The dark and quiet time before the hunt

It was 6:30 a.m. on Dec.1, and I sat quietly in the darkness on my large sandstone boulder a mile and a half deep in the forest and 800 yards up the steep snowy slope above the fire trail that runs along the bottom near the trout stream. I opened my thermos of coffee and poured a cup, and the hot, creamy liquid warmed me to the core.

This was one of my favorite moments in the year, the quiet time before legal shooting hours on opening day.

Ten of us at F-Troop Camp had answered the 4 a.m. alarm that morning, gulped down breakfast, packed our gear and headed out the door.

A gregarious bunch at camp, we are solitary souls, each on a private mission, as we begin the long hike into the blackness of the forest at 5 a.m. toward our individual hunting stands. It had taken me one hour and 15 minutes to hike back in on the trail and climb the mountain in my shirtsleeves, carrying hunting coat and backpack and rifle, to the big boulder perched high up the ridge on an escape route bench.

But I was here now, resting atop the boulder, sipping coffee, drying my sweaty head with a towel and thinking about the upcoming hunt. I did not know then that it would be the shortest deer hunt of my life.

At 6:35 I put on a heavy hooded sweatshirt, and at 6:45 I donned my orange-camo hunting coat and wool stocking cap, my final layers of clothing after cooling off slowly from my dressed-down hike. The eastern sky glowed faintly now, and I could see the grounds around my boulder a little because of the background layer of snow. I poured one more coffee and relaxed.

At precisely 7 a.m., I loaded my vintage .270 Remington, checked the safety and stood up to begin surveying my hunting grounds. And there! In the first moment of my hunt I spotted movement coming toward me in the snow.

Two deer were approaching east to west along the deer trail that marks the border of bench flat and steep ridge below my boulder. I got the scope up and focused. Both were does.

But then I saw them stop and look back, a telltale sign of trailing deer, and now they scampered ahead, a sign of a trailing buck. Sure enough, I peered back and spotted a large deer following. I glimpsed antlers as he moved quickly into my sight zones before he disappeared behind some ground rocks. When he stepped out into my shooting lanes, I counted one, two, three points on the right antler. I zeroed on the front shoulder and pulled the trigger, and my opening morning six-point dropped in the snow. I felt a touch of disappointment at first, because I’d prepared myself for a full day in the outdoors on the boulder, but I got over that quickly.

You take your hunter’s luck when it comes. I climbed down, field-dressed the deer and dragged it three hundred yards downhill to my friend Gary’s rock. I stayed with Gary for two hours, helping him watch for deer. Then I began the long drag out to my Jeep.

One hour and one mile later, I met up with my nephew Dustin, who was dragging out an eight-point of his own. Dustin’s a pilot in the Air Force, and this was only his second deer hunt in 20 years, because of school, travel and the military. The eight-point was his first buck ever. I shook his hand and we smiled and smiled. My six-point meant I’d taken Pa. bucks four years in a row now and six out of seven years, so I had reasons of my own to be thankful.

But I knew this day would go down in F-Troop Camp history as Dustin’s day.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, December 14, 2008

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