The Heart & the Skull: A First Deer Hunt Brings You Closer to the Wild
The author discovers a new relationship with nature on her first deer hunt
Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on first deer hunts. We partnered with the National Deer Association’s Field to Fork program to mentor two of our gear editors last fall. Read Part 2 here.
“So are you going to take the heart?”
I freeze at the question. Even though this is also OL assistant editor Ashley Thess’ first deer hunt, it’s clear that she’s miles ahead of me. People take the heart? I think to myself, then respond: “It’s too soon to ask me that!”
We’re on day two of Field to Fork, a mentorship program for new adult hunters put on by the National Deer Association. Fortunately for me, I’m not the only person in the room who doesn’t come from a hunting background, although most are like Ashley: from this region of the Midwest and familiar with hunting culture from extended family. During the orientation, speakers cover a range of topics, from the history of hunting in the U.S. to what deer perceive with their sixth sense. They also discuss hunting etiquette—don’t walk into a public area covered in blood, don’t leave your deer uncovered in the back of your truck. They tell us that this might look bad to non-hunters, who aren’t used to seeing something like that. When we got to this part, I had to stifle the urge to look around, to see if anyone was watching me. Was I one of the non-hunters they were talking about?
“Laura’s doing what?”
This is what I overhear when my husband tells friends in Seattle that I’m going to Missouri to hunt a deer. Despite not eating meat himself, my husband, like Ashley, has extended family who hunt, so he has some idea of what I’m getting into. I don’t, so I keep quiet.
Prior to joining the OL team, I hadn’t even met many hunters. A chance early-morning encounter with a bowhunter along a trail. Someone who picked us up while we were hitchhiking, moving coolers of elk meat in his truck to fit our packs. Certainly not in my frontcountry life. Most of my social circle has never thought about hunting; never met a hunter. To my knowledge, I don’t even know a gun owner in Seattle.
I had a different sort of exposure to the outdoors growing up. Each summer, my parents would pack up my sister and me for days-long road trips to obscure national parks and wildernesses, the two of us usually the youngest kids on any given trail. They had spent their own youth in Yosemite, bushwhacking down from Half Dome before sleeping under the open stars in the Valley, or climbing obscure routes in the High Sierra, then washing the sweat out of their clothes in the Merced River. But by the time they took my sister and I to see it, the bucolic free-for-all that had been Yosemite was over, now tightly regimented with designated campsites and laundry facilities.
My sister and I were taught not to pick plants or take rocks, to avoid cutting trails, not to feed the animals, and to make noise when you hike so you don’t surprise the wildlife. As I got older I noticed my mom liked obscure trails without designated endpoints—she always wanted to go over one more ridge, and then one more after that. My dad would dawdle behind us, with his old film camera, taking endless photos of landscapes and alpine flowers that he would never develop. They were looking for what they had once found in Yosemite: a wild, beautiful, untouched place.
A First Encounter
My hunt is being mentored by senior deputy editor Natalie Krebs—a definite perk of being on staff at OL. We meet one of the landowners hosting Field to Fork near the entrance gate to their private property, tossing our gear and ourselves into the back of a UTV. He drives us about a mile, passing various deer blinds and treestands before reaching our designated spot, in view of an abandoned granary on top of a hill.
I’m not sure what I’m expecting from sitting in a deer blind, but it’s not this. The field in front of us is bordered by woods in an early winter palette, drab browns and tans that usually leave me feeling depressed. But as we sit there it starts to take on the qualities of an oil painting, pulsating with small movements—a cardinal flashing red in the trees, a distant coyote slowly skirting the edge of a feral field. Natalie and I are staying almost perfectly still ourselves, which only heightens the effect. At one point we hear rustling behind the blind—probably squirrels—but it’s loaded with tension.
The windows are paneless, and colder air is wafting in as the evening light starts to dim. After a while, a buck appears near the top of the hill in front of us, close to where we saw the coyote. I only have a tag for an antlerless deer, so we just watch it. We don’t talk much except in a whisper, with Natalie pointing out something in the landscape or me asking a question. She tells me about how she likes treestands best, because when the wind moves the tree, the stand moves along with it and you feel like you’re part of a tree.
At this point, I’m kind of hoping a doe doesn’t turn up. If it does, I’ll need to raise the rifle, chamber a round, aim it, and shoot it. But I don’t really want to disrupt the scene in front of us.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Natalie has told me, multiple times. “You’re not going to be fired.” But I’m pretty sure I am going to pull the trigger if the opportunity presents itself, because I’m enjoying being here—in this deer blind, in Missouri, in winter—and hunting a deer is the moment around which this experience is revolving. During orientation for Field to Fork, they told us that, if we are lucky enough to shoot a deer, all reactions—laughing, crying, whooping—are valid. I appreciate this, because I have no idea what my reaction is going to be.
I think I’m paying close attention to what’s going on around us, but then I turn to look out the window to my right and there’s a small deer looking back at me. I go wide-eyed, whispering to Natalie. “Don’t move,” she says.
Too Close to Nature
The closest I’d been to a deer before this hunt was over a decade ago, while backpacking in Olympic National Park. I was out in front of my friend and lost in thought when I looked up to see a fawn directly in front of me on the trail. It was very small, with white flecks on its back. We were so close I could have reached out my arm and touched the fawn’s face. Seconds ticked by with neither of us moving, until someone came up behind us and we both looked away. I watched the fawn move off to the side of the trail to graze, while the other backpackers pulled out their camera to take a picture. Later, I felt less like I’d communed with nature and more like I’d done something illicit.
It’s this idea of getting too close to nature—disturbing it? engaging with it?—that I’m probably the most conscious of. The day before our first hunt, the new hunters and our mentors went to a gun range to practice with a target, seven of us all firing shots off at the same time. Even with ear plugs and muffs on I was struggling not to jump every few seconds. I tried to push away an imagined chaotic scene—the bullet would rip, blood would spray, a fawn would bolt, birds would screech and fly from the trees—and focus on actually learning how to shoot where I meant to shoot in the first place.
The young deer to my right turns out to be a button buck, so we watch it graze on the grass for a while, maybe 20 yards in front of us, before it wanders off. Close to the end of shooting light, a whole crowd of deer appear on the hill with the granary, but it’s getting dark and I’m not comfortable shooting at such a distance. So we let the moment pass.
Something Like the Wild
The next morning we head to a new spot, called “corn cob.” The name turns out to be apt, because instead of grassy fields flanked by woods, we’re looking out at a field of corn, the withered stalks another layer of beige blending into the woods and fields. The old granary on the hill the day before looked so abandoned that I assumed the whole area was once a working farm, now in the process of being swallowed up again by the woods. But the food plot in front of us is so clearly purposeful—for the deer—that I’m confused. Am I in nature or not?
Eventually I decide that, whatever idea of “wild” I’m trying to map onto this place, the deer aren’t as fussed about it; this is part of their world, anyway. We watch two bucks walk between the rows, grazing separately at first, before moving closer together. Every few seconds one of them will jerk their head up to look around before going back to grazing. They know we’re here, but the food source is worth the risk. After 20 minutes or so the two bucks leave—good for us, Natalie tells me, as a doe might not walk into the field while they are there. We go back to watching closely for signs of movement as turkeys gobble in the distance.
But it isn’t until late in the morning, when we’re close to calling it quits, that a doe finally walks into the field, maybe 30 feet from our blind. She’s with a fawn—old enough to have lost its spots but still small by comparison.
The air is cold and still, but now the stillness is ringing in my ears and instead of calmly not moving, I’m furiously not moving. Natalie’s whispering instructions, to stay still when the doe is watching us, then to move swiftly into position when she drops her head down to feed. Despite our best efforts, the doe sees something she doesn’t like and trots back down the trail. But the fawn stays put. The quiet remains in the air, so I don’t move. Then Natalie starts whispering again; she’s got her binocular up and the doe is cautiously moving back toward us. She eventually makes it back into the open, barely stopping to eat at all as she turns around looking for whatever spooked her before. But this time we are already in position, and there is nothing to see when she looks in our direction.
Eventually the doe turns broadside. Deep breath in, with a slow squeeze of the trigger after the exhale.
The gun goes off with every bit as much drama as I’d imagined the day before. After a second goes by, I look up from the scope in time to see the doe racing into the woods at top speed. But nothing else seems to move. No birds fly off in distress. Even the fawn is back to eating in less than a minute. Soon, it’s as if nothing ever happened. Did I even hit her? I wonder.
Natalie assures me I did. “I saw her jump up,” she whispers. “We’ll wait 20 minutes or so and then follow.” We sit there quietly for a little while I try to process how I’m feeling. “You seem pretty calm,” says Natalie. It’s true that whatever remains of the pre-shot jitters are fast working their way out of my system. And on the other side, I’m feeling something like relief: I shot a gun at a living, breathing part of the tableau in front of me and the whole thing didn’t crack apart.
Warm to the Touch
Twenty minutes later, we are down from the deer blind, looking at the spot where the doe was standing when I shot. There’s a sprinkling of red on the ground, but the hue is more late autumn foliage than blood. If it had been earlier in the season I would have walked right past it. I can’t see the doe from where we’re standing, but it’s unlikely she got far, so we start following the blood trail.
I narrate what I’m seeing out loud, veering left into the woods after 20 yards or so. I finally remember to look up from the ground, but it takes me a moment to understand what I’m seeing. The doe is on the side of a hill, her head on the downslope, wedged underneath a tree. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed the tree fell on her.
I go closer. She looks huge, with a light brown coat, soft-white ears, and eyes glazed with dark iridescence. I push back memories of being told not to touch the animals and bend down to feel her abdomen. I can see now that she had slipped running up the slope, and then slid down until her body was wedged under the tree. A scene that I set into motion when I pulled the trigger.
Do not touch the wildlife goes out the window pretty fast after we get going on the field dressing, cutting a line directly down the center of the deer’s abdomen and then pulling it apart to reveal everything inside: guts, liver, lungs, stomach. Sometimes we’re cutting with a knife, sometimes we’re using our hands to disengage connective tissue. At one point, Natalie demonstrates how to reach up into the neck to disconnect the internal organs from the trachea. When it’s my turn, I try to focus on her directions, thinking that I’ll process what it is that I’m doing later: feel where the heart is, move your hand up until you can find a tube with bumps along it. “Can you feel the trachea?” asks Natalie.
“Wait, sorry, I need a second,” I say. My hand is still on the heart, her heart. I’ve never touched a heart before, and the feelings of its heft, soft and strong at the same time, drowns out my thoughts. Underneath my hand, it’s still warm, but cooling fast.
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Our hands and forearms are caked in blood as we drive the UTV, with the deer in the bed, back to Natalie’s truck. It all looks so visceral, and before this first hunt I would have also thought it would be gruesome, but it’s not that. Even days later, when I’m still finding dried flecks in the bed of my fingernails after I don’t even know how many times I’ve washed my hands, the feeling it gives me is of being connected back to that moment in the woods, the sepia tones blending across the landscape, both wild and manmade, when I felt the doe’s heart. I left her heart deep in the woods—even if we were only a couple of miles from the road.