I am cold. I thought my mountaineering parka would be sufficient, along with my three layers, wool hat, and heavy-duty gloves, but I was wrong. If I could only move about and do jumping jacks or windmills—but I am not supposed to move. I am to sit still.
Despite my best efforts to sit still, I am making a ruckus shifting about in the dead of near dawn, manhandling the items in my pack with numb, gloved hands. I am feeling around for my binoculars to glass the barely perceptible hillside. I find them, but I decide my own naked eyes will do.
My dad and my sister are close by on a different aspect of this mountain that we hiked in the darkness. I wonder if they are as cold as I. But mostly I wonder what compelled me to do this “thing,” this hunting thing, because right now, misery has snuffed out any possibility for recollection or care. But there is a reason. And here I am.
It doesn’t take long for the puttering darkness to merge into the fast lane of dawn. I can make out trees and sagebrush and undulations of the hillside. I still reject the binoculars as I presume I can see everything on the dark grey canvas before me. After a few minutes of scanning the hillside and seeing nothing, I think about calling it quits so I can meet up with the others. I’m about to stand up when a tiny smudge of white appears on my otherwise still-life canvas a hundred yards from me.
I know in a split second that it is the backside of a mule deer. And it’s bounding away from me. I throw off my gloves and grab the binoculars. I think I see horns. Yes, horns. No, wait. Ears. Those are just ears. I can’t tell because the frozen glass of the binoculars freezes my eyes, blinding me with tears. I squint into the distance. The deer stops. This is really happening. And I am alone. What am I supposed to do? I am supposed to sit still, to think, to go over again in my head what my dad told me to do.
I take a few breaths. I imagine the deer is taking a few breaths, too. My heart—I can hear it—is loud with life. I imagine that the deer’s heart is too. I get into better position now. I attempt the binoculars again. The deer continues its migration away from me. But now I can see more clearly. It is, indeed, a buck. And because of that, I am now the hunter.
When he finally stops, it is on a high ridgeline where he opens to me broadside, posed perfectly, head turned towards me. But I can’t shoot. If I miss, which I presume I will as he is about 300 yards from me now, a high bullet would continue to rocket into the air behind him; a bullet designed to kill whatever it hits first, and I don’t know what is on the other side of that ridgeline. I lower my gun.
At that moment, I struggle with two sensations at war with each other—I feel disappointed to have missed my opportunity for my first harvest, but I also feel relief. Cool, refreshing relief.
“I remember every single moment of that day,” says Sammie Holbrook, 16, of McCall, Idaho. “I remember it from the time I woke up, until the time I got home—when I got to tell my mom and my siblings that I had gotten my first deer.”
We are at the Idaho State Bowhunters Jamboree in a semi-open field off a Forest Service road west of Stanley, Idaho. A swift summer rain has just blown through, leaving the drying summer grasses smelling like an autumn morning. Somehow, that smell makes the wandering folks decked out in camo seem more appropriately dressed for the occasion. I’d never been to an archery jamboree, and, upon arrival, I felt conspicuous in my old camper van among the endless line of trucks parked along the road—an interloper. I don’t own a bow, and I’m not much of a hunter. After two seasons of minimal hunting, I have yet to harvest an animal. And now I am wandering through throngs of folks who have.
My insecurity doesn’t hang on for long as I find this group of people to be unequivocally friendly. Families, generations of them, are milling about the tent and grounds. The vibe seems laid back—jovial even—probably due to the fact that I have arrived after the day’s tournament has ended with the nerves of pre-competition long gone. I am still not totally savvy as to what is taking place here, and Sammie is one of the first people I stop to ask.
As it happens, her dad is the vice president of this event and her mom is the secretary. She gives me a brief description of what goes on at this jamboree; basically, for those who signed up to compete, there are courses of 3D targets that an archer must run through with accuracy and expediency. There are also people of all ages who just shoot through the courses for practice, for fun, or just to get acquainted with the sport. I find out later that some of these people are not hunters, but they are participating for the pure sport of archery.
For Sammie, she is reacquainting herself with the sport after some time off and aims to utilize archery for future hunting. In the past, she has had her doubts—she missed an elk in a previous archery season and didn’t think she was prepared for the challenges of a bow. But today at the jamboree, she seems rejuvenated and confident. I ask her what prompted her to get into hunting in the first place, and she says, “My mom met my dad and she got into it through him. And I guess I wanted to be like her. I wanted to learn how to hunt like she did.” When I ask her about her first deer, I expect the bravado of youth to be the motivator behind her reply, but she is thoughtful and forthright. “I cried a lot before we went hunting. I was up two hours before we even left. I was worried that I couldn’t do it. But when we were out, my dad set me up on a deer, and he said, ‘It’s yours if you want it.’ So I braced off my knees. And I cried after it happened, not so much because it was upsetting, but because I went through with it and it happened. It was nerve-wracking and super exciting at the same time. It’s a feeling that is hard to explain.”
I’ve gotten that response from almost everyone I ask regarding their first animal. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain. And this goes even further than their first successful hunt; it can and does persist through subsequent harvests. And it seems that those who hunt for life, who think of themselves as hunters, are the ones who most often have these “hard-to-explain” feelings.
Ryan Callaghan, a born and raised Montanan at the First Lite booth, confirms this peculiar feeling when he relays his story to me. “I don’t know,” he says and leaves that statement dangling as he gathers his thoughts. “It was definitely… a little confusing. You know, conflicting. I had some opportunities with rifle hunting to pull the trigger, but through pure inexperience it just never happened. I never took the shot. And then finally it did happen.”
When it did happen, Ryan thought that he was alone and that his dad was ahead of him. But his dad was right there, knowing that the deer was close by, waiting to see what Ryan would do. “After I shot the deer,” he continues, “my dad was so overjoyed, and shaking me—my dad’s a really exuberant kind of guy—but honestly, I was just trying to figure out whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, because when you’re 11 or 12 in Montana, and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Dead deer. Lots of blood. And I did this.’ It is a heaping pile of responsibility—all of a sudden. So yeah—conflicting.”
For Ryan and other hunters I have talked to, hunting isn’t only about getting the kill. It’s about seeing the world in a different way. “A successful day out in the fields or in the mountains isn’t based on whether you get something or not,” Ryan says. “When you are hunting, you’re looking at the world in such a different way. When you have that hunter’s eye, you are absorbing so much more information. A bush just isn’t a bush, a trail just isn’t a trail. Because everything has a story to tell, every stick, every twig, everything—paying attention to wind direction and the weather. Hunting is this very all-inclusive endeavor-—everything is a factor.”
I can understand that. From my limited experience with hunting, I know that there is a connectedness, and a real sense of presence. A space opens, and you find yourself in it. It was like that for me alone on that chilly hillside with the fleeing deer. Hunting happened. But I did not shoot. Hunting is one thing. But killing—that’s quite another.
It’s a defining moment—whether you pull the trigger or not. Whether your aim is true or not. And I can’t help but wonder, why do people take aim and shoot that gun or release that bow? Maybe the instinct is just coded into their DNA. Maybe it is because of environmental or economic reasons. Maybe it is a rite of passage passed down through generations. But it doesn’t matter what the reason is because at some point, for all nascent hunters, there will come a time when that animal is in the crosshairs, and a decision must be made. And after whatever decision is made comes the consequence, and that is where you will find your truth—are you a hunter?
I grew up with a hunting father. On the wall of my kitchen, I have the horns of the first deer he shot when he was 10 while hunting with his father. I think about the child version of my dad and what he must have been feeling that day of his first successful hunt when I look at those horns. When I ask him about that day, he recalls it clearly: The Teanaway Valley, Washington State. Camp 17. A 1949 Jeep. A .257 Roberts. He and Grandpa spotted some deer in the early morning, bedded down and unaware. He found his buck, a little two-by-two. It was a clean shot. “But how did you feel?” I ask him. His answer is immediate. In long, drawn-out vowels, he says, “I felt gooooooood.” And I know, or rather, I understand, what he means. He means the hunt and all it encompasses. He means the adrenaline. He means a clean shot. “And you know,” he says, “I just felt that it was time to do something adult. It just felt good. When I have a successful hunt even today, I have that same feeling.” He is thoughtful for a moment. “But you know, after killing the animal is when the work begins.”
And then he segues into a very detailed and passionate narration about hunting and hunting safety. (Again.) For him, hunting is in his blood, and he can talk about it forever. But for me, hunting evolved in the form of obligation, an obligation to know and feel first-hand my part in the food chain. I feel like I need to know what it is like to end the life of an animal to promote mine. And I want to do it right.
Because of my dad’s hunting ethics and his years of experience, he is the guy I want to be with when I have my first successful hunt. He is the guy I want to have in the vault of my memories. Everyone I’ve spoken to on the subject of their first harvest can recall their feelings and the play-by-play of that day; it is the kind of experience that marks us.
Last year, my sister had her moment. My dad was with her. And me. And my mom. We all have clear memories of that day. But there is something that stands out in particular. Something just a bit more poignant than the thrill of the hunt, or watching my dad’s expertise with his field-dressing skills, or the shock of witnessing the deer fall. Actually, all of those were unforgettable in their own right. But what I didn’t know as we were stalking the deer up and around the hillside, is that my sister had been collecting something from the ground; it was as if she knew this was going to be her first-ever, and she was preparing for the weight of it.
Kelley had a perfect shot. When we arrived at the motionless deer (all of us at once frazzled/excited/heart- broken), she immediately took the deer’s head in her lap and sat quietly for a few moments. Then she put her creation right there on the ground; a flower made of aspen leaves, her token of thanks and gratitude and loss. Loss of innocence for my sister and the loss of life. It was a heavy moment. But just like my dad said—then the work began. And whatever feelings that were gaining ground in our collective consciousness had to be put aside to get the work done.
Even though that was my sister’s deer and not mine, I did find something out about that day. I now know what it is like to consume something that I was a part of killing. And let me tell you—it is a game-changer. That connectedness I wanted to feel for my food? There is now an awareness. I know where it came from and exactly what I was eating. Yes, it was mostly my sister’s hands that did the work, but my hands too, along with my mom’s and dad’s. I feel gratitude. I think about that deer every time I get a package of it from the freezer, and I take time to give thanks for it.
Now I have only one thing left to do to fulfill my obligation. Maybe it will happen this fall. Until then, still I sit, huddled in the grey of near dawn, knowing yet not knowing, what is waiting for me.