One more river to cross
There were no more options. My only choice was to slide the deer over the sheer 10-foot bank of the Trout River, let it drop onto the narrow strip of gravel at the river’s edge, hope it was not swept away by the current, scramble down the mud bank myself, and decide how I would drag this 150-pound buck across to the far side.
The drag had already been a wearisome labor. Hubris always invites nemesis. Although I had promised my beautiful blonde wife Patti that I would no longer hunt deer on the steep, wooded, limestone bluff on the west side of our farm, by the third day of the muzzle-loading rifle season in the North Country I could not resist sitting under a tree at the top of that bluff and enjoying the beauty of our maple and oak woodland. With little expectation of shooting a deer, I lingered for a half hour on an overcast day and watched the sky change shape and form above the colorful foliage.
That’s when I caught some furtive movement on the perimeter of my vision, turned to my left, saw a heavy-antlered whitetail buck climb out of a draw below me, and stride onto the old logging road that ran along a terrace. Centering him in the scope (it was an easy 50-yard shot) I remember telling myself, “Do not shoot this deer, do NOT shoot this deer, DO NOT shoot this deer!” He paused amid a leaf-covered, golden-floored gap under the maples, and looked up at me.
A rush of adrenaline, a surge of predatory instinct, a whisper in my brain that insisted there would be few more moments such as this in my hunter’s lifetime: I pulled the trigger.
Among the many sensual pleasures of muzzle-loader hunting are the thunder-like boom of the rifle and the plume of acrid-smelling smoke that obscures the target for 10 or 15 seconds. The smoke also causes problems. Through that cloud I saw the white-and-gray mass of the buck flip over the edge of the terrace onto another steep slope of the bluff. No sound of a crashing body, and no thrashing about, but that means little since I was not wearing hearing aids, and I am almost stone deaf. All was still, all was silent. The buck was certainly dead. Probably.
I reloaded the rifle, losing only one primer in the process. (I also dropped my gloves and neglected to pick them up, but I found them beside the tree the next day so I do not consider those “lost.”) Heart pounding and feeling lightheaded, as I always do when I shoot a deer, I sat down to recover from the after-shot shakes. I waited the prescribed 20 minutes while the buck lay stunned by the bullet strike and expired. Well, I waited 15 minutes. Okay, at least 11 minutes. Then I had to find him.
Stumbling down, down, down to the edge of the cliff over which he had disappeared, I could see that I would need my cable-and-pulley come-along to hoist his carcass back up the bluff, 10 grueling yards at a time. Then I took one more step and knew with a sinking feeling that there would be no uphill drag because the buck staggered to his feet and ran pall-mall straight downhill as best he could through brush and across land-sliding slabs of limestone. Damn! Why didn’t I wait another 10 minutes?
Cautiously, I followed his line of flight. An obvious blood trail told me the buck would not go far, and he did not. About 200 yards down the face of the bluff I found where he had somersaulted and died, antlers wedged between two small elm trees. As always, this was my moment of conflicting emotions: joy and regret.
Excited, almost euphoric, to have taken this deer, I also mourned the death of this beautiful animal. I knelt beside it, touched its shoulder, and silently asked forgiveness. I assured its spirit that its body would nourish me and my family, that the hunt is an essential, sacred part of me, and that no malice or cruelty was intended. But I can never fully persuade myself of the harsh reality that every living thing must kill to live. My only compensation is that I could not be the person I am if I did not hunt, and that my passion to hunt is honorable and ethical because, as the Spanish philosopher and hunter Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” There is some primordial thing living within me, and I have come to accept that dragon.
Straightening out the deer’s body and legs so that he lay on his side, I looked up at the height of the bluff above and knew that dragging it to our hayfield on top was absolutely impossible. The only course was to go down the bluff to my neighbor’s farm and hope that I could somehow get to the deer with my pickup truck. I found a wildlife trail that cut diagonally across the bluff, walked a couple hundred yards ahead to scout its passage, returned to the deer, and started the drag from hell.
Five years. It has been five years since I ventured into the Trout River Valley at the base of the bluff on the west edge of our farm. Things change in five years. Things can change drastically in five years. The height of flood-ripped river banks, for example.
Four of the past five years, record-setting rains have soaked the North Country. The cornfields and hayfields in the Trout River Valley have been severely flooded three of those years, and the river itself has altered its course, cutting new channels, backwaters, oxbows, marshes, and ponds. Since the day I walked through it five years hence, nothing in this riparian landscape was the same. Nothing.
After a quarter-mile downhill drag (which included the buck’s antlers hooking my pant leg on a steep and slippery section of the trail and having him drag me for about 10 yards), I was wobbly-legged, hot, sweated through, scratched by wild raspberry vines and gooseberry clumps, and covered with the seeds of beggar’s tick weed. Bone-weary. Spent. Old-man tired.
Say what you want about the curse of cell phones, I was happy to be able to call Patti and ask her to get permission to drive the pickup through our neighbor’s hayfield with the goal of loading up this deer. Although it had been dead for over an hour, the buck had mysteriously grown from about 150pounds to more than 300 pounds, or so it seemed to me. But it was almost over, and I thought my suffering was nearly at an end. I was wrong.
The river gods had joyfully slashed mud banks 10-12 feet high along the bottom of our bluff as their gift to us in the reshaping of the valley. No complaints: sometimes the gods giveth, and sometimes the gods taketh away. But what they had taken away was a complete surprise. I considered the options. Dragging the deer back up the bluff, or farther along the bank of the river upstream or down, was impossible. My choices were:
1) abandon this deer and have it become a coyote feast;
2) drop the deer over the sheer 10-foot bank onto a narrow strip of gravel at river’s edge and hope it was not swept away by the current.
There was no question I would choose option No. 2. I slid the deer over the bank and quickly slid down after it. I snared it before it slipped into the current. Then the challenge was getting it across to the far side. One more river to cross.
I walked up and down the river’s edge to find the slowest flowing water that did not have a muck bottom but a fairly stable gravel one. I pulled the deer through shallow water to an island in the steam, waded across the main channel and then back to assure myself that I would not lose my footing, and pulled the buck along on the most exciting part of the drag.
Did you know that deer float? Having zero experience with deer drags across rivers, ponds, lakes or other bodies of water, I thought this deer would sink like a rock and probably pull me down with it. Happily, this buck floated like a cork, and I briefly entertained the idea of climbing aboard and boating merrily downstream to the next bridge that had an accessible canoe landing. Fortunately, I scotched that plan.
The opposite bank of the river was low, little more than a gravel shelf, and I was able to pull the deer out of the current with minimal effort. Having nothing better to do until the pickup arrived, I field dressed the buck. Nice to have a river nearby to wash the blood from my arms and hands. I sat down on the gravel bar. I was bushed.
Fast-forward through the easiest part of this adventure. Patti and our surrogate niece Heather arrived with the pickup, having driven through two fordable stretches of the river. Because this section of the Trout River has multiple channels after the flood years, channels that twist and writhe and turn like a snake with a broken back, I still needed to drag the buck across a secondary channel, which was shallow and gravel-bottomed. Note: deer do not float as well after they are field dressed, but on the other hand they wash out quite nicely when they are half submerged.
Once across, Heather helped me drag it through about a hundred yards of tall weeds and marsh grass, often using the 1-2-3 PULL system. Although she is considerably smaller than I, she proved to be considerably stronger. Especially when it came to loading the buck onto the pickup.
On the five-mile drive home – getting back across a North Country river may require a long drive to a bridge – Heather tactfully said that my deer adventure had messed up her evening hunt from her favorite tree stand, so she was going out before dawn the next morning, “But you don’t have to go if you want to sleep in,” she said, looking at me like I was the last place finisher in a senior citizen triathlon.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m going to drink two beers this evening, and I’m going hunting with you in the morning, and you’re going to kill a deer, and I’m going to drag it.” I assure you this bombast was all macho posturing.
But she did go. And I did. And she did kill a deer. And I did drag it. About 20 yards. On the flat. From the edge of the woods into a hayfield. Where we could drive right up beside it with the pickup. Because she shot a seven-point buck and it dropped dead in its tracks.
Which, let me tell you, is a much, much, much better way to harvest venison.