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Hunt hardly goes for naught, even without taking deer

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Beulah, Mich. — Wake-up alarms are best set for sane hours, and not for 3:40 a.m., which is when the cell phone's chirp ended what had been a snug few hours of sleep.

But I had an hour drive ahead on opening morning of Michigan's 2014 whitetail deer hunt and this trek had to be orderly and punctual.

Layers of cold-weather hunting garb had been laid out the night before: thermal top-and-bottom underwear, liner socks, heavy wool socks, hunting jeans, turtleneck, chamois shirt, orange-camo suspended overalls, orange camo double-lined parka, stocking cap, liner gloves, orange shooting mittens, and insulated boots bought in Calgary in 1988 as protection against the Canadian Rockies and the chill of covering that year's Winter Olympics.

It was 4 a.m. and barely 20 degrees when I gently closed the back door at the home of my cousin, Jim Powers, and his wife, Penny, and stepped toward a car covered in three inches of fluffy snow that had fallen since midnight in McBain, a woodlands community outside of Cadillac.

Sixty miles later, M-115 and U.S. 131 led to a driveway high above Crystal Lake's dark depths. A kitchen light was on and through wood-paned windows I could see three hunting partners were already busy with their breakfast banquet of bacon, sausage, baked beans, eggs, toast, coffee, and orange juice.

Joining them was Kehr's young Golden Lab, Rosie, who is descended from a genial breed that specializes in public relations, not to mention in tableside appeals for ham and bacon.

As for the humans gathered, they were gents I've either known most of my life or in the 13 years since I first began hunting in Benzie County's grandeur. Charlie Kehr is a Beulah dentist whose home was our base and whose acres of timber and hills would be our hunting venue.

Chuck Gerding, a retired school teacher from Karlin, and his brother Bill, an auto body specialist from Lake Ann, were headed for the woods, as well, along with Karl Malin, who is an accomplished chef and culinary arts instructor from Traverse City, and who had taken a massive eight-point buck from Kehr's terrain the last time we had hunted together on opening morning.

It was 6 a.m. when we stepped from cars and four-wheel drives, pulled rifles from cases, and began shining Mag lights on a two-track trail of snow, mud, and hills.

It's a comical thing about men. Put four of them together and generally there's competition to see who can talk without interrupting another. And if someone gets interrupted, well, too bad. But put four of them together on opening morning of deer season and all you hear is boots slapping the snow. And, the occasional whisper.

Plenty cold, also still

"Hey, guys, safe hunting," Chuck said, his voice hushed, as we split up, with Bill and Karl headed for separate blinds on one end of the 63-acre parcel. We walked farther along the two-track, deeper into northern Michigan's wilds, until Chuck waved his Mag light at a portable camo blind anchored on a knoll overlooking ravines that ran laterally beneath hills and wooded slopes and abutted a distant alfalfa field.

"See you in a few hours," he whispered. And then he disappeared over a hill as I moved carefully toward the knoll's crest, past downed limbs and branches that snap when stepped on and double as a wake-up alarm for whitetails if you don't stroll softly.

I unzipped the blind's back flap and stepped inside a plastic-framed hut, decked in camo fabric. There was a metal stool resting on a floor of dirt and matted leaves, a makeshift seat, for sure, but minimally comfortable when topped with a blaze-orange plastic cushion I had clipped to my belt ahead of the pre-dawn hike.

I could remember only one deer opener colder: a 2002 trip to the Upper Peninsula when the pre-daylight mercury was 7 degrees. I could recall no opener as still, as eerily quiet.

There was no rustling of leaves, no creaking of tree limbs as I loaded a .270 Browning and waited for daylight that was still nearly an hour away. The only sound, deep within the timber, was a hoot-hoot-hoot from an owl that had apparently decided it was still too dark and still too early to call it quits.

Kehr had just wrapped up an unusually slow whitetail bow-season at his Benzie County tracts and wasn't sure what we might see — or not see — in the first days of Michigan's firearms hunt.

But there had been enough sightings on his trail cameras to suggest bucks were around if not bountiful. Chuck, too, had been scouting the area we were hunting and was more upbeat.

"Biggest track I've ever seen I saw here a few days ago," Gerding said. "And a million scrapes."

He was talking about a mating-season buck's hoof markings — a kind of line drawn in the dirt indicating a particular male's presence and intentions, although neither is much of a mystery during autumn's romantic woodlands cycle.

Two hours past daylight and Kehr's bow-season report was dead on.

Nothing. No does romping down a hillside, no bucks in pursuit, and not much shooting within a mile radius.

An opening morning that seemed perfect for seeing deer — cold and still — was pitching a shutout. And not just at my blind as Saturday's temps, still hanging in the low 20s, cut through all those layers and began to chill toes and legs.

Camaraderie wins

Kehr saw only a couple of does during a long day of sitting and glancing. Chuck also got a glimpse at two does and a third deer following that was too obscure to determine if it was a buck or a doe. Bill: nothing. Karl: Lots of does but not a single antler.

By mid-day I was back at McBain for an afternoon of cards and refreshments in a heated garage equipped more for entertainment than for sheltering vehicles.

Deer hunting, of course, is only partly about sitting in woods during the 10 hours of daylight you squeeze from northern Michigan in November.

It's at least as much about euchre games. About having a beverage or two. And it's about food, which at Jim and Penny's place, ran the gamut from homemade chili, to venison sausage and cheese, to salted peanuts and assorted calorie bombs, to chicken pot pie, and to the apple and pumpkin pies baked by my uncle and euchre partner, Dean Henning of St. Johns.

Cousins galore — I am one of 49 grandchildren on my dad's side — live and hunt at the farms and woodland spreads in the McBain-Cadillac radius and it always seems as if at least 40 of them show up along with spouses, as well, for the evening garage parties.

In most years, a good many of my late dad's 11 siblings, eight of whom are still with us, also stop by or bunk at Jim and Penny's, clearly in an effort to avoid dehydration and starvation.

After all, the best thing to bring to a Powers-Henning deer hunt is an appetite for food, not to mention a chronic thirst.

You can forget the rifle. It seems to work out better that way for most of my family. And, yes, probably for the deer.