I was sound asleep, buried under several blankets when my dad came in and shook my foot. I sleepily cracked an eyeball and saw him hovering over me. “Get dressed. Quick. Time to go.” he said. Realization that it was time to leave sunk in and the excitement of what was to come sent a bolt of electricity through my body. “What time is it?” I asked my dad. I didn’t have a clock in my room. He replied, “4 am…time to roll” as he exited my bedroom. I swung my feet out of bed and began the laborious task of putting on all the layers of clothing I laid out the night before.
First was the long underwear, the white waffle kind that Hanes makes and sells in plastic bags at all the department stores. They were thin but that didn’t matter. The cotton against my skin would help to insulate against the cold. Next I pulled on a pair of my dad’s white cotton socks, the kind with the two stripes at the top that came up to my knees. He had several colors but I always choose the red stripes. I am not sure why, I don’t even like the color red; maybe because they looked more like baseball socks than the blue striped ones. My dad’s feet were much larger than mine, so the heels of the socks were up around the back of my leg, but that didn’t matter. I just had to pull them tight. Then I pulled on a pair of sweat pants. Heavy, grey wool socks also borrowed from my dad were pulled up over my sweat pants. The tight socks and baggy sweatpants made it look like I was wearing a pair of knickers. Luckily this wasn’t a fashion show. The first priority of hunting is warmth; a hard lesson learned my first year out.
My first year hunting was when I was 12 years old. That is the youngest age you are legally allowed to hunt in Pennsylvania. My dad, who was as much a part of the woods as any Native American, looked forward to the first of his kids to reach that age so he could pass on his skills as a sportsman. The summer I turned 12, Dad made sure I was registered to take the state-mandated hunter’s safety course. Passing this course meant I would be able to purchase a hunting license in the fall.
That first year out, Dad chose a hunting location on a ridge overlooking a creek. It was promising to be a bitter cold day and dad believed the deer would be low in the valley walking the stream. We positioned ourselves in a foxhole that he had scouted out earlier in the year. The foxhole was a large hollow in the ground. Dead branches around the foxhole allowed us to be low and unseen by the deer. We settled into our spot and scanned the stream. As the weatherman predicted, the day went from cold to colder. Snow turned to sleet and within minutes I was frozen to the bone. My jacket and two layers of clothing were not warm enough. After about an hour the cold had seeped into my bones and I could barely move. It was about this time that a small spike buck showed up at the creek, just as dad predicted. Dad leaned over and whispered to me to take the first shot. So miserable I couldn’t move, I pulled my hat over my face and told him I was too cold and he could have it. Some hunter I was.
That year, I not only learned the basics of hunting but also first-hand experience in how important it was to dress properly. Even the best hunters need protection from hypothermia. Not that I fell into that category.
I finished getting dressed and quickly used the bathroom. I brushed my teeth for good measure and ran a brush through my hair to keep my hair from knotting. No deodorant or lotions today. Deer can smell strong scents a mile away. In the kitchen, my dad was fixing two thermoses of coffee, thick with cream and sugar. That is how we both liked it. He grabbed our prepacked lunches, made the night before, and we both went to the mud room to put on our boots. After double-checking we had everything, we turned off the lights and went outside, leaving the rest of the family to their slumber.
The end of November is always cold in Pennsylvania. Colder still the further you go up the mountain. The dry, cold air pierced my nose as I breathed in; making it feel like it was on fire. It felt like I was going to get a nosebleed, but instead it just dripped mercilessly. I carried a red handkerchief to dab at it, another item borrowed from my dad.
I watched my breath curl upwards as I exhaled and started walking toward the truck. The old red Ford pickup truck was also breathing; its exhaust fumes hanging low in the air. Dad had started it 30 minutes ago to warm up the cab for us. Dad was always thinking ahead, always prepared. He made sure that truck was always supplied with everything from chains to blankets to toilet paper “because you never know what may happen”, he would say.
The doors creaked as we climbed inside the brightly lit cab. The light illuminated our rifles dad that had hung on the gun rack. My gun was a .30-06 Springfield rifle with the stock cut back to fit my small stature and my dad used a .308 Winchester. Both guns had been thoroughly cleaned and oiled the night before and the attached scopes had been sighted in for weeks. We double-checked our ammo and made sure our clips were full. We also checked that our jackets, hats, gloves and snow pants were still in the truck. There would be nothing worse than getting up to the top of the mountain only to find you forgot something. There are plenty of stories of it happening to others.
Satisfied that we had all we needed, we pulled out of the driveway and headed down the small country road. We didn’t have far to go, our first stop would be a hearty breakfast. The little restaurant up the road came into view. It was nothing more than a shell of a building with red, metal siding. Inside was a long counter, some tables, and a small room partitioned off into a kitchen and bathroom. They usually didn’t open until 6am, but during hunting season the store opened at 4am to cater to the early risers. As we walked in the brightly lit building, we noticed several hunters were already sitting down and eating, a point made obvious from their clothing.
Dad and I sat down at a small table and the old owner brought us each a cup of coffee and took our orders. Dad ordered eggs, toast and bacon and I ordered white pancakes. I was picky in that I didn’t like my pancakes burnt, as they often came from restaurants who tried to cook too quickly by turning the burners up on high. The poor, old man pacified my request and we ate our meals in silence. Dad used this time to review his plans for the day and his check list of supplies. I used it to wake up. I relied on him for all the details. I was just along to listen and learn.
I made sure to use the restroom before we headed out. Peeing in the woods in is never fun for a girl, let alone in subzero weather and during hunting season; when you have to not only contend with several bulky layers of clothing, but also several sets of eyes watching from who-knows-where. Last year hunting I literally got caught with my pants down, a memorable experience that still makes me chuckle.
It was my third year hunting and I earned my father’s confidence to hunt solo, and by that I mean sit in place without him directly by my side. Dad had already gotten his buck that year and I didn’t so I was allowed to hunt for doe. Dad’s strategy was position me on a steep hillside next to a deer trail while he put on a drive below me. In theory, the deer would walk right past me. I stationed myself next to a tree and waited patiently.
After about 2 hours or so, I had to pee. I had inhaled half a thermos of coffee in the truck earlier and now the coffee was seeking revenge. I tried holding it but after a while my bladder said it was now or never. I looked around and didn’t see any hunters eyeballing me from the trees so I propped my rifle against a tree and dropped drawer, or rather dropped 4 layers of drawers and started to relieve myself. It was at that precise moment that a doe decided to walk up the hill not more than 25 yards from me. Mid-stream and pants still down to my knees I jerked up and grabbed my gun, shouldered it, took the safety off and tried to aim through the scope. All I saw was hair. The deer was too close to use the scope and I was so flustered that I forgot to use the open sight underneath. So I just pulled the trigger. I watched as the deer continued to the top of the hill and then stood there. Surely I had hit it, didn’t I? I pulled up my pants, now a bit damp, and waited for dad. It didn’t take him long; as he knew he chased that deer up to me and heard the shot that followed. I told him my story and after a good laugh we searched for the doe. We found her on the hillside and that is when we realized that the price for being caught with my pants down was a gut-shot deer. Dad was not pleased.
To this day, I am still surprised he didn’t make me clean the deer myself. I suppose he was just so proud that I actually got my doe, even if it was a mess to clean.
I came out of the bathroom and looked at the clock on the restaurant wall. It was now 5 am. We had an hour and a half to get to the top of the mountain and walk to our spot before sunrise. We finished paying for our breakfasts and started the long drive up the dark mountain roads to the spot Dad chose to hunt that day. He made it a point to scout deer trails all year so he knew where the best chances were of getting a buck. This particular location took us to a mountainside with a shelf that overlooked some red brush with several deer trails that crossed it.
Dad cut the lights on the truck just before pulling into our parking spot. He didn’t want to chance scaring the deer. He turned off the engine and we sat in the truck, allowing our eyes could adjust to the dark and our bodies to acclimate to the freezing temperatures that slowly seeped in through the doors and windows.
After about 15 minutes we opened the doors and proceeded to get on our cold weather gear. Dad had turned off the cab lights so we had to do this in the dark. My clothing was so thick I looked like an orange Michelin man. I double checked my pockets to make sure I had the correct ammunition and that I had my stash of candy bars; both equally just as important in my eyes. Finally I shouldered my rifle and closed the cab door without a sound, the way dad taught me by pushing in on the latch.
I looked around. There is nothing more beautiful than the Pennsylvania woods in winter just before dawn. The lack of city lights enables you to see the full Milky Way Galaxy in all of its glory. Layers upon layers of stars each a pinprick of light; made all the more sharp by the crisp, mountain air. As the minutes pass and dawn approaches, the sky turns from inky black to a midnight blue, silhouetting the trees on the mountaintop. There is no sound at this hour in the mountains. There is no traffic, no neighborly dogs, not even the sound of birds and other forest creatures. I have this surreal feeling that I am standing on the edge of the earth.
I look down at the ground. A light dusting of snow had recently fallen. Heavy snow is good for tracking deer, but a light snow like this one only freezes the leaves and twigs on the ground, making it nearly impossible to walk without making a lot of noise and alerting all the woodland creatures of danger. Sound tends to carry in the mountains. We would be staying put in one spot today.
Dad came up beside me and whispered in my ear, “you good to go?” “Yep.” I replied and followed his lead.
We used no lights to walk in the woods. We had to rely on the dim twilight and dad’s memorization of the trails. I often wondered how he managed to do this when I could barely see my own feet. Dad just had a way with the woods. It took us 20 minutes to walk to the spot he had picked out for me.
Dad cleared the leaves and seated me at the base of a tree. He pointed out where the deer trails crossed and where I should expect to see them if they came this way. He reminded me the deer are most active right after sunrise and to be prepared, and to also be on the lookout for other hunters as they were most active at dawn as well. Some hunters illegally start shooting before dawn, which can be scary and dangerous. Dad left me at my spot and went on to his own location about ¼ mile away.
I sat in silence with my rifle in my lap and waited for sunrise. Several times I heard another hunter walking near me. Human footsteps are distinctly different than deer or other animals. When this happened, I took out my flashlight pointed it in the direction of the noise and rapidly turned it on and off. This let the other hunter know I was working this area and to move on. Good spots were first come, first serve.
As dawn approached, shots rang out around me. Two were a miss and one was a hit. You can tell the difference by the sound of the shot. A missed shot echoes, but a direct hit has a sound that deadens. I started to focus on the deer trails. If someone was shooting nearby, the deer may be herded this way.
As daylight warmed the mountainside, the snow began to melt. The early morning fog burned off and trees became more visible, as did the deer trails that lay below me. I was able to see some distance now. For the last hour, the mountain was quiet. No shots rang out. No signs of deer.
It was about 8 am and the cold had seeped through my 4 layers of clothes. I had brought along a hot seat cushion to sit on which was a lifesaver for both comfort and warmth, but even that only kept the cold ground at bay so long. My stomach started to growl. My breakfast that had kept me warm the last couple hours was long gone and it needed refueling, like stoking a fire. At least that is what I told myself. I would use any excuse to eat a candy bar. I reached in my pocket to my stash– two Snickers, two bags of peanut M&Ms, and a bag of Reese’s Pieces. I was a walking candy store. I chose the Snickers.
A noise at my feet stirred me from my snack. I looked down and saw a field mouse scampering over my boot. I watched for a few minutes as he busily searched for bits of food. I thought about giving him a peanut from my chocolate bar, but thought better of it and finished it off myself. I stuffed the wrapper in my over-sized jacket and took another look around. The woods were quiet. Nothing stirred. I scanned the trees down below me. Nothing….or wait. What was that?
I saw a brown shape behind a tree. I pulled up my scope and looked. A 4-point buck. A big 4-point buck. His body was behind a tree but his head and chest were out. The excitement went through me like electricity. I was so nervous. I checked the safety was off, aimed at his chest and took a deep breath, letting only half out. I held my breath as a slowly squeezed the trigger.
Pow! In a split second I saw the deer drop in the scope and at the same time felt an excruciating pain in my face. My eyes began to water profusely. I saw stars and felt something warm drip down my chin. I took off my gloves and felt my face. My nose wiggled back and forth and I could hear it crunch. I pulled my hand away and saw it was covered in blood. The combination of the short gun stock and the thick jacket allowed the powerful gun to recoil into my face, the scope breaking my nose. I got out my red handkerchief and wiped away the blood.
After a few minutes my eyes stopped watering and my nose stopped bleeding. It throbbed but I was too excited about the buck to give it too much notice. I put the safety back on my rifle and walked to where I saw the buck fall. There was a short trail of blood and the deer lay dead a couple feet away. I marked the tree next to the deer with an orange piece of plastic and started to walk back to where I was sitting.
It didn’t take long before Dad walked into view. He heard the shot, knew it was a hit, and knew it came from my direction. I can’t imagine what he thought when he came upon me smiling from ear-to-ear with dried blood on my face. I told him the whole story and then showed him the buck. To say he was proud was an understatement. Not only did I get my buck, but I got christened by the gun, a rite of passage in his book.
That year was the last year I hunted with Dad. The next year my brother was old enough to hunt and the year after that my youngest brother; Dad started the ritual all over with them. Having lost my interest in hunting, I went on to do other things that teen girls do and finally graduated high school and went off to college. It wasn’t long after that, that Dad was diagnosed with cancer and passed shortly after, his knowledge of the woods and hunting buried with him.
I often think back to those days of hunting with Dad. I was never interested in hunting like he was; rather I was swept up in his passion for the sport. He taught me a lot about tracking, hunting, and survival; but I never took interest enough to learn beyond the basics. To this day I wonder how he navigated the woods in the dark or how he always knew where the deer would be based on the weather. Dad once told me he could smell deer. I believed him. There was never a year he didn’t get a deer or any wild game he hunted. He didn’t just love the sport, he lived it. That was the reason he chose to try and make a living in the remote area we lived in, even though he struggled financially from that decision.
When we are young, we don’t appreciate the gift of knowledge. We squander our time with our elders and assume they will always be around to teach us when we are good and ready. It isn’t until hindsight that we realize our follies. My dad’s skills will forever be lost; I will just have to be content with the memory of those few years hunting and the memory of my first buck.