14 Hours

Posted on February 20, 2018

3


 

“Many times I have thought that our deer hunters are becoming soft. The man who has the initiative to seek deer in the wilderness areas is the hunter who gains the most from his deer hunting. Tracking and still-hunting is becoming a lost art in many sections, primarily because of unfavorable local conditions but often because of general inertia on the part of the hunter. Any whitetail buck killed under these conditions will ever be the most highly prized trophy in a sportsman’s collection.”
Larry Koller – Shots at Whitetails 1948

 

Three unproductive weeks of a four-week season had come and gone, and only a miniscule amount of tracking snow had fallen to date. Once again, with time running out, I was feeling the mounting self-induced pressure of finding and getting the buck of my choosing.

Monday morning ushered in an event that was both astonishing and energizing which served to renew my fragile enthusiasm. Two hours prior to first light, Pop and I stepped out of camp onto a fresh blanket of snow. It was as white as the fabric of a virgin bride’s wedding gown and spread across the entire wilderness much like the train that follows her down the aisle of matrimony.

Our predawn ritual of driving the network of log roads that honeycomb the North Country facilitated us in locating a worthy set of buck tracks to follow.

An hour and a half into our search, with daylight quickly advancing, I was becoming extremely antsy as Pop and I had yet to find a track. Then, providentially, our hunting companion approached us in his vehicle with glad tidings, “I’ve located a good buck track; he’s currently traveling with two does and they are heading for the large hemlock swamp.” With anticipation building within, away we went to check this track out. Pulling up to the location where they had crossed, we jumped out to examine these impressions in the snow. His imprint was indeed big and splayed. The splaying was a characteristic trait in the track that would later prove beneficial in identifying.

Hastily, I loaded my carbine. With eyes completely fixated on the imprints before me and formulating tactical preparations in my mind, off I struck. Given the fact that the track was less than an hour old, and the buck being preoccupied on the pair of does, provided a sense of confidence in my ability to catch him.

 

 

Nearing the two-mile mark on this adventure, his track led me to the edge of a ten-foot wide stream. By now, the trio had been reduced to just two players; the buck and a single doe. Without hesitation, the buck continued to trail his lady friend across the deepest section of the waterway. Now I had a decision to make. How was I going to get across this obstacle and still remain comfortable? Obviously, the thought of not crossing never entered my mind. Searching up and then down the bank for dry passage proved fruitless. The way I saw it at that moment, under this set of circumstances; there were only two choices. The first choice that I’d made on a previous hunt would be to just plunge right in and be soaked for the rest of the day. The other viable option was to remove boots, socks, and pants prior to crossing. It is still hard to remember which was colder on my bare feet; the three inches of snow I stood in or the ice-filled water. Holding pants, boots and rifle I waded across with the temperature hovering at 21 degrees.

 

 

Sitting down on the opposite bank I dried off my feet, which by now felt like they had expanded ten sizes. After regaining some sort of life back into my lower extremeties, I quickly redressed never before feeling quite as warm as I did at that moment. It still amazes me even today the extremes I’ll endure and lengths I’ll go in my quests to capture a buck.

Back on the track I proceeded cautiously. Snow began to silently sift down through the sheltered softwood. His slots wove in and around obstacles strewn along the way, but never strayed from the path the doe took. I anticipated finding them bedded under this canopy, but it was not to be, as their tracks led on through to a wide swath cut out of the forest. Pausing just inside the edge of cover, I visually searched for a glimpse of him out in this opening. Unfortunately, only his tracks dotting the landscape could be seen. Intuitively, I knew I had not closed the gap enough to alert them. So now it was becoming evident that the doe was disinterested in the buck’s advances, and contined her attempt to distance herself from him.

Quickly I jogged across the barren expanse, only slowing to a walk when their tracks indicated they had done the same. Their imprints led up a hardwood incline, only to disappear into a thickly tangled, obscure road over-grown with six-foot tall balsam trees. For 3/4 of a mile, the only clue to verify I was still on their track was tree boughs void of snow. Finally, upon reaching yet another portion of the logger’s cut, the trail of tracks emerged into the opening.

 

 

The falling snow had now intensified, and with that a sense of urgency on my part to remain close to the buck as his tracks were starting to get snowed in. As is often the case, the doe led her suitor into a barnyard of tracks that circled, recircled and literally went in every direction. That’s why it becomes imperative to have some identification specific to that track, however slight that might be. For a while I was able to stay with my buck, but as the tracks continued to fill in, it became almost impossible.

Nearly two hours were spent attempting to thread this puzzle out, which as you can probably imagine, left me feeling quite inept and frustrated. By now I’d gone in so many circles; a beagle on a rabbit run had nothing on me.

 

 

Standing statuesquely amidst the flakes that continued to fall in deafening silence, I contemplated the sanity of this whole expedition. Refusing to give in to circumstances beyond my control, I elected to walk a large circumference in hopes of intersecting those very distinguishable slots. Perhaps this was a last-ditch effort in futility, but it was worth a shot considering all I’d invested to this point.
The one direction I least expected to find his track was in fact where I located it. His very recognizable splayed imprints, although snowed in as they were, proved it was indeed him. My elation over locating his spoor was quickly dashed when seeing where he was heading.

Entering an almost impenetrable, tangled and twisted abyss of tightly knit conifers required the actions of a contortionist. Bending, twisting, and even crawling at times became necessary in order to navigate my way through. It was difficult for me to believe an animal of this size had the ability to weave his way through this tangle as easily as it seemed. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but make noise as I made my way along.

 

 

To pass through the next obstacle required me to be on hands and knees. As I stuck my left leg through the opening the buck had previously passed through, I quietly dragged my upper body through in one fluid motion. My eyes were immediately drawn to a melted out oval shape 15 feet to my front. Visually following the tracks leading away from what appeared to be the buck’s former resting spot, I was met with his presence for the first time.

 

 

The buck that had led me to where I now found myself uncomfortably positioned was walking back on his tracks towards me stiff legged. His hair was bristled as his head swung defiantly from side to side, eyes glazed over with a wild look. Apparently, he imagined another buck had invaded his domain, and judging from his actions, didn’t appear to be very happy about it. Fluidly, from that crouched position I eased the carbine to my shoulder. From twelve steps away, close enough to literally count his whiskers, the stillness was broken with the shot.

In slow motion, the buck upon impact slowly melted to the ground. He picked his head up once, chomped a couple of times and then gently laid his muzzle back down onto the snow. An eerie, almost surreal quietness engulfed me. It was as if we were the only two participants on this grand stage.

A whole realm of feelings overtook me as I knelt before this fallen beast. I made my peace with him and graciously extolled my heartfelt gratitude to the Lord for allowing me to harvest yet another one of his magnificent creatures. It’s always emotional at this point in the hunt for me, paradoxical, to love something yet take its life.

 

 

After attaching my drag rope and taking a compass bearing, my work began. According to my watch there was approximately 3 1/2 hours of daylight left. I was resolved to the fact that even though the distance was greater and 180 degrees opposite of where the vehicle was parked, I would haul my buck out to a road east of me in order to avoid all of the pitfalls and debris I’d encountered along the way.

It was a long and arduous chore dragging this creature out, but each time I would take a respite and gaze upon the magnificence of him; a feeling of self-satisfaction, peace and contentment permeated my soul. This sensation was the catalyst that fueled a dwindling energy level.

 

 

As the weathered gray sky began to melt into darkness, I slid my buck under a spruce blowdown in close proximity to the roadway I emerged onto. I was out on this lonely road now walking in the fading twilight; a road leading back to my vehicle and a familiar face; a road where I fully expected to find Pop driving in search of me. That congratulatory encounter would not take place between us before seven more miles were eclipsed. It was at the intersection where this saga originated that I finally spotted headlights dancing in contrast to the ink black sky as they moved towards me.

 

 

A little more than fourteen hours had elapsed from the time I first started tracking this buck until we had him loaded and heading back to camp. This splayfooted hemlock ranger dressed out at 218 pounds and carried eight points. Although not the largest specimen I’ve taken, but due to circumstances and effort put forth to gain this trophy; he will ever be a highly prized part of my life and collection.

 

 

 

All images and text on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier
© 2018 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in: Whitetail Deer