 150 pheasants flushing from the grass, cattails and brush at the end of his jaunt to add insult to the calendar-induced injury. In the meantime though, I’ll continue the hunt and attempt to shed a few pounds by affixing the cast iron gym plate folded up in my wallet to some antler bone in these final days, hopeful for the recklessness of the rut to bring a deer my way … in our outdoors.