Into The Forest: A Hero’s Journey

My lungs were burning nearly as bad as my quads as I climbed up the forty-five degree slope, the weight of my tree stand and the climbing steps punishing me the whole way. I could hear deer off in the dark abyss beyond my headlamp, spooking and tearing off through the woods as I made my climb – “so much for stealth,” I thought to myself. Only one hundred yards to go and the trail would top out on a flat spot where it connected to an old logging road, there I’d take a break, catch my breath and let things die down before my final one hundred yard sneak into the low saddle where deer cross the ridge line, there I’d chose as my morning ambush.

Finally, gaining the edge where the level ground of the old logging road began, I stopped in the chilly thirty-eight degree air to catch my breath and take a break. I pulled my head gear off my sweat soaked head and killed the rays of my headlamp, giving my eyes time to adjust to the dark. It must’ve been quite a sight, and a good illustration of the lengths some white men will go just to kill a deer, as there I stood in nothing but underarmor underwear, drenched in sweat with forty pounds of gear on my back, three-hundred and seventy-five feet above the creek bed that had been the starting point for my ascent up the mountain. Mind you, that was nearly a mile from the parking lot, my original start point for my pre-dawn hike into the woods.

For me though, as I stood there in the chilly, dark expanse of forest, it all made perfect sense to me. The gain in elevation opened the early fall tree canopy up to the moon, which shown down casting ghostly pale rays of light through the tall poplar trees and across the mountainside; a pack of coyotes opened up a haunting and lonesome chorus on a distant ridge across the creek valley from me. For me, a man descended from generations of Europeans who hunted, the scene described is more than enough to explain why I am compelled to take to the forest in pursuit of game. However, for the sake of those who have not answered the call, or rather, have not ever had the chance to answer such a primal calling as that of the wilderness, I will continue on with the story.

With my ‘wind’ returned to me, partially dried off and my eyes now adjusted to the dark, I stood up and dawned all my gear. Patiently, giving great thought to each step, I made my sneak the last one-hundred yards or so down into the ‘notch’ in the ridge line. I arrived at the forked-trunk of a poplar tree that was my previously selected ‘perch’ from scouting trips months before. Cautiously, painstakingly so, I lowered my gear to the ground. Giving all due diligence to stealth and quiet, without the aid of my headlamp, in the dark with only moonlight for help, I began the process of hanging my stand.

I began to heat up and break into a sweat again. Like a treed coon in a hurricane force wind, I hugged the trunk of the of the poplar tree, wrenching in all six screws in steps, until I reached the height of fourteen feet or so off the forest floor. Methodically, with ‘quiet’ in mind, I hauled up and attached the tree stand to the telephone pole sized trunk. Next came my longbow and my fanny pack with all my essential gear. Next, I strapped myself for safety’s sake to the tree with my safety harness. I set about arranging all my gear for convenience, and once finding it to my liking, I finally set down and settled in to await sunrise.

I want to detour here briefly, and that (in the dark), fifteen minutes prior to legal shooting light, I had an absolutely massive buck walk nearly right under my stand. He came down the hill towards me, from nearly directly in front of me where the logging road I’d used continues eastward, up the other hill that forms the opposite side of the saddle. In the dark, by the sheer volume of noise he made walking down the hill, I knew it could only be one of three things: the rare bear in this part of the state, another hunter encroaching on my prized hunting grounds or a ‘yuge’ buck. Half for the sake of safety and half to satiate my growing curiosity, when the footsteps were directly beside me, nearly directly under me where I’d approached my stand, I pulled out my headlamp and threw the switch on. My curiosity wasn’t disappointed by a roving fox or a bumbling boar coon – there, standing in the beam of my LED headlamp, was the most massive buck I’d ever seen in the wild. I could lament here on what I’d give for it to have been legal shooting light, keep this in mind whenever some uninformed half-ass weekend warrior tries to discourage you from hunting public land because “it’s just not worth it.”

Anyways, sunrise finally came, and with it the woods came to life. Squirrels darted to and fro in the leaves pilfering freshly fallen acorns, turkeys scratched for bugs and grubs seventy or so yards south of me and birds of all kinds sang their morning salutations. It was a beautiful morning overall, the temperature rose to the mid forties and a slight breeze was blowing north to south through the little causeway I was expecting the deer to move through. Despite the near perfect conditions, except for the monarch of a buck that came by in the dark, nothing ventured past those first three and a half hours. Boredom set in and the forest symphony lulled me into a trance where my most inward thoughts played in my mind like the scenes on a movie screen.

Then…it all changed. I’d like to think it was the work of that ‘hunter/gatherer’ gene the doctors say I possess, otherwise known as “ADHD,” but whatever it is that picked up on the subtle change in my surroundings, it snapped me out of my trance abruptly. I sensed something as much as I was able to actually hear ‘It‘. On full alert now, I strained my ears to decipher all that was happening around me; sure enough, over the edge of the saddle to the north where the ravine led down to the creek bottom, there ‘It‘ was. ‘It‘ stood out in my mind like blaring annoying TV static when compared to the cacophony of forest sounds – IT WAS DEER moving through the woods.

The realization that those were hooves rustling the leaves set in motion millenniums’ worth of evolution; my suddenly weightless limbs, flared nostrils and uncontrollably fast beating heart proved it as much. Without even taking time to look for the approaching deer which I knew had to be close, I reached for my longbow on its ‘tree hanger’ and very controlled and methodically began inching my way up into a standing position. I hadn’t gotten all the way up into a standing position when I noticed to my left, peering over the rise in the saddle and scanning for possible danger, a little racked buck with the heads and smaller racks of two companions in tow. “Shit,” I thought, “did they see me stand up, am I busted already?

In only a few seconds, my question was answered as the buck climbed out of the mouth of the draw and squirted up onto the trail that led through the saddle and right by my stand where I awaited in ambush. With the game still on and the little buck now closing the distance, I picked up the bowstring while raising the whole bow out in front of me and slowly shifting my feet to a shooting stance, readying myself to make a shot. The buck had made it to the logging road by now and had froze to sniff where the massive buck had walked earlier; his body was outstretched straining to pick up the buck’s scent, his ribs were exposed and shining like new money, practically begging me for an arrow.

My eyesight became tunnel vision as it latched onto a particular tuft of hair behind the buck’s front shoulder. Never once moving my hawk like gaze from THAT tuft of hair, my right rhomboid eased the weight of the bow back, my leather shooting glove making a creaking noise audible only to myself, the bowstring making a soothing “yawning” sound as the index finger of string-arm found the corner of my mouth, which is my anchor point. It all felt right, it is a feeling I live for, and with a system on “go,” I began to try and “burn” a hole with my eyes into THAT tuft of hair. Suddenly, surprising even me, the string tore from my fingers, the bow limbs slamming forward with a WHOMMMP! 

The arrow was on its way.

I felt a sense of euphoria as I watched my arrow arc those thirteen yards through the air, spinning like a pinwheel in a tornado and smash into the exact tuft of hair I’d been aiming. It sounded like a whack from a Louisville slugger smacking a watermelon. The arrow skewered the deer’s rib cage, burying itself all the way down to the feathers and the single blade steel arrowhead did its work as well, splattering vibrant-red blood all over the ground instantly. Immediately, the buck, being made aware of his situation by the arrow’s violent impact, leapt into the air with a mule kick indicating a heart shot. He bolted as hard and fast as he could for twenty-five or so yards, then slowed to a trot before finally coming to a halt.

Standing just forty-five yards distant where he’d been hit, still unaware of what had happened to him, I watched the buck’s final moments on earth unfold. He stood for a few seconds, his tail flicking anxiously, his head scanning for the unseen danger. Then, he lowered his head to the ground as if to try and pick up the scent of his tormentor. As he did, the effects of massive blood loss became apparent to him, and, he then realized the severity of his predicament. He jerked his back up, erect, as if prepared to run, but it was too late. Now, completely punch drunk, he stiffened up like a hickory rocking horse before flopping unceremoniously on his side, never to move a muscle again, save the last few flicks of his tail.

With the deal sealed by the venison laying on the forest floor, I was finally able to draw a full breath, and I set back down for a few minutes to calm my nerves and take it all in. Once I’d reached some level of functionality, I gathered my gear up, began to un-hang my tree stand and climbed down. All packed up, the anticipation nearly uncontrollable, I began to inspect the scene of the ambush and follow the trail, even though I’d watched the deer go down. The scene of the shot was a gruesome imitation of a murder scene from one of those true-life TV mysteries; the trail south through the saddle was so blatantly obvious that Helen Keller could have followed it. Every footstep along the deer’s death run was met with globs and spatters of red, frothy, bubble filled lung blood.

Arriving at the expired body of the once live buck, I knelt down placing my hand on the rib cage. I ran my fingers all along and around the still warm body, the oil from the hair leaving a film on my hand. I inspected his little rack, touching all five little points which, despite their average size, I was prouder than a game rooster to have in my possession. The experience of collecting a hard earned kill is a primal one, it arouses emotions and feelings that transcend the ages. I made sure that for this particular buck, that I took a little extra time and drank it all in – experiencing a nearly holy connection to our ancestors, the animal and the land. With my respects paid to the animal, the tradition, our ancestors and photographs taken to record the experience for posterity’s sake and the tag punched, I set about the task of caring for the meat and retrieving my prized kill from his final resting spot up on “Cooper’s Mountain.”

First, with my hair-popping sharp knife, I opened the bucks belly with ease as if unzipping a duffel bag and “powered’ through the brisket, completely exposing the body cavity. With the ‘innards’ completely at my mercy, I reached in amongst the heat and wet bloody stickiness to perform a minor surgery on the carcass. I sliced the esophagus “in tween” and using it like a handle, pulled up slicing all the connective tissue that connects the cardiovascular system to the backbone area. Next, I took a good hold of all the goodies, leveraging upwards with them and sliced the diaphragm. In one final effort, I heaved aloft the mass of organs with a ripping tear that sounds similar to wrapping paper being rent asunder; with a single stroke, I severed the final cordage of entrails that connected the globs of gore. For the coup de’ gras, in one motion, I slung it all off into the leaves, as far as I could, for some lucky coyote to happen upon later and gorge himself with.

Next, I set about the longer and more tedious step of processing all the meat right there in the field. Quarter by quarter, I skinned back all the hide all the way down to the joint where they connected to the trunk of the animal. Did a little fancy work with the knife, disconnecting them – and hung them one by one from tree limbs to cool in the breeze. Getting on with the task, I split a line down the backbone, from where the hams had formerly been, all the way up to the skull, peeling back the skin to remove the neck roast and the greatest prize of all, the back straps. Lastly, I decapitated the head from the body to keep the antlers as a totem to the existence of this buck, to immortalize him and honor the fact that he had once walked God’s green earth.

With fifty plus pounds of butchered deer carcass hanging from tree limbs in the late morning breeze, it dawned on me that I’d need a way to pack it off the mountain and back to my truck. A quick brainstorm led to what seemed like a most ingenious idea, that would later prove to be a brutal debacle: I would use my 550 cord to brace the seat of my tree stand in a fixed position so it would act as a ledge, I’d wrap the meat in my jacket, strap it all down to the platform with my jerk-strap, I used to attach the stand with, and just carry it all out using the tree stand as my pack frame. “You’re a genius,” I thought to myself, as I set about bringing the idea into reality.

With the task complete, and feeling pretty proud of myself, I dawned the load for the pack out for the first time (all ninety plus pounds of it). As the combined weight of the load, the punishing metal frame of the stand and the tortuously painful surplus A.L.I.C.E. pack shoulder straps all brought me to the realization of my error for the first time. And, another brutal reality set in: I had 1.3 miles of this self-inflicted punishment ahead. With no other options, and not wishing to risk the slightest bit of meat spoilage due to dilly-dallying, I accepted the consequences of my error in judgement – one step at a time as I began my climb out of the saddle then across the mountain top logging road and finally down into the creek valley.

Descending down the forty-five degree slope, I slipped on freshly fallen acorns several times that were hidden under the recently fallen leaves. Each time momentum, the slippery slope, the weight of myself and the load usually earned me ten to fifteen feet worth of “free” movement. But each time, whatever energy was saved by my sliding down the hill, was quickly sapped, as each instant required me to struggle to get back to my feet in order to continue on. Further on down the trail, after crossing the creek and beginning the climb up towards the main trail, while trying to cross under a tree that had fallen across the path at just under head height, one of the legs from my buck that jutted upwards from my “pack” caught the offending tree trunk and pulled me completely over backwards flat on my back like a turtle! I tried in vein to get back up without releasing the pack straps and re-dawning the whole load, but after several minutes I bit the bullet.

Once up though, the journey continued, including a quarter dollar sized blister forming on my left heel. A hike that usually only takes twenty-five minutes now took an hour and twenty. In spite of the debacle nearly sapping all the joy out of the experience, I merrily pressed on towards the parking lot and what would be the icing on the cake for me.

As I walked past a certain sign post stump that marks the last one hundred or so yards before you reach the parking lot, my joyous, exuberant, almost ecstatic mood was ruined by a most profane and offensive sound interrupting the symphony of natural music playing all around me. By their little “ching-chong-wing-wong” language bouncing through my forest and defiling my experience and offending my ears, I could tell it was a pack of little Cambodian interlopers who rape the woodlands and waters and were settling down for a lunch of fish heads and rice or whatever it is those people eat. Pressing on, aware by the volume and frequency of their chatter that they had no idea I was even coming down the trail, I couldn’t help but think, “this must be what a LRRP team felt like when they were slipping into a small camp of NVA?” All that was missing from the experience was the smell of body odor and nuoc mam wafting through the trees.

Half full of arrogance from my success and half pissed at the intrusion on my experience, I burst from the wood line into the parking lot in a cocky self-assured stride. My unheralded arrival took them by surprise, as was evident by the abruptness with which their conversation ceased, ensuring that all eyes and attention were on me. As I strolled that twenty-five yards across the gravel parking lot, I made sure to let my feet fall heavily to the ground to add a bouncing quality to my gait. In this fashion, I covered the short expanse to my truck – my bow, hard to miss in my left hand swinging tauntingly at my side, the head and antlers of the young buck swayed to and fro as they towered above me from my pack, like a walking totem to Herne, the ancient Briton god of the hunt.

The whole scene was meant to say, “I am the great white hunter and this is my forest. I have shed the life’s blood of the sacred stag in this forest, on this morning.”

Only my arrival at the truck ended my display of braggadocio, so I loaded my gear in making sure to allow the heavy load of horns and venison to land with a little extra authority in the truck bed. With all eyes on me still, I turned and shot a look of knowing superiority at my unwanted “companions,” all they could do was to manage stares of bewilderment. With that, I loaded myself up in the truck, fired it up, rolled the windows down, turned the radio up and wheeled it out of the parking space.

As I prepared to throw it in drive, I happened to glance in the rear view mirror to see one of the little bastards gesturing excitedly to me, smiling, mouthing something in what I reckoned was English. Turning the radio down, he had his cue and said to me, “Tell us bout yohhh dee-uh, where yew gehhht heeem?

Turning the radio up as high as possible, I thought to myself, “Nah little chinaman, I am NOT sharing with YOU, any of the secrets that my forest gave to me.” And with that, I rolled on off.

Arriving at the first turn after leaving the parking lot with “Fire On The Mountain” by The Marshall Tucker Band blasting, I gunned it as hard as I could, taking advantage of every curve on that snaky winding gravel road. So onward, feeling complete, I rocketed down the forest service road back towards home where cold beer awaited and the memory of a lifetime.

In my last writing I discussed public access land as a option for guys who want to start hunting. Then, like a fool, I declared that my next article would be about why you should hunt public land. I kind of shot myself in the foot there, as I felt compelled to deliver, but didn’t want to write a boring partly repetitive article to merely expound on the one immediately prior. So, I decided “why not just take y’all guys along” on a public land hunt with me. With this writing, that is what I’ve tried to do, I tried to throw a few logs on the fire.

So now, being careful here, I’ll only say this, if you like what you read here, if it made your antennas go up, then stick around for whatever I decide to throw out next, how does that sound?

-L.F. Russell