Experience makes more timid men than it does wise ones.
~Josh Billings, pen name of American humor writer and lecturer
Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885)
Nebraska blizzard gifts
Unexpected blizzards still sweep across the Nebraska prairies in November, but we no longer go deer hunting in the heart of those storms.
Except this year.
Hunting in miserable weather used to be a frequent misadventure for the Over the Hill Gang. In this year’s deer camp, waiting out the worst hours of the winter’s first snowstorm in a comfortable bunk house, we looked back over the decades and remembered with some astonishment our stubborn insistence on hunting in brutal weather conditions.
We must have had more fortitude and endurance in our 20s and 30s, or maybe we have acquired more wisdom and better judgment through harsh experience. For whatever reasons, we became much more timid by the time we reached the half-century mark.
In terms of shooting opportunities and game bagged, we seldom had much success hunting in blowing snow, driving rain, gale force wind, or sub-zero temperatures (with the exception of a few memorable duck hunts, of course), and we often came stumbling home at dark on the verge of hypothermia with frost-bitten fingers and faces, soaking wet dogs and clothes, water-filled and frozen boots, and beards festooned with ice chunks that made us look like Russian peasant extras in a low-budget Soviet movie production of Doctor Zhivago.
“Why,” I mused aloud, looking out through the window at the driving snowstorm, “did we used to put ourselves through that? Why did we even try to go hunting on these kinds of days?”
The obvious answer is that we had no choice. We were slaves to our jobs five or six days each week, and Saturdays and Sundays from October through December were the only days we could go hunting. If hellacious weather was the order of the day, we threw ourselves into the teeth of it; preferring to suffer the consequences of a physical bettering rather than the mental and emotional anguish of a missed opportunity to go afield.
Yes, we were fools, but at least we were hardy and passionate fools.
One of the few true benefits of retirement, when “every day is Saturday,” is that we have the luxury of hunting only on good weather days, or at least the option of not hunting on the worst of the foul weather days. We can hole up in the clubhouse with the dogs, watch the storm rage outside, drink gallons of hot coffee, and feel grateful that we no longer engage in heroic but horrific battles with nature.
Except this deer season in Nebraska.
When you have only three days to hunt whitetails in the high plains region you find yourself tumbling back into that “hunt regardless of the weather” mentality. What other choice? So despite a forecast that called for 2-4 inches of snowfall and 25 mile-per-hour winds starting at noon we left our warm beds pre-dawn and were soon clambering along a cedar-studded ridge to our favorite set-up spots overlooking a small creek that meanders through a section of grassland where cows and calves had been grazing a few weeks before.
At first light the sky was lead-colored and low. The storm arrived four hours earlier than predicted when a few powdery flakes began to drift down at 8 a.m. For an hour the snowfall was quaintly picturesque: crystals clinging to the waving heads of native grass and the tips of cedar branches. Then the precipitation changed to a mix of sleet, freezing rain, and pellets that were more like chips of ice than snowflakes. The wind rose to 30 mile-per-hour gusts and swirls before it finally decided to howl steadily at 35.
Maybe this will let up I thought, exactly as I did back in the days of my youth just before a weather front would hit us with its knockout punch. But I conceded the day’s hunt was a washout when I took out my handkerchief to blow my nose and it sailed away nearly 50 feet on a near-horizontal blast of wind. I retrieved it from the low branches of a plum thicket and decided it was time to walk back to the pickup.
My face and feet were already throbbing in the cold, and from the far-off bunkhouse I could plainly hear a hot cup of coffee calling my name. I fell only once on the slippery walk back to the trucks and considered that a notable achievement.
The blizzard continued to rage another 12 hours. Snow accumulation was not the predicted 2-4 inches but 10-11 inches. The day’s hunt was over, but the upside was that we discovered Dusty’s Café and Service Station in Orchard (slogan on their business sign: Eat Here and Get Gas) makes a pretty good Philly steak sandwich.
Outside the snow was billowing through the town and visibility was down to a hundred yards at best. Heather and Mike braved the storm for another hour in hopes of finding a deer. Glenn and I returned to the bunkhouse in hopes of finding microwave popcorn. We were successful and they were not, but we tried not to be smug.
This first snowfall on the plains had scotched our day’s hunt, but the next morning we were richly compensated. I awoke about 3 a.m. and looked outside to discover the winter weather front had moved though. We rose, dressed in layers of clothes to face the 16-degree temperature, and returned to the hunting grounds.
The whitetails, wiser than we were, had emerged from cover immediately after the storm, and under the light of a half moon in a clear sky had fed in nearby cornfields and retreated back to snowbound coverts impossible for human hunters to penetrate. Their fresh tracks were everywhere, and we in perfect position to ambush a regal buck as he moved from his hiding place in a brushy draw to his feeding grounds– except we were a few hours late.
But that morning’s sunrise made the hunt for me. Nearly a foot of unblemished snow covered the hayfield, pasture, cattail marsh, and maze of finger-draws, a pristine white blanket over a rugged piece of prairie. Every tree, bush, cattail, and weed stalk was encased in sparkling ice and coated with frost, so the first golden rays of sunlight set the landscape on fire. A light wind gave it all movement and sway, and sparked intermittent showers of shining flakes of frost.
No, we did not bring home any venison, but I will remember this year’s hunt in Nebraska long after I have forgotten others that ended with deer in the box of a pickup. A magnificent day in a glorious country. One to store away in life’s book of memories.
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel,Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.