My last two posts have been a little, well, like ranting, so I thought I would switch up a bit, and run a story that I wrote a long time ago about my Dad and our deer hunting trip. I thought of my Dad, and this story, yesterday as I listened to a friend who had lost his father to pancreatic cancer a few days before. But what I really want to know is your impression of what the story is trying to say. You’ll see at the end what my father thought. I think he was way off base…
The fog was thick and heavy in the valley. We could see maybe 50 yards at best and it showed no signs of lifting. It seemed to be getting thicker as we walked. It was 5:30 in the morning, late October, and cold, to me, really cold. I was standing there worrying about how long I would still be able to feel my feet, wishing with all my fifteen-year-old heart that I was still in bed.
Still I was forcing myself to listen for any movement, any sound. A twig snapping or leaves crunching under an animal’s hooves that would spring me into action. I was ready. All I could hear was the soft rustling of the Aspen trees.
“Not going to see much in this soup,” my Dad said, breaking the icy silence.
He had been planning this father-son excursion for many weeks and the weather was not making him happy. He usually walked in front of me, so I rarely heard what he said. He would occasionally turn back towards me when he said something so I wouldn’t have to answer the standard, “yeah, I guess.” This particular time he turned around and looked at me, maybe just to make sure he could still see me in the fog.
Valley fog, as this is called, is a result of heavier cold air settling into a valley, with warmer air passing over the mountains above. Fog like this can stay for several days depending on the conditions, so it wasn’t like the sun was going to automatically “burn” this off, but my Dad said it anyway.
“It’ll burn off when the sun gets up and we warm up some,” he said.
It wasn’t my first hunt, although this was the first time out that I could remember where it was just me and my Dad. I was gingerly carrying a thirty aught six pointed correctly toward the ground in front of me, the way my father had taught me. I always thought you walked with the gun slung over your shoulder, I mean it does have a “shoulder” strap, but my Dad insisted the safest way to carry a loaded rifle was by holding it under the stock and point it toward the ground. Personally, I thought it might improve the chances of shooting one of our feet off, but I didn’t argue. My Dad obviously knew. He had made many “safe” trips into the mountains foraging for food.
I had no desire to be a hunter, never have. I still don’t like the taste of wild game. I understand the logic of hunting seasons. Without this human intrusion into the wild to cut down the populations of deer and elk, the limited food supplies in the winter would not be enough to sustain the growing herds. Killing actually guarantees survival of the majority. It’s simple management of a natural resource—and commonly referred to as “sport” in northern Wyoming.
Every Fall, thousands of gun-totting, Jim Beam-swilling, Coors (pronounced Curs)-drinking marksmen, true macho men, head for the foothills in search of deer, elk, bear, rabbit, pheasant, duck and other assorted “natural” food sources. They get drunk, lost, cold and sometimes shot at. They walk for miles chasing and circling an animal that’s often been through this before and somehow knows the game. I figured the deer could spot us pretty good too since we were all wearing bright orange vests or hats, the purpose of which was to reduce the possibility of other hunters shooting us, since, of course, deer don’t wear vests or hats. I didn’t learn until later that deer only see in black and white, so bright colors don’t matter much if you’re trying to hide from a deer, only if you’re trying to be seen by other hunters.
If you manage to “bag” one of these animals, it must, of course, be gutted. This is a totally disgusting exercise for most of us I would think. I know it was for me. I could barely stand to gut fish. This “gutting” is done out in the wild which, two-fold, serves as a food source for scavengers, and lowers the weight of the carcass making it easier to haul out of the forest. If you haven’t had the pleasure of gutting an animal, particularly a deer, consider yourself lucky unless your future dream is to be, maybe a surgeon, and warm, steamy, sticky blood and entrails doesn’t faze you much. I found that it generally made me throw up in my mouth.
Then you have to haul, mostly drag, the corpse through miles of freezing forest. Up hills that didn’t look so steep going down, and thrown in the back of a pick up truck, or slung over the fender of the car in transit to its final destination: the garage.
Here the hunter’s prize is hung to “age” the meat, but it’s real purpose, I think, is to show it off to the neighbors who haven’t or didn’t get a deer this season, and to drive the neighborhood dogs into a frenzy. I hear it a lot, but “aging” doesn’t sound like a good thing for something generally refrigerated to keep it fresh. None of these deer carcasses, hanging around in the neighborhood garages, were in refrigerators, but I guess it was cold out most of the time.
In order to get home to the garage, you have to first pass a Forest Service check-point where a government employee, getting double-time for working on a Sunday, confirms that you have indeed killed and gutted an animal that you have a permit to kill and gut. Not a mule, horse or cow, for example. Trust me, it happens.
There was a song out there back in the 60s, written by singer song writer, Doug McGuire, titled “Bernard the Mule”. I doubt that it was ever on the top 100, but it always made me remember those hunting trips with my father.
“Way up in Wyoming where the weather was cool, Up on the mountain stood, Bernard, the mule.”
Then in the chorus, “Oh Bernard, I’da never turned you loose. If I’da thought, Bernard, they’d mistake you for a moose.”
The song nears its end where the government employee at the check point sees that the California hunter, who has probably never seen a moose before, has done shot hisself a mule. He looks at the shoes, the brand, and the government number stamped on him, and “he smiles and says ‘Got some mighty fine meat!”
I mean the mule is already dead and slung over the fender of the truck so there isn’t much the game warden can do. Anyway, it’s rumored to be based on a true story, and Davie Coulter whose name appears in the song as saving “Bernie’s rear from a dog-food can”, actually is/was alive and well in Wyoming somewhere. (I’m doing this all from memory. I know the song by heart. I used to sing it every time I had a few drinks and wanted to humor myself more than those in attendance. A few years ago I found a copy of the original 45 rpm record, online, and had to have it. Yes, I have something to play it on.)
Anyway, like I said, I had no desire to be a hunter, but I was 15 and this was Wyoming. It was necessary for the attainment of manhood. My eyes scanned the lower tree line. My feet were turning into solid blocks of ice and I was silently cursing myself for not putting on that fourth pair of socks. Then I heard it, a couple of heavy thumps and the snap of a twig. Off to the left, just back of where we had come.