"If Elvis Presley had been a bowhunter, he'd probably be alive today."
~ Ted Nugent, rock star and avid hunter
When battling a chronic disease like MS, you learn to modify your expectations. Meeting even those reconstituted expectations is often as meaningful, or more so, than anything you may have accomplished as a healthy person. Shooting a doe (as opposed to a buck) while sitting in a parked car (as opposed to walking in the woods) is not something that most deer hunters would write home about. But that's exactly what I'm writing about here. When the everyday acts of getting dressed, washing your hair, and eating dinner become endeavors requiring extensive planning and precise execution, then something as complex and meaningful as harvesting a deer is particularly rewarding.
I stared at the same group of trees that I’d stared at for days, waiting for a deer to materialize. It was difficult to stay alert in the waning autumn daylight, when in a period of minutes the vivid forest images would fade first to shades of gray, and then disappear completely.
The last time I shot a deer was in 2003- a very long dry spell. Since then I have been unable to walk in the woods. I used an ATV through 2008. Last year was the first that I was unable to operate the ATV, and was relegated to hunting from my wheelchair and/or wheelchair van. I had seen a few deer since 2003, but they had either moved too quickly, or I had passed them over so that my son could try to harvest one.
If you wonder why a civilized person such as me hunts, please read my earlier post.
My brother, Tom, lives in an area of the state with a high deer density. For the past few years he has set me up at prime locations where I either sit in my van or in my iBot wheelchair. I had been hunting several times so far this year, without seeing a deer. Typically I will sit and watch an area for two hours or so, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon (pretty much only in the afternoon these days). Since deer are primarily nocturnal, the best chance for a sighting is on either side of darkness.
At 2:00 on Thursday afternoon I set out for one of the hunting locations near my brother's house. The goal was for me to be in place by 3:00. In Maine, we can hunt until thirty minutes after sunset. On this day the sun would set at 4:04, so legal shooting would end at 4:34. That’s what happens when you live on the eastern end of a northern time zone. When will the sun set in Maine in December? That’s right, about 5 minutes before 4:00. My friend Chris in Alaska is the only person I know who has it worse.
I decided that I would hunt from the van on this particular day. Sorry iBot fans. I wish that this were an iBot hunting success story, but it isn’t- maybe next year. As a disabled person in Maine I have a special permit that allows me to shoot from a parked vehicle. I positioned the van in such a way that I could easily aim at a spot where the deer were most likely to show up. I can't hold a rifle properly, so I use an assistive device to help me.
I wasn't raised to do this type of hunting. Until I couldn't walk in the woods anymore, I would creep along, very slowly and quietly, often in remote areas. This strategy presented a wholly unique view of the forest after each and every step taken. That kept things interesting. But now I'm demoted to sitting and waiting, two skills I am well practiced at. It tends to put me to sleep though, if not literally then at least mentally.
I recall scolding myself that day for having allowed my eyes to shut, if only for a second. I thought, "Come on Mitch. Just keep your eyes open for 12 more minutes. These are the best 12 minutes of the day."
There was an opening in the woods to my left. But the area that I was set up for was well to the right of that. I knew that if a deer appeared in the opening to my left then I may or may not be able to get it in my scope. I figured I’d just deal with that eventuality if it occurred.
After days of fruitless tree-staring, I happened to look to my left, and there happened to be a doe looking straight at me, with only 10 minutes left of legal hunting. I thought to myself, “Holy crap! I think that's a deer. Yes, it's a deer. And that's why am here, right? I'm looking for deer. Yes, that's why am here!"
A shot of adrenalin caused me to suddenly wake up and take decisive action.
I attempted to get the deer into my scope but couldn't manage to swing my gun far enough to the left while using the shooting aid. So I quickly and quietly removed the gun from the aid, leaned the aid against my van door, and tried to twist my body enough to focus my scope on the deer. The deer was about 100 yards away, and looking straight at me. That angle presents the shooter with a relatively small target, as opposed to a deer that is standing broadside. Additionally, I was having difficulty twisting my body enough to get the crosshairs on the center of the animal’s chest. I actually stopped myself from pulling the trigger at one point so that I could push a little harder with my torso to try to get the crosshairs more centered. Perhaps 6 or 7 seconds after first noticing the deer, I pulled the trigger.
BANG! I was completely startled. It had been years since I had shot my high-powered Browning 30-06 rifle, and I had never discharged it from the confines of my van. It was deafening! I was concentrating so hard on the task of lining up the sights and pulling the trigger that I'd forgotten just how loud things would get. The woods are so tranquil at that time of the day. The noise reverberated inside the van and throughout the woods, abruptly marking the boundary between two distinct time periods- the solitary and quiet hunt versus the hectic series of events that followed.
The deer bounded to the left, out of the opening and into the trees, where I lost sight of it. Had I mortally wounded the deer? I couldn’t know for sure. I gave myself a 50/50 chance.
As had been the custom in my family for generations, in the aftermath of shooting at a deer, I immediately began texting with my cell phone. My brother and his son were at work, only 20 minutes away. I asked them to bring their flashlights and come search for the deer. I knew that they had been looking forward to receiving such a message, as I had looked forward to sending it. The terrain between me and where the deer was standing was not navigable by my iBot. So I just sat in the driver’s seat of my van and waited. I phoned the property owner to inform him that the gunshot he had just heard was mine.
While waiting for people to show up, I phoned my dad to update him on this exciting development. I was exhilarated by what had just transpired, but no more so than my 79 year old father. In years past, he was the consummate deer hunter. His experiences bridge the gap between an age when the harvesting of deer was critical to a family’s well-being (his childhood) to a time when very few people continue to pursue hunting at all. He has likely shot his last deer, and he feared that I had too (so did I). I gave him a quick synopsis of what happened so far, and told him that I would give him an update as soon as I knew the outcome. He indicated that if it turned out that I had missed the deer, he was thrilled that I had even had a genuine hunting experience like this.
Then I called my wife with the wonderful news that I would be late for dinner. I could tell from her voice that she was delighted.
The landowner showed up a few minutes later on his ATV. By now, it was nearly pitch dark. Two of his friends joined him and the three of them carefully approached the spot where the deer had been standing. I could see the beams from their flashlights moving in every conceivable direction, but I could not determine the nature of their discourse. Soon my brother and nephew and another friend showed up. I said to my nephew, "Those guys are looking at something, but I can't tell what. Go up there and find out if they're tracking the deer and give me a call!"
Once my nephew caught up with the others, he called me to tell me that I had definitely hit the deer, and they were tracking it. This was great news. I allowed myself to become optimistic.
I watched from 100 yards away as now six flashlight beams bounced through the woods. Finally, someone, I don't even know who, yelled and said, "we found her Mitch!” I was beyond pleased. I tooted my horn briefly to acknowledge my receipt of the wonderful news.
The deer was a mature doe. I had made a perfect shot through the heart, minimizing any suffering she may have endured. I cannot thank everyone enough for their support. Helping me to harvest a deer is a huge undertaking- the team includes too many friends and family to mention here. I appreciated that this was an extraordinary moment not only for me, but for everyone involved. One pleasing aspect of human nature is that we all like to see the underdog succeed once in a while.
Kim, my brother, his son and I processed the deer into vacuum packed freezer bags on Monday. Well, I watched and they processed. Each time we enjoy the lean, nutritious venison this winter I’ll take satisfaction that in some small way I am providing for my family- an evolutionary itch finally scratched.
As I stated in the opening of this post, true deer hunters are not supposed to get excited about harvesting a doe. Frankly, they're much easier to shoot than a buck. But I don't care. It felt so good to harvest any deer at all. Deer hunting has been such an important part of my life, and I seriously wondered if I would ever be successful again.
In addition to my feelings of gratitude, I am allowing myself the indulgence of a tiny bit of pride as well (I know, this can be a dangerous road). I'm proud that I decided to continue hunting even though I had not met with success since 2003, and even though I could no longer step in the woods. I’ve had to stop participating in so many activities, many of which I considered to be essential aspects of my life experience. But I'm proud that I haven't stopped hunting yet.
This was a very good day. There will be other good days to come, but in the midst of any future difficulties, I’ll always be able to fondly reminisce of that November afternoon when I shot a doe from a parked car.