Updated: Jun 14
Kevin and I had plans to get down into the grasslands to hunt Mule Deer. With his schedule of filming, we had a small window at the beginning of November, and the report of an incoming blizzard was not going to dissuade us. Another reason for being there was that we had a project to complete on the newly placed Grasslands Shack. Kevin had been working tirelessly since last spring to get four hard walls and a roof in place down there. The winds and cold are relentless on the Canadian Prairies, and over the years, it became obvious that a cabin of some sort was the ticket for comfort while hunting in the area. This is especially true in November while hunting Mule Deer.
On our previous trip to camp in October, we had moved the old woodstove from an abandoned farmhouse. We did have permission of course. On this trip now, Kevin acquired the necessary components for the chimney installation. We were on a mission to beat the blizzard and get some wood-fired heat into the old building.
Upon our early afternoon arrival, we got straight to work. A chainsaw made quick work of the wooden walls. A hole was made to get the smoke outside. Measurements, thoughts, discussion. Before too long, the chimney was up, connected to the stove and a fire was lit. This was the first fire in the old stove for at least a quarter of a century. Of course, the stove performed flawlessly. It wouldn't matter if it had sat for a hundred years. Old tech simply works the way it was designed to work, all of the time.
By this time it was too late in the day to get a hunt in. We had worked hard and spent the remaining daylight getting things arranged within the shack. Dishes put away. Gear organized. And of course, Happy Hour and some bar snacks made a fairly quick appearance.
I love the ambiance of a hunting camp. The discussions of planning, the laughter from a little quick wit, the tastes, and the sounds. Tings and pops of tamarack hissing and crackling deep in the cast iron belly of the stove. The sound of ice clinking in a tumbler or coupe. The click of a camera. I think of all of these senses when I'm away from camp. These sights, sounds, and smells happen in all of our camps, but they are so distinct. A canvas tent deep in the boreal produces different sounds from what we were experiencing here in the Shack. The stove metal is thinner in the wall tent, the heat is "sharper" and the sound does not bounce as hard off of the soft fabric. The origins of sound are the same, but the outcome is completely inconsistent.
And so, day one eventually, and happily, came to an end. Sleeping bags and bear hides were laid out on the floor. The laughing and jokes between Kevin and I continued but slowly subsided. I believe that Kevin started snoring first.
The clanking of metal stove lids and wood staves rubbing against each other woke me on the morning of day two. I always pretend to be asleep for a few minutes after hearing these sounds, no matter which camp we're in. This ensures that Kevin gets a good start on the heat and hot water for coffee, but it never lasts long. I feel too guilty that he is awake and productive. The sleeping bag is unzipped. The warm reality is gone faster than my brain is able to process on a dark November morning. The pants and a shirt go on quickly and almost before I know it, I am huddled near the barely warm stove while Kevin happily preps the morning coffees for us both. This scene is pretty much transferable to any hunting or fishing camp that we are a part of together. It is comfortably constant.
For a long time, as we sip our hot drinks at the little table, it is dark outside. There is not even a glow in the eastern sky. Now is the time that we firmly decide on a plan for the morning's hunt. Where should we go? How will we hunt? Together or separately? One of us will suddenly realize that we're missing the key to all of these plans. Which way is the wind coming from? Usually, though, both of us will have been outside already, and the wind will have been mentally noted by somebody. Ok, NW wind, let's do this.
Hunting Mule Deer in Alberta can present many obstacles and opportunities.
The truck bounced down the two-track path towards the gas lease where we wanted to park. There was snow on the ground that hadn't been there the day before. It was not deep enough to impede our travel, in the truck or on foot. But it was enough to make this morning extra special. Fresh snow, only hours old, tells so many stories. Every track is new, and every trail laid brown by passing legs knocking snow off of grass holds promise. We decided to hunt separately. We had permission to hunt several sections of wild scrub pasture. We could hunt for miles before we ran out of hunting territory. These pastures that we slowly crept through consisted of grass and patches of wolf willow. Interspersed throughout the pastures were 'islands' of trembling aspen, twisted and shrunken from the harsh winds, scant moisture, and unforgiving weather of the northern prairies. Anything wild that survives in this environment is rugged and resolute. Eventually, the islands of trees merged together into a forest of sorts. The trees are distorted and compact and given where they exist, the forest seems like the wrong word. They are thickets.
It didn't take long for me to come across a trail that caught my attention. I had slowly still-hunted across the pastures and through the thickets for perhaps an hour or so. A barbed-wire fence that ran north-south came into view and I decided to follow it north, into the wind. If I crossed any tracks I could see which way they were headed ( I sort of already knew having earlier seen satellite maps). I suspected the deer would be headed from the grain fields in the west to the thicker woodlots north, near a wide-open dry lake bed. This trail, made by perhaps five or six deer, was going exactly where I thought it would. Northwest into the good stuff.
I was after the biggest buck I could find on this trip. I wasn't interested in the does and fawns that made up the tracks that I was now following. At this time of year, during the rut, does and fawns are always monitored by bucks. There were definitely no big buck tracks interspersed with theirs, but wherever they were headed, the bucks would be near. Gradually and deliberately, I crept along, crouched. Observant. Through the thickets and then out into open ground again, the deer hadn't hesitated. They knew exactly where they wanted to be and wasted no time getting there. There was maybe one spot along the mile or so that I followed where I could see that they had stopped and browsed briefly. The rest of the time, it was non-stop walking.
The pair of deer were coming straight towards me. They couldn't be on the same trail that I was?!
The aspens quit and another fence appeared in front of me. I knew we had permission to cross into the next property, so I continued. But before I got to the fence, something grabbed my attention to the right of the trail. Another set of tracks joined the group, they were the tracks of a very big deer, surely a buck that I would like to have an encounter with at close range!
I crossed the fence carefully, as quietly as I could. My eyes were straining to see movement, bitten with shards of blowing snow. Here was the blizzard we had been warned about. It was harsh. Snow was striking my skin and eyeballs, whipping even into my eardrums. Stinging. Obnoxious. But the trail continued ahead, through the low bushes and grass. Ahead now perhaps 150 yards, another thicket appeared through the fog of sideways blowing snow, however, something else stopped me in my tracks. The expanse of wolf willows were constant now, but something moved off to my left. Two, no three branches of willows moving out of place. Antlers!
I dropped to my knees. He hadn't seen me. I could still catch his movement through the bushes. He was walking east at a fairly steady pace. He wasn't in a hurry either though. Quickly, I figured out that I was not interested in this guy. He was a young buck. I think I recall that he had three points on each antler. I pulled out my phone to video him as he walked across my path at about 50 yards. It is terribly fun to be close to wild big game animals! Having been walking now for a couple hours, it seemed like a good time to take a break. I liked where I was, despite the stinging wind and particles of super-sonic frozen water. The grey skies seemed to melt and blend into the black and white ground and shrubbery that surrounded me. This encounter with the little buck had made this morning a success. I was content and wanted to simply enjoy the hardship of the situation. It was a good time to pull out the field recorder and roll some audio for the podcast episode.
I knew that the wind would be wreaking havoc on the Lavalier mic I wore. I hunkered down lower and began to describe where I was and what had just transpired with the smaller mule deer buck. I didn't do a great job of describing what happened next though. I think I was in a bit of disbelief, to be honest. From my position, directly in from of me on a small hill covered with dark willows and aspen, there was a deer! Just as quickly it seemed, another deer followed. Instantly, I could see that the second deer was a buck. It looked like a nice one too. You can hear me say in the podcast that I needed to look through the rifle scope to be sure of what I was seeing. A quick look confirmed it, he was a big deer!
The pair of deer were coming straight toward me. They couldn't be on the same trail that I was?! They were! This was going to be a very close encounter indeed. I stayed as still as I could. The doe was now 60 yards and still headed my way, but she had sensed something was wrong with the dark blob on the path ahead of her. She slightly deviated from the trail to her right, my left. Forty yards now and still closing. Thirty. Twenty. I could hear her softly bleating but I paid her no attention. By now my rifle was leveled at the buck's chest. He was facing me directly and I had a clear shot at 40 yards, but I didn't take it. I needed to wait until he was broadside, my decades of traditional bowhunting experience was screaming at me, "Do not take the shot!". The doe's bleating had made the buck nervous. He was stopped now, not sure what to make of this unusual situation so far away from any human activity he had ever experienced before. "Humans were busy doing other things with noisy machines, this couldn't be human, could it?" "Nah, I'm sure it's fine."
Instincts are funny. There is something that tells us a situation is wrong. We can't quite pinpoint the feeling. It doesn't make sense, so the feeling must be wrong. The buck didn't run or bolt, even when I stood and shouldered the rifle. He simply turned to his left and slowly trudged across the pasture. The crosshairs followed his methodical walk through the stunted willow bushes. For what seemed like a long time, branches covered his vitals. And then suddenly they didn't.
The buck was at forty-four yards when the rifle slammed into my shoulder. At the same time that the gunshot rang out, the big buck fell to the ground. The smell of gunpowder brushed past my face in the furious wind. My heart was pounding, and my breath was jagged and loud. My hunt, and the buck's life, were suddenly over.
I do not think I will ever be able to describe how I feel at this moment. The joy of success and the prospect of a freezer full of food mixed with despair and solemnity at being responsible for ending a life. I am somewhat envious of those who don't think too much about this act of killing for food. On the other hand, no. I am glad that I feel this way. Hopefully, this never leaves me.