Deer find safety in my sights

Young Buck

PHOTO: Hunting Designs, Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA

The people of northern Minnesota spend most of the year trying not to hit deer. Our eyes carefully sweep the tall grass along country highways and wooded streets. Reflectors on mailboxes cause us to lay heavy on the brakes, fearful that deer eyes are staring back at us, ready to run out.

Quite often the eyes are real. Deer lunge for the center line, freeze in the driving lane, and sometimes even pile headlong into the side of a vehicle. Rural driving becomes a tedious game in which the only prize is stable insurance premiums.

In a good year, we don’t hit any deer with our cars. Many of us string together quite a streak — two, maybe three good years without anyone in the household hitting a deer. So why does hitting deer with a gun seem so much harder?

The rifle deer hunting season ends today. It began two weeks ago with all of its customary tradition. We donned special orange outfits, swept the cobwebs out of the bunks at deer camp, and thoroughly schemed a three-day menus of grilled meat, cheese and potato entrees. Peeking into the ammunition box, I found the same unfired rounds left from last season, packed and ready for their annual field trip.

For many years I did not partake in deer hunting. Growing up, I declined all of my dad’s invitations to the deer shack. But as my sons grew older, two of them began to show interest in hunting. Enough that I began to enjoy shack trips through their eyes, and then my own. As the years ticked by I developed my own deer hunting traditions.

For instance, I always purchase a deer hunting license. Legally, this makes me a deer hunter. As far as anyone knows, I’m out there right now, tracking a beast through the cedar swamps using nothing but smell and a compass made from a leaf. 

Over the entire year, I compile newspaper crossword puzzle pages into a massive stack. The side pouch on my hiking bag seems almost perfectly fitted to hold these recreational necessities. As I finish them, I throw them in the campfire. The rising smoke carries away both the past and the awful truth about my struggles with five-star sudoku puzzles.

Every deer season, I imagine what would happen if I didn’t shave when I came back from the shack. What if I grow a beard, or maybe even just the mustache. Hoo-boy! I picture me and my mustache hitting the town together. What a pair!

This usually doesn’t last the first night I come home. My wife reminds me that this is something I should only attempt if she leaves me or dies, two outcomes made more likely the longer I let the mustache grow. This happens every year in November, even though I clearly remember what happened each of the previous years. Time to shave. Maybe next year. 

Each year, I wrestle with the question of what I would do if I saw a trophy buck walking across the trail. Could I bring myself to raise my rifle, chamber the round, and then forget to take the safety off before eventually firing a haphazard shot at the place where the deer used to be? Or would I just enjoy the silent wonder of nature, the full-grown buck, as he meanders through a place where he hasn’t been seen in several years: our family hunting land.

I suppose I’ll find the answer to that question one of these years. Until then, I embrace a modified version of the Minnesota deer hunting tradition. In this one, the deer remain relatively safe in the woods, even if they are greatly imperiled on the roadways.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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