As someone who moves around a lot (5 states and 2 countries in the past 10 years), it is often hard to define the word "home." What does that word mean? Is it the place where I grew up, or the place I'm living now? While it holds a special place in my heart, and I'll always be FROM South Dakota, it is no longer home. I've been in Alaska for a year now, but it certainly doesn't feel like home. Perhaps the best definition can be found by leaving a place, missing it deeply, returning for a visit, and realizing you've found home.
In November I packed up my boots, rifle, and cooler and flew South. After an extended stay at SeaTac (thanks Alaska Airlines), I landed in Bozeman. Matthew picked me up from the airport, and we headed for the hills. We loaded the trusty Toyota and booked it to one of our favorite hunting spots. I hopped into long johns, boots and suspenders on the side of the snow packed Forest Service road. We only had a few hours of sunlight left, but within 30 minutes of hiking, Matthew spotted mule deer in the distance. My game eye was off and wasn’t seeing animals like I’m used to. Thankfully Matthew was a deer spotting fool. I blame being out of that type of country for a year.
The area we hunted is an old burn, maybe 15 years old. The fire left a very open forest by Montana standards, with long sight distances, perfect for spotting deer from afar. Still, black trees stood stark against blazing white snow. True to form, Matthew spotted a shooter of a buck headed our direction, but still out of my comfortable shooting distance. The open forest type works both ways, and the deer knew we were there. I attempted to close the distance and get a good rest, but couldn’t do it before the buck turned tail and bounded up and over the ridge.
The next day we returned with more time, and made the hike up the mountain at first light. To our dismay, another hunting party arrived shortly after us, and cut off our path to the top. We regrouped and changed plans, hiking into the neighboring drainage. Again, Matthew started spotting deer, one of which was directly below us but well out of range. Being the out of towner, I was granted first crack at all stalks that weekend. Matthew and Eric stayed above while I scurried from one bare tree trunk to the next, doing my best to both move quickly yet stealthily at the same time. Almost to the a perfect shooting position, I checked the range. 400 yards. Still to far. To my dismay, another, bigger buck showed up and started moving the original one in the wrong direction. I sprinted down the hill and threw myself down on a snow covered rocky promontory. Alas, I was too slow and both bucks were moving quickly away. Another failed stalk.
On our way back to Gardiner, we discussed a saying often thrown around hunting parties: “ Don’t pass up an animal on day one that you’d be happy with on the final day of the season.” While there is some credibility to that line of thought, we decided it needed some editing and came up with this: "Don’t pass up an animal half way through the season that you’d be happy with on the last day." Given that I only had 4 days to hunt, half of my season was now over. Day 3 and 4 would not see any passes from me. Flawed reasoning, perhaps, but it made sense at the time.
On day three we headed to a different spot. Somewhere we knew there would be more deer, but probably smaller ones. Without fail, we were into deer immediately. We put a stock on a group of does that had a younger fork point buck with them. They gave us the slip but we moved up hill to cut them off. Our plan worked out and we surprisingly well, and we put ourselves right in front of them.
Sometimes the decision to pull the trigger is easy, and I think little about it. Other times, I sit affixed, with the deer in the cross-hairs of my scope, yet unable to pull the trigger. It's a strange thing, making the decision to pull the trigger, and not something I take lightly. To say a hunter (at least this one) enjoys killing things, would be gross misrepresentation. There are so many emotions tied up with hunting. It's physical challenge, mental fortitude, excitement in the chase, and then a whole messed up mix of things when the deed is done. I'm sad to take a life, yet hugely grateful for it's sacrifice and excited for success. This deed will feed my family for months to come. It is hard to explain, and easy to criticize. For me, it is immensely rewarding, and not something that can be adequately described though my linguistic ineptitude.
So until my next trip home, and my next venture into the deer woods, I will be planning my return to the mountians.