Hunting By Memory

A woman returns, years later, to the sport her late father taught her.

I’m sitting on a sawed-off stump in the Pennsylvania woods on opening day of doe season. My multiple layers of long underwear are zipped to the neck. The leaves have been brushed away from the ground, I have a round chambered and the safety is on. My scope covers are snapped open. I’m ready for the deer to come to me.

“This is a great spot,” Rob says. “You’re guaranteed to see deer. But they’ll most likely be moving, chased from the valley below. You might have to take a running shot when they cross the road.” Then he disappears over the hill to his spot. My friend Chuck drops into the next drainage.

This “great spot” is against the treeline, right above a bend in a woods road. From where I sit, I can really see only down the road to my right and to my left. A thick stand of visually impenetrable white pines is in front of me. Directly behind is an open field; to turn and scan it requires considerable motion. I wonder how a hunter of my insignificant skill could possibly be successful, and I reset my scope to the lowest power, figuring that if I shoot at all, it will be at close range.

It’s been about 20 years since I last hunted deer. It was an activity I shared with my father, and after he died I lost interest. I waited to hunt again until I met some men whom I could ask for help and cry in front of without feeling silly. Rob and Chuck fit the bill. Still, I feel lonely. I rub my gloved fingers over the checkered stock of my father’s Winchester .30/06 and think, “Where are you, Dad? You made this fun.”

Antidote to Adolescence
My father introduced me to hunting when I was a teenager-a rebellious teenager. At home, we were often at odds. He was a strict father and I was a determined kid. But when we were hunting it was different. There was a harmony in our times together, and there was magic. We would climb the hills before dawn, creeping quietly and stopping often, my father waiting to catch his breath and look around, his big red hunting coat unzipped to let out his heat. I never had any trouble keeping up because he smoked cigars and they affected his wind-which was what got him in the end.

I loved those pauses of stillness. Carefully scanning the forest, we would talk in whispers, glassing logs that looked questionable (my father taught me that horizontal logs without snow on the tops should always be checked out). He’d sit me close by in a good spot, a comfortable spot, the better spot of the two we’d share. I could usually see him and watch to see how much he moved or didn’t move, because that was always a source of bewilderment to me. Just exactly how still must you remain? Must you strive never to move? I could look over at him with longing in my eyes and he would know that I was so cold I had to move, and he would come to me.

Twenty years ago, my father taught me the real gifts of the hunt-the soul-felt things that modern hunters almost never speak about. All my senses were honed sharp. I became so tuned to the natural world that when I sat absolutely motionless, no movement or sound went undetected. I could hear my eyes blink inside my head, my heart pump through my veins. I could pick out which two branches were rubbing against each other and have chickadees land on my shoulder. Even cold and wind had different personalities when I sat still. To me, the kill wasn’t the most important thing; connecting to the world of nature and getting closer to my father was.

My new hunting buddies are at considerable distances from me, out of sight and bullet range-understandably so. You could say my father and I hunted too closely, but in actuality, my father didn’t really hunt when he was with me. He gave up the deer for me to shoot. In his mid-50s, after more than 30 years of hunting, it was more important to him that his daughter get a shot.

We would walk hand in hand in the snowy woods at the end of the day, rrifles slung, more relaxed about being together than alert for an opportunity shot. I wouldn’t be caught dead holding my dad’s hand in public back home where one of my friends could see me. Out here it was different.

I didn’t care if I shot a deer back then, although I did bag a few before he died. I just loved being outdoors. Because my father took the time to take me doe hunting (buck camp was reserved for my brothers), I fell deeply in love with the natural world and have had a hard time “coming in” ever since. Because of my father’s gift, I have a career as an outdoor travel writer to feed my addiction and my family.

Taking the Shot
I come back to the present moment and realize that I’m shivering, uncontrollably. Time to move. I head down the bending road to check on Rob. Pow! That shot was close. I hear running in the dry leaves and immediately crouch down. “You’re in the open, you dummy!” I say to myself. Why didn’t I sit 10 more seconds? Then I see her, 15 yards away. She’s coming right toward me! I raise the barrel and hear my father’s calming words-“Safety off. Put the crosshairs right on her shoulder. It only takes one bullet. Make the first one count. Take a deep breath, exhale, squeeze.” Bam!

I look through the eyepiece. She’s gone! I scan the woods but I don’t see her anywhere. I lower my rifle and am shocked to see the doe lying on the ground. I run up to her limp body and am hit by a wave of both remorse (“What have I done?”) and elation (“Hurrah! I got her!”). Tears stream down my face and I kneel to pet her soft fur. “Thank you,” I say, “for giving up your life.” I know the Native Americans honor their kill this way, and it feels right. Suddenly, a ground breeze sweeps by and pulls just a few leaves into a tiny tornado, a sign I’ve always felt was my father’s spirit saying he was with me.

Rob and Chuck are just thrilled over my success, almost as much as my father would have been. They lend me their drag rope and coach me through the gutting. All three of us get a deer this opening morning, early enough for me to treat my hunting buddies to lunch.

After my father died, I thought I would let hunting go by the wayside, and I did for nearly 20 years. But I’ve realized through this hunt that this is the place to go when I need to feel him, out here in our element, with his .30/06 in my hands.