The First

The author remembers his very first hunt in the Michigan woods.
Nick recalls his very first hunt in the Michigan woods.

“You’re going to want to wear something warmer than that.” Dad said, eyeing up my mismatched cotton camouflage ensemble. “Let’s find you something a little bit better.” He moved across the room to his hunting dresser – an ancient battered thing adorned with the dings and scribbles of my childhood.

“That old thing,” I laughed. “It’s still kicking.”

“Oh yeah.” He said, shimmying open the drawer. “Pulled it out of your bedroom some time ago. Try these on. This is that good fleece stuff I was telling ya about. Real warm. Real quiet.”

It was a perfect fit and light years beyond anything I’d found in the box store clearance bins. “Now maybe you’ll make it a few hours. It’s going to be cold tomorrow morning.”

I stripped the loaner fleece back off, hung them over a chair, and sprayed them with that 99% stuff I’d seen in magazines. Dad eyed the large, rubber boots by the door. “Are those the new boots you bought on the way up?” He asked. “Yep.” I sighed. “I was lucky they had them in a size 14.”

“Better spray them down too – let ‘em dry before you wear ‘em. Hell you’ll use half a bottle on those water skis.” He laughed. “Yeah, I’m surprised Lacrosse didn’t charge me for the extra rubber. Not bad for my first pair of hunting boots though.”

He nodded, retrieved his coffee mug from atop the dresser, and observed while I went to work with the spray. I soaked the boots until they turned a dark olive and left them by the door to dry. I tucked my wool socks inside. My bow was next. I slipped it out of its sock, strung it, and strapped the quiver on. A few test draws confirmed it was ready to go. I felt like the “real deal”.

Dad smiled. “I wish I didn’t have to work so I could go with ya. Going down by the Cabin then?” He asked. “Yep. Not really sure where exactly. Planned on walking the trail a bit and tucking into the timber near that pond.” He nodded through a long sip. “You ever hear a deer in the woods?” He grinned. “Nope!” I laughed, checking my arrows. “They sound kinda like a squirrel only bigger, right?”

“No. But I suppose you’ll figure it out.”

My alarm would have went off at 4:30, but I was already up and into the shower. I didn’t remember closing my eyes, but dreamt of the woods when I did. I could almost smell the leaves and moss in my nostrils, as I soaped my scent away. I could hear the coffee brewing downstairs, which meant Dad was already up. I had never beat him out of bed and expected I never would.

I slipped into my base layers and crept down the stairs to find him at the kitchen counter eating Oreos and reading the Web’s latest. He glanced up at the sound of my footsteps and shot me a good morning nod around his mug. “Big morning huh?” He asked, as I poured myself a cup. “Yep, what time you figure I should head out of here? He put his cup down and squinted up at the clock. “I’d wait at least 45 minutes or you’ll freeze your ass off before you get started.”

That was a strong enough case to sit for a minute, but the loaf of homemade bread on the counter was stronger. “Well it looks like I’ve got time for toast and peanut butter then.” I said. “Might as well. Your Ma made that last night, after you went to bed.” I cut off a hunk, threw it in the toaster, and thought about the past while it crisped. I spent the bulk of my life with the woods of Northern Michigan in my backyard and never hunted it. Now, at the age of 27, I was about to go hunting for the very first time. Armed with nothing but a bow in my hand and a hodgepodge of accumulated advice in my head.

A rare photo of the author with a recurve.
A rare photo of Nick with a recurve (a long time ago).

Life was indeed peculiar.

The toast popped, snapping me back to reality. I slathered the peanut butter on thick and joined Dad at the counter. “How long you stayin’ out?” He asked. “I’d leave a note for your Ma if I were you.”

“Probably not a bad idea.” I mumbled through a mouthful of peanut butter. “How long did you stay out back in the day?” He took a long sip of coffee and smiled. “Long time. I was known to sit for a long time. Longer than most.”

“Would eleven by today’s standards be considered a long time?” I joked. “That’s probably fine back there. If you don’t see anything by 9:30 you probably won’t. There’s a milk crate to sit on in the garage. Take my truck in case you shoot something.”

Grandpa’s hunting cabin was only a mile or two from the house, so driving Dad’s diesel seemed a bit lazy to me as it rumbled down the labyrinth of sandy two-tracks that was Cordwood point. It was pitch black, which made finding the unmarked driveway difficult. I idled through the twists and turns until I could see moonlight, which meant the power line was ahead. I pulled over, killed the engine, and finished dressing by dome light.

The power line was long. It ran for miles to a station somewhere near the lakeshore and was frequented by critters of all types. It freaked me out when I was younger and this morning wouldn’t be any different, as I stomped along the line under the light of the moon. An owl hooted, raising the hairs on the back of my neck and reminding me of something Dad teased us about when we were kids. “Watch yourselves. Those owls will sweep right down and snag ya.” He’d say. “Don’t wear a furry hat!”

A trail slunk off to the left about a mile down the line. I ducked in, swimming through the thick brush. This was a scary place in the dark. The air was thick with rot and the gnarly iron wood trees and uprooted cedar stumps were nightmare inspiring. I could feel my heart begin to race and my steps quicken to match.

The trail began to climb. The mossy tangle thinned to patches of random oaks that were much better conduits for the moonlight. It smelled better here and the ground was thick with leaves and acorns. I didn’t know much, but I knew deer liked acorns – water too – and the pond ahead had plenty of both. That was where I intended to spend the morning. Only the pond no longer held water, which reminded me how long it had been since my last visit. Fortunately for me, what was once filled with water was now filled with muddy hoof prints. I moved off the trail and around the bank in search of cover. A toppled birch on the pond’s edge seemed suitable, so I sat my crate down, cut a shooting lane, and waited.

Sitting alone in the woods while most folks slept was a strange feeling. It was eerily still and I began to see things I knew I wasn’t seeing, hear things I wasn’t hearing, and not hearing things I was used to hearing. The white noise of the modern world had melted away until only the ambiance of the woods remained. I was a stranger there and didn’t think I’d ever get used to that.

There was something else too – something hard to describe. I felt utterly vulnerable at first. I was sure that at any moment something clawed or fanged would rip me in half and no one would be the wiser. Then, as the woods grew steadily lighter, I felt dangerous. I was firmly atop the chain and capable of killing anything that walked in front of me. This was new to me and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

The activity ramped as the sun rose. Birds began to chirp and things began to crunch through the leaves. The slightest breaking of the smallest twig found me wide-eyed on the edge of my carton. I swore deer were moving all around me, but I couldn’t see them. I had a white-knuckle grip on the riser of my bow and was holding the string so tightly the arrow would rise from the shelf on my lap.

This little game continued throughout the morning and it kept me in the woods well after eleven. I wanted to go in, but wouldn’t stop hunting. I remember thinking, “If I stop now, it’s all over. The story will end.”

Then something magical happened. At around 11:30 I heard leaves rustling and wings flapping. I immediately ducked, thinking it was one of those crazy owls Dad was talking about. If flew within inches of my face, and landed in the brush in front of me. I glanced up slowly to lay eyes on the would-be assassin, but found a partridge instead. It was of good size and had no idea Death was only a few yards away with an arrow his string.

I saw the partridge. I knew I could kill it. I knew it would be delicious. But I couldn’t shoot it. Part of me didn’t want to mess up the chance at a deer, but that was only part. I wasn’t ready to take a life – my first life – and I knew it. I just stared at it until it flew away.

I walked through the front door to find Mom waiting for me. She was on the phone and there was a stack of pancakes waiting on the counter. I fixed a plate and took a seat. “Your son just walked in.” She said into the receiver. “Yeah I’ll ask him.” She pulled the phone away and looked at me. “Your Dad wants to know where your deer is?”

“Anywhere but in his truck.” I said bluntly.

She turned back to the phone. “Nope, no deer.” She turned back to me. “He wants to know if you saw anything?”

“There were plenty of tracks. I thought I heard a deer working the ridge nearest the cabin. Not sure. I saw a partridge though. Damn thing landed right in front of me.”

She pulled the phone away and looked at me. “Partridge? Did you shoot it? Those are awesome in the crock pot!”

My face flushed. It was 3rd grade and I was telling her about a bad grade on a spelling quiz all over again. “Nope. Didn’t occur to me to shoot it. I was deer hunting.”

“Huh.” She said, bringing the phone back to her ear. “Nope. You heard him. He didn’t shoot it.” She paused. “Yeah, I’ll tell him. Your Dad (and Mom) want to know how you could pass up a partridge with a bow and arrow when they are hard enough to shoot with a gun?” “Well it sounds real bad when you put it that way.” I laughed. “I don’t know. Guess it was just my first time.”

“Oh well.” She said. “Your Dad wants to know if you’re going back out tonight?”

I smiled. “Oh yeah…I can’t wait.”An American longbow.

Nick Viau lives in Rockford, Michigan and is an active participant of the Simply Traditional Field Staff team. He owns and maintains the traditional archery blog Life and Longbows and is currently the president of the Michigan Longbow Association.

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