Thursday, November 28, 2013

The tree stand

Sketch on Flickr

A coming of age tale, Part II

The wind was out of the north west on opening day, surging straight out of Canada as if to warn a deep and dark winter was coming fast. The tree Avery was strapped to swayed back and forth in the cold, in the dark. His tree stand was roped into a gnarly bunch of hard maples, 15 feet off the ground, sitting atop a ridge of mixed northern forest which was criss-crossed by manmade and deer-made trails alike.

“Looks like a highway of rutted up bucks through here, all these scrapes and rubs. Look at this one,” Hurly, his uncle’s stogie smoking friend had told them when he’d led the boy and his uncle out scouting the area two weeks prior. Indeed, there was plenty of deer sign in the spot - fresh tracks, scrapes on the ground every 15 yards, and rubs that shredded three inch poplars down to twigs.

Uncle Amos was hunting the opener nearby, only 150 yards through the woods on the other end of the ridge. Hurly was somewhere far to the west of where they were, or perhaps still in bed up at the hunting shack. Here in his stand though, in the silence of this frozen, pre-dawn day in late November, Avery sat alone, with only his thoughts to occupy him. In fact those stories he played out in his head were the best defense he had against the cold. Sure, he was bundled up from head to toe in eight layers of wool and fleece, tucked into a sleeping bag, with a wool blanket about his shoulders, a thick wool sock pinned around his neck as a scarf, and wearing a beaver fur hat on his head, but the freezing gusts of wind on his back were relentless, and thoughts, any thoughts, were a good distraction.

I am warm enough; I will stay in this tree all day, whether I see deer or not, I will not climb out until the light begins to fade late this afternoon.

His uncle had taught him the trick - a sort of zen practice he’d learned from spending time in the military. While abroad, Amos had been part of a special operations outfit, the kind that ran missions nobody was supposed to know about. He did not speak of it much, but Avery was under the impression his uncle had spent some of those years in the far east. When he came back, the fiery persona that was common in his father’s family had been sapped from his bones, and in its place was only a phrase Amos uttered repeatedly, “This too will wash over, as waves to sand.”

“As waves to sand,” Avery recited quietly each time the wind cut through him.
In this way he began to dissect the day, one hour at a time. Daylight soon broke upon the woodland, the snow glistened, each crystal shimmering to life in the frigid air. Avery watched intently, surveying the ridge around him, especially where several deer trails converged 50 yards on his left.

Many men were sitting over bait, he knew. Men who had their own land, who could afford to feed the wild whitetails corn or apples before the season opened. Avery and his uncle were not those men. His uncle’s family were opportunists, and as such believed paying to feed your dinner before you ate it defeated the purpose.

“Your grandfather used to take us to the highlands above Green Marsh when your father and I was boys,” his uncle would oft remind the boy. “We had a little camper with a cook stove to cook beans on back then. Our dad would help us scout out places to sit before season opened; always gave us the best opportunities for a kill, even if that meant we had to sit on a tree limb for eight hours a day.” 

They were hard men, Avery knew. He had heard the stories, all the stories, many times over. He had heard about the big bucks what his grandfather had tracked for miles through blizzards, just for the chance to jump it and get one shot it it running through the woods. He had heard about his father, uncle, and grandfather filleting moose in bogs as the sun was setting, while wolves howled in the distance. He had heard about each of them falling through ice in the winter, and how each barely made it out alive. Heard about smashed hands, deep cuts, dangerous weather, and even losing eyes to sticks.

Another gust of wind out of the north, and this time Avery shivered. This one cut through him, found his bones under all those layers, and shook him hard. It made him doubt he was one of those men. How could he be? A little bit of wind set his body to shuttering. He was trying, yes, but he wanted so bad to be back inside, sitting next to the wood stove, a mug of hot cider between his hands. How did this make him a man? Is this what he must do to prove he was grown, to earn himself respect, to be recognized as an adult and treated as such? Did he have to kill a deer? Must he actually slay a whitetail to be made a man? Such notions bothered him. There must be another way.

Men like those in the hunting shack would certainly hold him to the standard. Maybe his father and grandfather would too, if they were alive. His uncle was all he had left now though, at least as far as guidance through the halls of masculinity went. Amos was a wise man, and saw things bigger and deeper than men like Hurly did. He never forced the boy into anything, but his disappointment was palpable when he fell short.


Avery resisted the urge to spin his whole torso towards the sound below, and instead slowly turned just his head to take a look. To his left, coming down the trail out of the north was a male whitetail of magnanimous proportions. The buck had stepped on a only a small stick on the ground, but the silence Avery had grown used to over the past several hours was shattered instantly. He tried to count the tines on the buck’s rack as the creature strode along. At the same time he reached for his rifle, slung safely next to him on a branch.

Ever so slowly, joints and muscles frozen stiff, the hunter raised his weapon to peer down the scope. He counted 10 points on the wide, thick rack. The buck’s neck was the size of a tree trunk. Avery wondered if he’d be able to reach his arms around it. His dark grey, brown body was stocky and tall, all the way through. The creature was built like a tank and Avery at once realize this was a trophy sized whitetail. He began to shake.

His arms went wobbly, his legs were shaking, his breath was hard to control, and Avery was sure the buck would hear the sound of his heart pounding its way right out of his chest. This was the mega-buck, the monster, the creature from the deep. He was older, Avery could tell by the markings on his face. The buck had not developed a large number of tines, but his antlers were set so wide, so tall, and so thick, he thought this one must be at least six years old.

Avery knew he would have to respond quickly. The whitetail was not moving fast, but he was moving steadily down the trail, cautiously sniffing the air but not slowing to mark trees or eat either. All the swimming in his head was gone now, and Avery’s training as a boy kicked in. If the buck continued to work his way on his present course he’d have a shot in about 20 more yards. There was a shooting lane directly in front of where he sat in his tree, and it would bring the buck broadside for a shot. Avery’s only fear was that it would be about a 40 yard shot from where he sat, and the deer would be close to downwind by then. He thought about taking his shot through the brush at the big bull, but decide against it. “Better to stop ‘em in their tracks than wing ‘em and be on a wild goose chase the rest of the day,” Hurly always said, clearly having winged plenty of deer.

Soon the moment was upon him - too soon. Avery steadied his rifle, left elbow against the tree trunk and put his eye through the scope only to find the magnification power was cranked up too high. All he could see was a mass of blurry snow and branches. Hurriedly, he adjusted the dial on the top of the scope, never taking his eyes off the whitetail, but it was too much movement. The buck whipped his head around at the motion from above, looked straight at Avery, and bolted into the woods.

The boy raised his weapon in a rush, and time stopped. The world around him was happening in slow motion, the swaying trees, the falling snow, the fur from his beaver hat rustling above his brow. The buck fled straight away and back to his left, right where Avery led the bullet. “As waves to sand…” he murmured mutely as he squeezed off the shot.

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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