Beulah, Mich. — From the right, at the very edge of a guy’s peripheral vision, something forced a glance. A low pulse shifted into high gear.
There she was, a gray-brown whitetail doe, not 30 feet away, traipsing through brush and ferns, her snowy tail flicking.
She had a partner: her fawn from this spring that was now able to live on its own but still enjoyed hanging with mom. They were taking a Sunday stroll on a mild November morning in northern Michigan, although they probably sensed commotion on this opening day of the state’s firearm deer season.
The doe knew. She looked hard to her left, raising her nose, sniffing short whiffs, working to sift telltale scents from that silhouette she spotted sitting 10 yards away.
She was safe. I was interested only in the show. We stared at each other for so long my eyes began watering. Even a single blink and the two would have been gone.
Precious sights, courtesy of nature, on a stage where there’s no acting, no script, nothing but animal instincts and quiet woodlands crafting a scene so flawless.
Which leads to a certain question: Why do people hunt these gorgeous animals?
One person’s summary, painfully simplistic but biologically factual:
There are too many deer in Michigan. They need each year to be thinned. It’s better to have a quick, clean kill that produces venison than have them slaughtered on roadways, or die weakened by deep snow and too little winter food. Or, by other ways that aren’t always pretty.
It’s also worth noting that thousands of folks each November aren’t interested in hunting female deer but would consider taking a nice buck, which in one man’s personal history is an extremely rare event.
And yet it always comes down to other moments as the deeper reasons for making that yearly trek into Missaukee County, or Benzie County, or Grand Traverse County, or any locale where the morning of Nov. 15 is as heart-racing for grownups as Dec. 25 is for kids in pajamas.
Ultimately, it’s that blend of family, and friends, and card games, and cold beer, and fabulous food, and, absolutely, the kind of scene from God’s palette I was able to take in even before the deer showed up an hour after sunrise on a quiet late-autumn Michigan morning.
It had begun in a way not recommended for people who enjoy a good night’s rest. The cell-phone alarm had rung at 3 a.m. The usual routine on opening morning of deer season followed ritualistically.
Layers of hunting garb were pulled on and slipped into. Gloves, stocking cap, and flashlight were tucked into various pockets of my orange camouflage coveralls and parka. Lastly, a hunting knife — always an optimistic move — was belt-threaded in the event a buck and its venison actually showed up. I softly closed the front door and stepped from the home of my cousin, Greg Powers, and his wife, Trina.
It was 3:50 a.m. And maybe only once, 20 years ago on the Leelanau Peninsula near Sleeping Bear Dunes, had I seen anything so stunning.
The sky was as clear as the air was still. It was 39 degrees, but it felt warmer, maybe because the stars above burned so bright they looked like hot strings of Christmas lights.
Directly overhead was the constellation Orion, its white-light “bow” drawn. To the right, the Big Dipper. And farther right, a warm-blue light burst from Venus.
Throughout and about the constellations was a spray of lesser stars, a starlight mist, soft but glowing, with depth and expanse. It was a mesmerizing masterpiece of skyscape you rarely, if ever, see amid the murk and night-light in urban areas.
I had gotten up at 3 on this Sunday morning for reasons that could only be justified by logistics and the fact opening morning of deer season makes you do things that otherwise would be considered nuts.
I had an hour drive ahead, from McBain, near Cadillac, on a 54-mile path along M-115 to Beulah and to the home of lifetime friend, Charlie Kehr, a recently retired dentist. He had put together a pre-dawn breakfast for a crew that included two of Kehr’s longtime hunting buddies, Chuck Gerding and Karl Malin, gents with whom I’ve hunted before.
When I pulled into the drive a few minutes before 5, they were waiting alongside Charlie’s Golden Lab, Rosie. On the table was French toast and Canadian bacon. In the cup was black coffee. In our conversation was the usual mix of chatter favored by guys who love the outdoors: updates on deer and past sightings, summer fishing in Alaska (Chuck has a cabin near Fairbanks), tales of hooking steelhead along the nearby Betsie River, and our happy replay of a May weekend we had spent fishing for bluegill near Traverse City.
We cleared dishes and loaded into three vehicles at 5:30. By 5:50, Charlie and I had parked our cars and were hiking along a logging trail, the only light spilling from our flashlights and from those sparkling stars above.
Tromping past stands of spruce, past a tall white pine, the trail turned faint. Brush thickened. Charlie had hunted and walked this area and knew the path by heart.
He pointed his light at a hardwood “seat” in the middle of a rectangle framed by blown-down cedars. The ground was matted in leaves and spiked by upright ferns, still green.
“Good luck,” he whispered, and he headed back for the trail, to his car, and to a sweet hunting spot a few miles away.
It was an hour before daylight. And never, on any deer opener in memory, had a morning been so still. The thinnest of tree leaves, the slightest branch — nothing moved in 40-degree air mild for November.
I was using different weaponry in 2015 as the usual pre-dawn thoughts of whitetail bucks, with antlers the size of a chandelier, crowded a mind amazingly clear for having had too little sleep.
This was a tract of deep woods, not overly far from a highway, and Charlie suggested I would want this year to forget the Browning .270 and instead bring a shotgun. That was fine with my brother, Jay, who had a nifty H&R, single-shot 12-gauge, ready for a Hornady SST slug, and topped with a scope he had generously sighted-in ahead of opening day and wouldn’t be using at his hunting camp near Harrison. Big brother was free to grab it.
Charlie took a long look at the H&R and liked the choice immensely. Not exactly revelatory, but happy feedback from a man who hunts seriously, who hunts hard hours. He, Chuck, and Karl are religious about getting into the woods early, closer to midnight than dawn if necessary. Their creed is that smart hunting is a combination of business and pleasure. The folks who typically bring home venison want to be settled in the dark and stillness long — long — before sunlight begins to crease the east sky and deer begin to move, visibly.
Night makes it right
It was still an hour and-a-quarter before daylight when Charlie left and I plopped onto a pine plank softened by an orange foam-and-nylon cushion that I’d carried into the woods clipped to my coveralls.
The morning’s timeline:
■6:50 a.m. — A first shot heard, several hundred yards away, and in the faintest of morning light I had to wonder, half-angrily: What could anyone have possibly seen and identified in what still ranked as early-morning darkness?
■7:15 a.m. — Dawn had given way to a lovely opening morning. Cedars, spruce, timber felled by age and by past winds, brambles, leaves, dead foliage the color of faded gold — everything came into focus on a morning strangely still, especially when Lake Michigan’s waves and east shore converged only a few miles to the west.
■8 a.m. — A brown squirrel sprinted from the base of an old oak, across the woods’ mottled carpet, and up the trunk of a jagged cedar. In the morning’s silence the squirrel sounded like a china-shop bull.
■8:15 a.m. — The doe and her partner showed up. These were moments worth the price of admission, which was either free, or priceless, depending upon one’s view.
■9:30 a.m. — Nothing but thoughts wafting in a man’s mind as he sat watching for more deer that didn’t show up, as he began feeling, even on a gentle 40-degree morning, his toes beginning to tingle from Benzie County’s chill.
Time to head for McBain, where my uncle, Dean Henning (St. Johns), my aunt Janet Light (Indianapolis), and my cousin, Jim Powers, and his wife, Penny, were probably sipping coffee, finishing breakfast muffins, eggs and fruit, and were about ready to relocate in Jim’s garage — your basic Man Cave with all the accessories — for euchre, refreshments (likely with trace amounts of alcohol), and, of course, food in variety, quantity, and calories: beef stew, sausage and sauerkraut, chili, hunter’s sausage, six different cheeses, crackers, peanuts, peanut-butter pretzels, pumpkin and apple pies, and (sigh) about anything else found in the aisles at Costco or a Missaukee County grocery store.
That night, like the previous evening, would see the garage jammed with more clan members. There would be cousins galore (I am one of 49 grandchildren on my dad’s side), many of whom are either siblings or in-laws to the McBain-based Powers gang. It is a merry band. You scan the garage, as that morning’s woods had been scoped, and it is such a sight.
Everyone is holding onto some brand of beverage. Some are filling plates from a picnic table sagging with food and cholesterol. Others are arriving at the Man Cave, greeting and hugging, joking and insulting, debriefing each other on how many deer they might have seen on opening day.
Another one-half of the crowd is busy with its drinks, laying down euchre cards at one of several tables and, as the hour grows late, steadily trying to remember what’s trump.
All are creating the kind of happy ruckus only family can generate. And in that sense, it’s funny and contradictory, these deer-hunting trips. They invite you to savor quiet mornings and celebrate loud evenings.
I can’t explain it. But those who hunt understand. Those who appreciate deer camp’s bliss get it. Those with a family as tight and special as mine can relate. To every magical moment.