I tend to measure the seasons of life through consistent events--birthdays, holidays, graduations, anniversaries, the first snow, and deer hunting. A past-time for many Wisconsinites, and especially my family, deer hunting is as much about the camaraderie as it is about the actual harvesting of the animals. My parents live on an old farmstead that includes two outbuildings—an old shed and an 1800’s cabin— that are almost entirely dedicated to the tradition. Rough beech and cherry furnishings, wood stoves, and deer, elk, and turkey mounts adorn the place and for a few days a year, it’s filled with family and friends. Through the years, I’ve grown to love deer hunting more and more and begun to embrace it as part of my heritage and identity. It began with my dad dragging my brother and I around age 8 out into the cold to join him in this most exhilarating hunt. Begrudgingly at first, we joined him on brief morning stints that made me feel as if I'd hunted all 9 days of the deer gun season.
I remember one morning sitting in the tree stand as a boy with my grandpa, struggling to see over the edge of the rough-cut wall. We were quietly posted in a giant oak tree at the corner of a marsh and two farm fields with a wide view of the surrounding land. It was the kind of morning where the frost appears to have frozen everything in its place and the only thing moving was the faint puff of steamy breath rising from our fort. I was having a hard time focusing on the tree line; I knew a deer could arrive at any second but my feet were so cold they hurt. My grandpa started the propane heater and I yanked off my boots. I hovered my feet above it, nearly touching it in hope of quick relief. My feet soon thawed out, but when I went to massage my toes to confirm they still had feeling I discovered large holes where the heater had singed my wool socks. Our morning ended shortly after and we left the field empty handed.
My grandpa has since then passed away but the stand we sat in that morning is named for him—Pa’s Stand. My grandpa helped my dad build it when he bought the property 20 years ago. It was the first of the 26 that now pepper the 98 acres of land. Most of the stands are made of old barn boards and the weathered texture and color look at home alongside tree bark. After a few years, they feel as much a part of the land as the trees do. My dad catches flack for being overboard with the number of stands he’s built, but he has immediate plans for a couple more. Each one serves a unique purpose catering to the varied habits of the deer affected by weather and crop rotations. Each one is named at its inception—The Grand Stand, Hayrake,The Sweet Stand, Old Indian Tree, Penitentiary—and each has its own set of memories, stories, and legends. And there’s always lots of talk from my dad that "this year is the year the bucks are hanging out under the Sinkhole Stand," or perhaps "they’re all traveling through the meadow by Canoe Rock Stand."
My mom’s dad also passed away more recently and this year I hunted with his rifle. My grandma purchased the gun—a Sears Model 53 .30-06—as a gift for him about 40 years ago. The scratched wood stock, leather sling, and cowhide case are aged reminders of his deer hunting days. I had hunted with the gun once in the past but harvested no deer, so this year felt special, as if I was carrying on his legacy. But after almost 20 hours of hunting in 3 days during the regular gun season I was deer-less. I had seen 11 deer total but didn’t have shots at any of them. Determined, I returned for the 4 day December antlerless hunt. On the first day back, I sat in Pa’s Stand waiting for something to come charging out of the woods and into the field as they’d done just a few weeks earlier. And then, a flicker. A distant spot that before had looked like a tree or a shadow in the tall grass was suddenly moving. Three does slowly moved in my direction skirting the edge of the opposite side of the field. Surely they’d make it to me soon. And then they disappeared. Daylight was fading quickly and just when I thought they were gone, they reappeared even closer this time. Ten minutes before shooting hours ended, they continued slowly moving toward me and then began trotting across the field, broadside. They paused and I found one in my scope. The crack of the rifle shattered the stillness of the field and the three deer tore away in unison. I reloaded watching the three of them run with equal intensity until 75 yards later, one tumbled and was still—the sure sign of a heart shot. I was ecstatic and grateful. It was pretty special to be in one grandpa’s fort, using my other grandpa’s gun.
Seeing it all unfold—the appearance of the deer and its movement and its life, then the sudden explosion of our convergence and the death and the stillness—is complex and beautiful. I don’t enjoy killing and although there are many good things to hunting, it’s partly tragic. Feeling the soft, warm body, just barely absent of life, is surreal. There are strong memories tied to each time I’ve fired my gun and the visceral moments that immediately follow. It may sound cliche, but being a part of that makes you feel more alive. The heritage and tradition of hunting, and along with it the close witness of life and death, are enriching and something I cherish each year.
This is an ongoing project; I've taken photos of the hunting season for the past few years and the following are just a few from this year.