There’s a legacy here of ten years in deep relationship, perusing and learning the art of the hunt; accepting so many beautiful lessons, and reaping the rewards of hard work, focus, and vision. Sometimes my sight was clear, and the harvest successful. Other times, my sights remained empty, and I came home without wild food from a crucial source of protein, greatly appreciated in lean times. The abundance of EEC Forest Stewardship, specifically our Cascade Katahdins at Leafhopper Farm, provide additional support to our pantry, stocking the larder with enough diversity to sustain through a few years of missed fertility. This year’s challenges included a large wildfire near our home, driving the deer away for the first week of our limited two week season. Climate change is the single greatest threat to our survival right now, and the scales are tipping.
Through a decade of perusing blacktail deer in Western Washington, I’ve come to love dark, cold, wet predawn silence. Every prick of rain drop sound crashing through the leaf litter and drawing my awareness ever deeper into the edges. Clearcuts are good habitat for deer, if tended as wilderness, where native plants can collect and thrive, with water retention and diverse replanting after a commercial harvest. Repetitive logging over a forest before it ever nears climax, preventing an established ecosystem to replenish the nutrients carried away in timber tonnage, is not good for the deer, or the forest, or any ecology that is balanced and abundant. Spraying treated sewage on the land is also damaging the soil and water, adding perception drugs and heavy metals in concentrate to our hillside catchment basins where the valley rivers come from. Those valleys are full of poison now, which is tainting our crops and livestock food resources and pressuring wildlife.
My first deer hunt, I was in Snoqualmie Tree Farm with my beloved hunting mentor and deer medicine friend. He had coached me through several days of observing deer brows along the roads, then finding the heavily used trails connecting habitat resources. I’d take long sits atop slash piles, watching as still as I could, only moving my eyes along the forest edge, hoping to see a buck walk out into the clearcut. The mind will always try to see what it wants, and my spotting glass focused on many seemingly active movements that emerged as stumps when I focused the gaze. Always have your spotting scope handy, it makes sighting a great sport, and teaches the eye a lot about depth and range. On the evening of October 31st, 2013, after days of spotting, waiting, and learning to sit still, I was atop another slash pile in Snoqualmie Tree Farm, waiting for that buck to wander through before last light of the last day of blacktail season.
It was not too surprising to hear another truck beginning the long haul up from the foot of the foothill I was perched atop. After all, my mentor and I had recently driven up here for a good spot, and we did not own the mountain. It was poor timing really. The driver was road hunting, driving along the roads before dusk hoping to catch a deer on the move. It’s not the most ethical way to hunt, but more successful, and on the last day of the season, understandable, but not mindful of hunters who are having a sit. As the vehicle rounded the switchback and rose into the far right of my field position, I unloaded my gun. There was an active hazard in my field and I deemed the situation unsafe. My gun action clear, I proceeded to step out of the field, knowing the newcomer was unaware of my location. I didn’t want to call out and spook off the potential harvest for anyone. Slowly, I walked up the road and around another switchback, which took me out of firing range and back to my mentor, who was waiting at the truck looking very confused.
We both heard the shot as I reached him. “That was your deer.” he said. “I know,” I replied, “but the shot was not safe for me, I’ll take the karma this time, and hope my other hunts reward this act of kindness.” My mentor was less forgiving, and as we drove by the other hunter, who was busily gutting a nice two point on the road, he shook his head. I was thrilled for the gentleman elbow deep in his excitement. I waved and wished him congratulation on a successful hunt, and I had no other feeling but that in the moment. I could see how my joy would be, the wonder at harvesting wild food, connecting to place and an ancestral legacy. “My first hunt!” Cried the man as he awkwardly embraced the animal. “My first deer!” He announced again, looking back over his shoulder at the driver side of the vehicle where a woman sat proudly. “My wife is here with me, we’re so glad.” My mentor was still shaking his head, but I congratulated the successful hunter again and left him to the hard work still to come, in the dark. At least is was not raining.
My second hunting season was successful. I went on my own, every morning, to the same dead end clear cut where I parked my truck at the head of that dead end and walked in a mile to my sit spot. It was cold, dark, and invigorating. Most predawn times there’s so much energy building up, like a long dormant seed finally quaking to life, just before that explosion of sprouting- germination. I’d sit into first light with the binos on an enormous old growth stump that towered above the slash and muck left by the logging machines. There was a little brook and some lovely green strips on either side about 1,000 feet down the hill from my perch. That morning there had been light rain, and the does were moving in, like that had the past few days, towards the end of my window to harvest a deer. It was the last day again, and I wondered if I would experience what most hunters of this illusive ungulate species experience- an empty tag.
The relationship with this small herd of does had included several encounters at close range. They often entered the clearing from the edge just below my stump. I had chosen that spot for that reason, expecting, then confirming the flow of deer from the edge, down towards the wetland strip, which was a perfect bowl, and safe shooting field with no roads. It was just getting light enough to see down into the wetland where the does were already feeding quietly in the mists. I began spotting each individual animal with my spotting scope, one, two, three, four does, all mature and confidant in their meandering graze across the lush vegetation. It was really a wetland, and should have been part of the greater wild water setback, but with wet soil came abundant growth, and these deer were familiar with the larder zone. My attention was suddenly firmly shaken into focus, as my binoculars revealed another ungulate form emerging from behind the familiar does. A modest set of points flashed, then hid again in the brush as the animal browsed.
I’ve never harvested a deer based on the size of its antlers. The object of hunting blacktail deer for me, is wild food, nature connection, and conservation. In my hunting encounters, taking what is offered is usually a good action. If you take no action when the opportunity presents its self, you may not get another chance for the season. Personally, I also think the deer know, being in a predator/prey covenant with humans for thousands of years, knowing deep in their being, the exchange taking place. I never take a shot at a running animal. The bucks I’ve had the privilege to harvest for food have all been standing broadside, looking at me head on. It’s a magnificent scene to encounter, with powerful intention. Following through the cycle of birth and death, seeing the death of a landscape as the backdrop of this experience, there is a feeling of end, with the last of the light stretching into final harvest before the cold hard times of inward reflection begin.
That cold October morning in 2014, I looked through my scope and took aim at the buck blacktail quietly grazing a thousand feet down the hillside from my stump perch. The rifle scope was close range, and I had to take my time in setting up a good shot. The animal paused, letting the other deer pass him and move ahead. Then he looked up the hill directly at me and I began a deep breath of concentration. Inward draw and the flick of ear, flash of bright eye in the pink light of dawn. An exhale lets finger arch and a light pressure releases one of the most impactful actions a human commits- combustion. This particular explosion sends a lethal projectile at blinding speed to a roughly 4×4 inch vital organ area on the deer’s side. If the shot is correct, the animal will drop to the ground and die very quickly from loss of blood. My buck did indeed fall, collapsing under the sight of my scope, which I’d kept glued to in preparation for a second shot if needed. The buck was not moving, so I unloaded my rifle and plotted my hiked down to the awaiting quarry.
Moving through a recent clearcut is no easy feat, and I knew the real work was now about to begin. When I first approached the deer laying in the slash, my instinct was to move on in search of my deer, which must have run off on down the hillside into deeper cover, because it really could not be that successful a first shot from so far above, but it was, and I had to stop and reassure myself of this incredible moment. I’d just harvested a wild food source of great sustenance for my winter larder. This beautiful food, grown in the forests surrounding my home, this abundance to celibate and be so thankful for was the fruits of my labor and learning. Then, as I later hauled the carcass out of the clearcut, pulling from the antlers in a slow drag up the hill to the truck, the mists and rain began to close in. In a moment of resting to catch my breath, I felt a strong fulfillment in self-sufficiency and personal growth connected to a deep ancestral calling.
To hunt, to gather and harvest wild food, was a crucial part of my identity and drive. I’d come back to these same feelings and experiences with every hunt, every opportunity to connect with the living world in the cycle of life directly. My predation of the deer in line with legal hunting supports a healthy ecosystem in my immediate area, as our encroachment on wilderness de-pleats the habitat animals need to survive, including predator species, some of which have been completely exterminated from our region, thus perpetuating high birthrates in prey species like blacktail deer, which then overtakes the carry capacity of the landscape, ending with population crash and mass die off. Hunters harvest the overflow numbers within a given population of deer to reduce winter kill from starvation, and habitat degradation. Hunting regulations, including harvest limits, are determined by scientific observation and research done in the field by wildlife biologists. So far, no hunted wildlife managed in these scientific methods has gone extinct. Restoration has remained successful in hunted wildlife populations throughout the United States, with numbers continuing to rise and stabilize where carry capacity allows, but human encroachment still remains wildlife’s number one threat.
Hunting remains a personal choice in connecting to wild food, nature, conservation, and personal growth. Each lesson in tracking, sitting, listening, and connecting to place, wilderness, animals and plants forms a tighter relationship to the land and ecology I’m a part of. It’s so rewarding too- harvesting food, gathering abundance from the land in thanksgiving, this is a powerful set of original instructions I’ll continue to follow as long as the privilege allows. It’s also important to give back, and teaching hunter safety certification for my fellow citizens is a way to pass on the knowledge and experience to future generations who wish to peruse their own sacred covenant with the land. Gratitude to all the mentors, teachers, family, and friends who support my hunting journey.