Saturday, October 6, 2012

8 Point Dilemma

The morning began at 4:00am. The Big Ben alarm clock went off, shattering the rhythm of snoring men and restless dreams. Within minutes the percolator was bubbling with the dark, pungent aroma of French roast coffee. Gradually the smell of cob-smoked bacon took over the one room camp. Wood smoke blended with the leftover fragrance of Hoppe’s #9. A cold North wind blew through the crack in the old green door. An oil lamp was lit in the corner casting a golden glow over the gingham checked tablecloth and arcing in a great semi-circle on the ceiling. Grunts and groans were heard throughout the room as grown men pulled on their thermals and woolen socks. For some it meant bending over in bodies that had been worn thin by pursuing the American dream; others paid for their dream by late hours in the office and long road trips spending precious time away from loved ones. But now, it was being paid back. Five men huddled in a rustic camp in the deep north woods of Vermont, left alone to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Five men who are bonded by a love of the outdoors and the hope that one of us will take a nice buck.

The Old Green Door
The weather-beaten front door is pushed open but doesn’t seem to want to budge. Something is on the other side and it is heavy. Another shove and the door creaks open a couple of inches. A swirl of wind whips icy flakes of snow onto the floor. “Did it snow last night?” I ask. One of the other men, my father-in-law, Brian Hoyt, leans over the kitchen table and looks out the window. “Sweet Jeezus, did it snow! It’s gotta’ be two feet deep!” My heart jumps with joy. “The deer will be in the pines ridin’ this one out boys!”

I’ve always wanted to relive a hunt with my father when I was 15 years old when we drove all night through a blinding snowstorm to reach the deer camp where he’d gotten us invited and we got snowed in for days. I had the man I most admired all to myself. And now, here I am, surrounded by my best friends, Chris Thayer of Charlotte, Steve “Ozzie” Osborne of Williston, my father-in-law, Brian of Charlotte and my 80 year old father, Arthur Spencer.

 I walk over to the radio and turn on the weather channel. The crackling of the NOAA weatherman’s voice sounds as if he too was caught in a blizzard.

Eggs are sizzling in a cast iron pan and the warmth of the wood stove is over-powered only by the warmth of the camaraderie. I am overcome with serenity and joy.

Over breakfast we pull out the maps of the mountains around us and plan our day.
We have our own names for them. “Camp Milk Bottle”, “The Saddle”, Poop Hill”, “The Flats” and “The Pines.” We spent the summer planting small food plots that should now be mature and supplying the deer with attractive sustenance. Chris will head down the ravine, across the bear trail to his ladder stand, Ozzie will take the long hike up to Camp Milk Bottle, Brian will walk out to the cliffs above Poop Hill, my father, will guard the camp from bears and will be vaguely responsible for preparing lunch. Me, well, I think I’ll head down into The Pines and sit against the rock cliff  right off a well worn trail leading to the stream flowing through the center of The Pines.

Yes, it will be tough going this morning, plowing through 2 feet of new snow, but it will be quiet. The kind of quiet where all you can hear is your blood pumping past your ears. The kind of quiet that sharpens your senses and makes all things possible.

5am Breakfast
By 5:00 breakfast is over, the dishes have been placed in the sink to soak, and we are all pulling on our Johnson woolens and checking our radios. It would be impolite to share our radio names for each other in such a fine literary work as this so you’ll have to chuckle and know that they are nothing you would say in front of your Mama. 

We head out the door. Rifles in hand, backpacks loaded with keep-warm goodies. “See you back here at noon boys.  If one a’ you guys drops one, be sure to call us on the radio. Good luck!” I say and plow my way out into the deep snow. A white world of wonder envelops me and in minutes the camp has faded from my view, obscured by the falling snow. I am in the Green Mountains. And for all I know, this may as well be heaven.

I trudge down the drifted streambed that serves as a road once we’re past the flats. It takes me 45 minutes to make the trail that leads into the pines. It is nothing more than a canopied tunnel with pines that shoulder-press the heavy snow above their heads. I can sense the mighty struggle to hold the weight above the ground. Occasionally, I hear a loud snap and shudder at the sound of an old hemlock losing its branch. Other than that, it is pure, unadulterated silence. The kind that some city folk cannot stand because it echoes the loneliness in their souls. For those of us who live day to day with this connection to the earth, it is peace. I cross the gurgling brook being careful to place my rubber boots in the water and not on the slippery rocks that look like large white mushrooms poking out of the rushing water.

As I step onto the other side of the creek, I cut a set of tracks headed down into the heavy pine thicket. It’s been a few hours since this one passed. The snow is too deep to read whether it’s a buck or doe but the tracks are widespread and pointed outward, indicating that it might be a deep-chested brute. I slip quietly up the hill and push into the rock cliff overlooking the run that leads in to the pines. I sidle up to a young maple and shake the trunk to let the snow fall off the branches, which forms a neat fortress around the base of the trunk. I tuck myself behind the wall of snow and place my thermal seat against the tree. My backpack is placed in the drift beside me.

I can feel the sweat trickling down the channel of my back. This is going to cause problems later when my core temperature drops. Right now, it’s 28 degrees, but the wind is now coming out of the North and temperatures will dip this afternoon. I settle in and start hunting with my ears. It’s no use. It’s too quiet. I will have to constantly scan the trail below. I suppose it’s somewhat natural, but at times like these, my mind starts playing fantasies of monster bucks stepping out into a shooting lane and offering me some outrageously simple shot. It’s times like these that I find I can get lost in the dream and lose my focus. Like right now.

My left eye catches movement on the hillside behind me. I turn my head slowly, my neck gaiter grabbing my 3 day beard and tugging it. All I can see are horns. Dang it! He just walked through an opening between a short stubby pine and a sapling. And I missed the shot. I shoulder my Remington 30.06 and peer through my 3-9x scope. It’s fogged. I flip the lens covers up and re-shoulder my gun. I count the points. 2, 4, 6, 8. A nice wide symmetrical rack, not a basket rack like many of the bucks we’ve seen for years. I quickly see that I have a choice to make. He is standing behind an old 10’ long pine tree that has lost its needles and is lying on its side. The center of the trunk covers his vitals. His head and antlers stand tall over the top of the tree.

It’s a moral decision that many have told me “I’d have taken the shot” but I cannot. The vitals aren’t exposed. It’s only 50 yards and I have my index finger on the trigger and my middle finger hovering over the safety. It’s now or never.  The thought comes to me that he may wander further down the trail, behind the big boulder and emerge on the other side, following the trail, and give me a perfect shot broadside at about 75 yards if I let him walk. My heart is pounding and I can feel it in my ears and forehead. I take a deep breath through my nose and exhale quietly.

I wait. Did I make the wrong choice? 5 minutes pass. No buck emerges from behind the boulder. 10 minutes. Still no buck. What would I tell the guys? Should I say anything? I wrestle with my conscience.

To this day, when I tell the story, some don’t believe me, others do. But I ask everyone, “What would you have done?” It’s become a way of measuring a man’s conscience.

That nice 8 pointer is probably still wandering around those woods and one day we may meet again and things will have a different outcome. For now, my band of brothers at “Camp A” likes to needle me and pat me on the back, and say “You sure you really saw him or was that just one of your daydreams?”
Father Shooting Breakfast from the Deck

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