SATURDAY, NOV. 13, 2010. DAMN, IT WAS NASTY. SNOW POUNDED MY face, melted instantly and dripped down the collar of my shirt and into haunts unknown where it pooled and chilled me to my core. It surely wasn’t a Norman Rockwell morning in the deer woods.
With slush collecting on the ocular bell of my scope, I desperately tried to wipe it dry with wet gloves and slid the majority of the scope and action of my slug gun under my jacket. I was struggling to be ready, and it was such a morning that I believe the local whitetails would’ve retreated into hibernation were they capable. All I wanted was one good day to hunt whitetails on home turf with my family—and I was dealt this.
The first deer of the day, a young doe, tip-toed hesitantly out of the woods, followed by a half-dozen others, an hour before dark. I knew she didn’t want to be out any more than I did, but this storm was already being measured in days rather than hours, and it was obvious we both were cold and restless.
The little doe was leading the group away from me quickly, and I instantly knew they would not pass by my treestand if I continued to spectate. I slid down the icy steps of the ladder stand as quickly as I dared and plowed through the slush to flank the deer—with the wind purposefully to my back.
When the lead doe hit my scent-stream, she came unglued. Confused, the deer in the back of the line retreated and circled directly behind me toward a woodlot 100 yards away. I spun around, dropped to the sticks and let two fawns pass before pounding the biggest doe through the heart at 80 yards. Thanks for that trick, Grandpa.
With the group now scattered, I wriggled back up to my perch and waited. As darkness fell, the other mature doe came slipping past, looking for her misplaced mates, offering a gimme 20-yard shot. As slush continued to congregate on the back of my neck, field-dressing a warm deer in the November darkness never felt so good on cold fingers.
It had been a long time since I was so happy for a day of hunting to be over, but scraping off those wet, sticky clothes that evening was a phenomenal feeling.
As the slush and wind continued to pound against the kitchen window, my family (and hunting companions) and I were just putting fork to venison tenderloins that had been in a living deer no more than 2 hours prior, when lightning struck—and it hit hard.
It took my aunt Karen longer to get to the phone than it did for her to complete the conversation. “Grandpa is not doing well. We need to go. Now.”
My mouth went dry on the most flavorful venison I’d ever eaten. I had just seen him yesterday in hospice. He seemed so strong. What is happening?
I sprinted into Grandpa’s room and slipped my hand around his, just as he lost the strength to keep his eyes open. He smiled as best he could and gripped my hand with all the strength he had left in him.
For the next 2 hours he fought, holding my hand as tightly as I was holding onto all the memories we’d made together. And then there was nothing but the sleet and wind pounding against the walls.
For the first time in my airborne experience, I couldn’t get warm. Generally pinched between two “oversized” travelers, each with their own unique germs to share, I found myself as one of only about a dozen passengers spaced sporadically throughout the 150-seat aircraft. The leg room was nice; the loneliness was miserable.
I tried desperately to focus on the excitement of my destination—a muley hunt with a muzzleloader in Montana— but the events of the morning’s funeral were still too powerful. And I discovered just how cold a man can feel on the inside when his mind and his body are in two different emotional worlds. The lights of Great Falls kissed the snow-swept landscape below as the plane’s wheels tickled the icy runway.
I felt a hint of warmth for the first time in days when I shared handshakes with Chad Schearer at the baggage claim. Chad knows muzzleloaders as well as I knew my grandpa, and it didn’t take me long to realize I had scored big, knowing he would be at my side to walk me through my first smokepole kill.
Chad laughed as he tucked his chin to his chest to buck the wind and heaved my stuffed “way too big” bag into the back of his truck. “Should be about the right amount of clothing for this early winter,” he smiled. “It’s been a little snowy and cold.”
Yeah … cold for sure.
It surely wasn’t for the lack of opportunity, but I found myself with an open tag in my pocket as Chad and I hopped back in the truck for the final morning of the hunt. No pressure.
It had been a grueling 2 days, but the burden of snow and cold was diminished exponentially by the number of big deer Chad and I had seen. We’d spent the majority of day No. 2 chasing a beautiful muley through hill and dale, pushing knee-deep snow and hauling gear for the better part of 10 miles. My legs were screaming. When I laid my head to pillow that night, I thanked God for creating stunning scenery, great new friends … and steam showers!
But time was slipping away, and as nervous as I should’ve been carrying around that unused tag, I couldn’t get my mental storm to break. All I could do was hope Grandpa was watching Chad and me with pride.
My aimless gaze was broken by Chad’s pointed mitt obstructing my view of the “-1°” reading on the rearview mirror. I peered through the golfball-sized snowflakes dancing from the sky and spotted what Chad had seen long before: There was a mature buck plowing through the snow, weaving aggressively to keep a herd of does together.
“You want him?” Chad asked through his binos. “He’s a good one, and he’s in a good spot for a stalk.”
“I want him.”
I was white as a snowman’s hind end by the time Chad and I slithered into shooting position. Snow caked to my face like frosting, and my fingers tingled with pain as we watched the buck weave in and out of the does.
“He’s a bit more than 150 yards,” Chad said. “Be patient.”
My trigger finger was so cold I kept it in my mouth until I thought the buck would stop for a shot, at which point I’d fumble it through the trigger guard to get ready. And then the buck would turn, and I’d race my finger back to the warmth of my mouth.
As I watched the buck, the scope filled with blowing snow, and I was again forced to remove my fi nger from my mouth to clean it.
Were I wearing a watch I’m sure it would’ve frozen stiff, but the buck finally quartered hard away and began walking straight.
I found the buck in the part of the scope I could still see through and tried desperately to steady the crosshairs. Problem was, every time I blinked, my mind drifted back to a few days prior, holding the hand of my grandpa as his grip got lighter and lighter.
I forced the thought from my mind as I gripped my numbing fingers around the muzzleloader, which cried desperately to return to the warmth of my mouth.
At the shot, the buck buckled but stayed on his feet … and chills spread rapidly through my already numb body.
I wish I could look you in the eye and tell you this was a one-shot kill, but that’s simply not the case. It wasn’t the gun, and it wasn’t the weather. It was me struggling to pull off a shot with my mind three states away.
When the buck finally went limp and hit the snow, I did the same, being flooded with emotions and drifting snow. I sat alone beside the buck for a long while, thinking of how proud Grandpa would be to hear this story and watch my face light up as I told it.
Chad rejoined me with his usual smile as we exchanged a mitted handshake and looked down upon the buck.
It’s been a cold week, huh?” Chad smiled, as the snowflakes danced on the buck’s winter coat.
“It sure has.”
As the winter-kissed ground slipped out from below me, it was one of those rare moments in life when an overwhelmingly large number of paradoxes come crashing down on a man all at once.
The view from the plane window was breathtaking, but it was soul-crushingly cold. I fell in love with the beauty of Great Falls, Montana, but I was emotionally ready to be heading home. And I had just killed my first muley with a muzzleloader, yet I had no hunting mentor to rush home to and tell the story. I was still cold—inside and out.
God: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Thanks for the ride, Grandpa.