NICOLET NATIONAL FOREST — On Sunday morning, aspen pines and bare tamaracks slept beneath a blanket of fresh snow. It was just under 10 degrees. Snow had fallen among bitter winds that tormented us while we hunted the previous day.
Eight miles south of the Michigan border, my dad parked his SUV on Fire Tower Road – a gravel path that runs along a ridge between two marshes.
My oldest brother and two family friends walked to their tree blinds scattered within a few square miles of the road.
The sky was dark and clear and filled with stars that only showed themselves to those who sought seclusion — to the residents of wild places where roads are battled by raw forces; bitter winds that wear highway signs and ancient soils that move boulders once submerged in prehistoric seas or churned by glacial ice.
Fallen branches covered pavement cracked by the cold.
Town limits do not reach these woods — they are owned by the nation and they govern themselves.
The path to my blind was marked with orange ribbons that my brother had tied to tree trunks and fallen logs on Friday afternoon. Our middle brother, the one among us crazy enough to prefer 10 degree weather and sporadic blizzards while hunting, was in Florida this weekend on business. Before we lost phone service outside of Argonne, he sent us text messages lamenting the 85-degree weather and sandy beaches, wishing he was frozen to the forest floor like us.
An hour before sunrise, moonbeams streaked through gaps in the tree tops and I didn’t need a flashlight to find my way.
I stopped above fresh deer tracks that crossed my footprints from the day before. There had been a deer standing there just hours earlier. It had stopped over my tracks — to touch or sniff them in gentle curiosity.
My blind was a bucket in the center of three aspen pines overlooking a frozen marsh. I sat and looked through the treetops at the milky way’s sparkling trail — a river of light in a black sky.
I could hear my heartbeat and my icy breaths. Trees popped as sap froze and expanded beneath their bark.
The black sky became blue in shades that lightened with each passing minute.
Dawn broke like a match dragged across the horizon. Layers of yellow and orange burned in the east. The layers turned blue as they cooled toward the stars still bright in the west surrounding a partial moon.
Squirrels barked and rustled snow from tree branches. A field mouse spotted me and scurried beneath a gap in the roots of a tree a few feet away. A woodpecker hammered its beak against the bark above me.
The forest was awake.
We were hunting in a Buck-only zone, one of only four remaining in the state. The state is divided into nearly 80 hunting zones where the regulations differ depending on the deer population and environmental factors.
In most zones, both antlered and antlerless deer can be hunted — the population is abundant enough in these areas to remain stable with a loss of doe. In zone 39 – our zone — this was not the case.
But the restrictions were working.
There was a noticeable increase in the number of deer in the past year. Last season, the six hunters in our camp had only spotted three. This year, five of us spotted nine.
Unfortunately for our camp (and very fortunately for the deer we saw) they were all antlerless – they were either does or they were bucks too young to grow antlers.
We couldn’t shoot them.
Around 8:30 a.m. they day before, I had heard hooves behind me muffled by snow. The woods were tight with trees and dense brush, but I caught a glimpse of two white tails.
I felt my pulse raise and gripped my rifle. They sauntered through the trees and I saw them through a gap in the branches. Two does unaware they were being watched. One was a yearling, the other, I guessed, was its mother. The mother grunted to her offspring — a doe grunt, a type of vocal call that does use to tell their young to stay close. The two walked in circles and took no notice of me. They circled the woods for half an hour, then disappeared through the trees.
Hunting requires patience and endurance in adverse weather conditions but also an appreciation for living things.
Since I had nothing to shoot, I took time to reflect. The woods are a good place for it.
With Thanksgiving approaching, I couldn’t help but count my blessings. The woods, though cold and wild, were beautiful and teeming with life. I was grateful for toe warmers and a thermos of hot coffee. For friends and family enduring the same cold nearby, and a brother wishing he could endure it with us.
For my mom and sisters who chided us and let us hunt with a silent wish that we wouldn’t kill Bambi.
But alone and isolated in the wilderness with no shelter from the cold, it is easy to be grateful for small things, like a sandwich after a long day of shivering off calories in the cold, or a good book to read in the stand. Back in civilization, however, it becomes much harder. Even for the big things.
Hunting can put meat on the table and earn tongue-in-cheek bragging rights enough for a lifetime among friends and family, but it also provides time. Time to meditate and reconsider; to become more balanced like the life in the surrounding woods. To learn the limits of your determination and test the iron of your will.
Had I been able to tag a buck this weekend, I would have without a doubt ended this column with vivid descriptions of its 30-point rack and my unmatched excellence as a hunter. Since I did not, however, I will say this: I may not have returned with antlers to hang on the wall, but I still had a successful hunt. I returned, I hope, with something more valuable than a pile of venison and a buck that gets bigger in the retelling.
I wish you the same.