Fetching a Deer

I spent the day after Thanksgiving helping to drag a dead animal out of the woods. I guess that probably sounds unremarkable to long-time Montana residents, but back in Baltimore the only animal carcasses you ever see are road-killed rats, so this was a new one for me. Out east we don’t know a lot about hunting, like who does it and why, and even if we do know someone who does it they are generally considered a little oddball or eccentric, to be discussed in hushed tones with Significant Glances. Did you know Bob is a hunter?

Sometimes I would come across mention of hunting in the Baltimore Sun, like when Maryland would issue a few black-bear permits out in the western part of the state, where there does seem to be some of what you might call chafing as we humans sprawl deeper and deeper into bear territory. Some people were outraged by these hunts, and some were indifferent to them, but no matter what your feelings were, it was strange to come across pictures of, say, a brown-eyed eight-year-old girl posing with the first dead bear of the season, and then just finish your coffee and head off to work in a city where the only gunshots you ever hear are generally followed with sirens. So while I technically knew that, if I wanted to, I could get in the car, drive two hours west, and “harvest” some animals, really these newspaper articles had the feel of dispatches from a strange and far-off place, and hunting was always something Someone Else did.

That all changed, of course, when we moved to Montana. We arrived in August, so our first months here coincided with the run-up to and opening of various game seasons, and after a while I started to get used to pickup trucks with rifles hanging in their back windows and the big full-color supplements in the Sunday paper advertising guns, ammunition, camo clothing, “game saws,” and the like. I even got to know a few hunters, and, in talking to them, I started to understand some of the historical, cultural, and economic dimensions of the sport that had eluded me before.

The economic rationale in particular was a new one on me, since any hunters I knew back east generally traveled pretty far to do it, making it more of an expensive and rare vacation indulgence than a lifestyle. Here, of course, someone can drive fifteen minutes out of town and be back with an elk by lunch time, a year’s worth of meat for the cost of a license and some gas and bullets. This is the sort of thing that can get a guy thinking, especially as he tries to adjust to a cut from east-coast to western wages. I’m not saying I’m champing at the bit to go kill something myself – there’s the little matter of gutting and butchering, which I’m frankly not sure I could handle, and besides, I don’t even walk to my mailbox without my bear spray, so the idea of purposely entering the territory of hyperphagic grizzlies would take some working up to – but let’s just say I’m curious.

So I was sitting around in my bathrobe the day after Thanksgiving, trying to decide if it had been long enough since I’d had any turkey that I could reasonably have a little more, when Law Dog, a new friend of ours, called and asked if I wanted to come get this dead deer with him. He’d shot two of the things on Thanksgiving but had only brought one of them out. Law Dog has been one of my main informants thus far on Montana hunting culture, and he had told me only a few days earlier that there is an unwritten rule in these parts to the effect that, when someone asks you to help him carry out some meat, you just do it, so of course I said yes.

A half-hour later, we were in Law Dog’s 4-Runner headed out of town. His friend, The Professor, was riding shotgun (although in fact it was a rifle he had along). I can’t of course tell you where Law Dog’s secret hunting spot is, but I will say that it’s close to town, which accords with his overall philosophy when it comes to hunting, i.e., that hunters should be good stewards of the environment, up to and including trying not to burn $150 worth of gas on a hunting trip. (This is a guy who says he won’t take you hunting until you read Posewitz’s Beyond Fair Chase, a book on “ethical hunting.”)

“I can’t say that I like the killing part, but I do think this is a good way for humans to get their protein,” Law Dog said, as we bounced along a snow-covered Forest Service road. “It reproduces itself, and it’s not all full of steroids and antibiotics.”

The Professor, who is in his forties but only started hunting three years ago, agreed. “I actually came to it out of an interest in eating healthier. My wife and I were already into organic foods, and it seemed like a natural next step to take responsibility for actually getting the food onto our table.”

The Professor wanted to try for his own deer, so after we’d checked to see that Law Dog’s kill was still where he’d left it, we set off for a couple of hours’ walk through the rolling, snow-blanketed hills. We didn’t follow a trail, of course, instead striking out through thick brush and struggling to keep our footing as we clambered up the steep slopes. The snow was deep and so dry and powdery that the occasional wind gusts threw it around like flour or fine sand.

The Professor never did get a clear shot at a deer, and, as the sun started to sink out of sight, we decided to turn back, descending from the ridge line down a precipitous hillside and into a densely forested bottom land. The firs closed in around us, their coats of snow glowing magically in the last of the light. I could see no more than twenty feet in any direction and felt enfolded in the forest – really in the forest – in a way I never normally do on a run-of-the-mill hike. It had something to do with being out here for a reason, combined with the way our earlier quiet stalking had tuned my senses and sharpened me to the slightest sounds and movements. We were fifteen minutes from downtown Missoula but in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.

Back at Law Dog’s cache, there was ripe material for philosophizing about the cycle of life: not only were we there for our dinners, but an eagle had taken a magpie that had been feeding on one of the gut piles, leaving fluffy gray feathers strewn about. Law Dog and The Professor prepared the deer for dragging by tying it to a ski pole they could both use as a sort of yoke. I shouldered The Professor’s rifle, and we walked the mile or two back out to the truck through the darkening night. As we trudged along in the snow, a full moon came up over the trees, big and yellow and bright as a house on fire.

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