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It perhaps dates me when I point out that today is the 41st anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. It was the 9/11 of a different generation, one of those “where I was when it happened” kinds of days. It’s partly sad and partly healing to know that, a few weeks ago, I won a trivia contest because I was the only one in a crowded restaurant who knew what happened on November 22. In fact, one fellow in his 40s insisted that Kennedy had been shot on February 22nd, 1964! I had to go as far as to bet all I had against all he had that he was wrong. I would prefer that we didn’t have such days and hope that we’ve seen our last such anniversary, but I’m not that naïve. There will be more such dark days, unfortunately.
Anyway, that’s what today means to some of us. Pause for a moment to reflect on the price of America’s freedoms, and then let’s get back to the only place in the world that makes sense – Maine’s outdoors!
You don’t have to be a historian to know that we’re in the last week of the annual firearms deer season. This can be a tough time for late-season hunters because someone has been tagging deer since September 11 (how ironic is that?), and something like 70 percent of the annual kill has already been tagged, skinned, cut up and packaged for the freezer. This leaves a week with the worst weather, the worst hunting conditions, fewer deer and little or no rutting activity to keep deer moving – and yet I say this is one of the best times to be out there if you want to experience Maine deer hunting as it should be.
For one thing, it will be cold in the mornings, the kind of cold that leaves your breath hanging in clouds in front of you, where numb toes and frozen digits are the order of the day. Cold keeps deer moving, too, because temperatures in the 20s or 30s means whitetails must use up more fuel to stay warm and working. An extra hour of feeding time at dawn is all the hunter needs to make his season a success, but the cost is almost too high for many hunters. This is 4 a.m. alarm clock time, and I’ve shivered my way out of a warm sleeping bag to light the wood stove on many such mornings and wondered why! I was always elected breakfast chef in my hunting camps, perhaps only because I liked being the first one up and I liked the banging and clanging around that woke up the other hunters. The smell of fresh coffee, bacon, eggs and toast is as much a part of the Maine hunting scene as balsam fir and cedar, and I never miss a chance to start things to sizzling after a long, cold night of listening to mice running around in the woodpile.
Now that the leaves are down and the woods are barren and dreary, I like to gear up before daylight and head for the lowland swamps. This is where the deer like to be for safety and security, and it’s often a long trudge over frozen logging trails to get there. I like navigating by the brilliant stars overhead as I make my way into the dark, forbidding evergreens, and I love being startled by a roosting grouse when I pause under a leaning spruce to get my bearings.
For many years I hunted the edge of a swamp in LaGrange not far from Boyd Lake, and I knew that leaving camp at 5:30 a.m. would have me on my spot by sunrise if I walked steadily, didn’t get lost and didn’t fall into the one beaver pond I had to cross. The dam was over 6 feet tall and was the only way to cross the swamp in the dark. I did fall in a few times, but only up to my waist. It would be a waste of precious prime hunting time to go back and change into dry clothes, so I’d just tough it out and hope the shivering would stop in time for me to make a clean shot on the buck I knew I’d see there later in the morning.
I had hunted from the same swooping hemlock for close to 15 years, and part of my pleasure was remembering all the deer I’d seen, shot and dragged out from that surprisingly nondescript hotspot. My father had killed deer there, my high school buddy Wayne had experienced his first bout of buck fever there, and I had killed some of the biggest bucks I’d ever seen in Maine from that same stand. In fact, the one and only buck I’d shot on the run had fallen not 40 yards from that stand. The deer had come bounding off the ridge above me, obviously spooked by another hunter, and was 8 feet in the air and flying when I swung my .308 ahead of him and pulled the trigger. The buck piled up without even a kick – the kind of one-shot, clean kill every hunter strives for. I would not had have not fired a shot at a running deer since then because the odds are simply all against the deer, but it’s nice to stand there on a crisp, November morning and remember what it was like to do it right, just once in my life.
One season I looked up at the crack of a branch deep in the swamp to see a huge 8-pointer come stomping purposefully up out of the cedars straight for me. It had been two years since I’d hunted the swamp, my hunting career postponed by a tour in the U.S. Marine Corps, with plenty of rough water under the bridge, as the saying goes, but all that was forgotten as I eased the rifle into position and centered my crosshairs behind the deer’s shoulder. It turned out to be one of my better hunts, and I had more to be thankful for than most hunters in the woods that day.
I try not to forget the importance of the little rituals in life, and a Thanksgiving week deer hunt in Maine means a lot more than you know, especially to those who won’t get a chance to do it this season. Roll out of bed, get into the woods and give it a try. You may not get another chance, and knowing how unpredictable life is with its November 22nds and September 11ths. The season is nearly over and there’s no time to waste!
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