The canoe touches the water at 4:30 AM. Above is a cloudless sky, and not even the slightest breeze ripples the surface. I load the canoe with the tree stand, breakfast and lunch, a full thermos of coffee, weapons, and other implements for the hunt ahead and push off from shore, guiding the boat out onto the galaxy reflected at my feet.
An hour of paddling puts me upstream in the middle of public hunting land, state owned and there, for the use of all. I tie off the canoe to an old tree, load up my gear, and make the short hike up the hill to one of my favorite spots on the planet. My own little slice of heaven, if you will. I don’t always make it back to this particular spot. There’s been dry years, when I couldn’t paddle this far in. And, there’s been frozen years, when the weight of the canoe wasn’t enough to break the ice. This year, we have warm. And, if nothing else, we have water (too much water for some, the fall storms destroyed a number of beaver dams as well as the wild rice in the area). Now, at the top of the ridge, and few minutes huffing and puffing with the climbing stand puts me where I “fit” in the world – watching the sun rise over the fog and mist of a small creek, tucked into the branches of a tree.
The purpose of today’s adventure is Deer Hunting. Though, really, it’s always much more than that. I started hunting the backcountry areas on public land about 15 years ago, when the family farm I grew up on became a golf course. After a couple of years of fighting the crowds, I happened upon a phrase. “When hunting public land, hunt it in ways others won’t.” It’s worked, so I keep working it. Most hunters, when faced with hunting public, try the same tactics they use on private land. They walk in a 100 yards or so from their vehicle, climb in a tree or set up in a ground blind, and wait. Any deer in the area is going to get pushed from one hunter to the next, until someone gets an opportunity at a clean harvest.
My way is a bit different. I go in deeper, stay out longer (as many days at a time as I can, considering day job and family obligations), and tolerate a little more physical discomfort than the other guy. When they’re back at camp for lunch, I’m still in my tree with a snack. They’re sleeping on a cot or hotel room, and I’m tucked into a sleeping bag in a tent or the passenger seat of my car.. In November. In Minnesota. Yes, I’ve had tents collapse on me from the weight of the snow. And I’ve woken to lost circulation in my feet from my car seat. But those old words ring true year after year. For me, it’s worth it.
By doing what I do, in the way that I do it, I receive the solitude I miss in my daily life. Solitude can be a glorious thing. It starts by quieting your thoughts, and focusing your mind on the sights and sounds around you. Tuning into every crack of a twig, to every rustle of dry leaves, being aware of every horizontal line you see in the trees, feeling the wind working its way through you…it can touch something deep inside you. The slowing down from the modern pace and stepping into rhythm with the natural world – if only for a moment – centers me. It brings me back to where I fit.
This year, I saw beavers hard at work rebuilding their dams. I listened to trumpeter swans arguing like some old married couple. I had a nuthatch working the branch next to me, at eye level, less than 2 feet away. There were squirrels, chipmunks, and even a fox going about the VERY noisy business all throughout the day. I did see deer, a doe and fawn early in the day, and a small buck at the very end. This particular zone didn’t permit the harvest of antlerless deer, and the buck didn’t present an ethical shot. This year, I came back home empty-handed. But, on the other hand, it was unbelievably successful. I came back centered, with relaxed breathing, and better able to face the daily challenges we all encounter. The time in the woods and on the water restores my soul like nothing else I’ve encountered.