First deer hunt is almost primordial experience

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2004

USHK BAY I awoke in my girlfriend's armpit, one hour before dawn, to a terrifying howl. I was scared, and I peered out quietly from beneath the sheet.

In my vulnerable state, the din seemed to announce the concert of some grim specter, blowing against a giant Coke bottle. Perhaps an army of phantoms, dragging metal sheets against radiators.

It was neither, just wind amplified through the inside of our boat's hull. And then I remembered where I was.

The seven of us, aboard The Captain's roughly 40-foot vessel, had tentative plans to motor into the eastern reaches of Hoonah Sound for a week of hunting, crabbing, fishing and clamming.

But with winds gusting to 50 knots on Friday, it seemed more likely we would spend the brunt of our trip hiding in Ushk Bay, a sheltered haven near the top of the south arm of Peril Strait.

That was fine with me. Our anchorage was still, and the VHF reports were full of weary daredevils, tossed about in twisting seas.

Ushk, like Poison Cove and Deep Bay, its neighbors on North Chicagof Island, has been a favorite target for those who want to open the Tongass to new logging and road-building. But this week it was our private home the beaches giving way to muskeg, turning into soft hill, changing into snow.

It was Saturday, and we were going deer hunting. I had never hunted for game before, and in fact, I had fled from my television, on Nov. 12, 1983, while watching an episode of ''Silver Spoons'' in which Ricky and his dad called a buck into a clearing.

I was 7 then, and the stakes were different now. We wanted meat for the winter. Deer steaks. Venison stew. Bones for the dog. We imagined ourselves holding hoagies, full of leftovers, hoisting stout, cooled in the crisper, thanking the high heavens.

It was easy to justify. It was just like fishing, on land.

We enjoyed a long and heartily debilitating breakfast sausage, bacon and more sausage cooked knowingly by our comrades, four central Pennsylvanians.

A few minutes after 11, The Captain, Suze and I set out in our one-ton metal skiff, armed with a .338 Browning A-Bolt and Winchester Failsafes, bear protection. It was raining diagonally, with a 10-mph breeze, and in my yellow rain jacket, I looked like a can of mustard.

Clint, our skiffman, and a central Pennsylvanian, piloted us straight and true, a slow loop out from the boat and a quick curl to the beach. The ride was somber and stoic. My plan was simple, and for most of my life it has been effective: Don't do anything stupid, and don't get shot.

We hit the beach with a sudden scrape, jumped out and pushed Clint back toward the heart of the cove. I could see now that the brush was denser than I had imagined. The ground was softer than I had thought. The valley rolled back and rose, to the opposite sound, to China and infinity.

We made our way into the muskeg, whispering, walking in circles around the pools of standing water, quicksand. We were no more than 75 yards from the beach when we arrived at a small tree, sticking out of the fuzz.

Suze stood by for the first shot, and The Captain got ready to make his homemade call. He took out two flat pieces of wood, affixed with two kinds of electrical tape. It was the size of half a harmonica.

The tone, high and lilting before dipping down a half-octave, was said to attract mates during the rut. And this was mid-November, happy hour for black-tails.

We spent three minutes looking around before a four-point buck stepped out of the woods, 20 yards away at 2 o'clock. I assumed we'd spend most of the day searching, but here was the deer, and it was glorious.

It felt like the first time I pulled up a yelloweye, expecting to see a halibut. It was every color, incongruous, too beautiful to look at. How did it even exist?

I thought of things great and small. Of clocks ticking backward. Of rockets taking flight and tiny dewdrops on pine needles in the palm of a hand in the pit of a pocket. Whole days seemed to pass. I was 4,000 years old.

My reverie was broken by the gunshot. Suze aimed for the jugular and appeared to hit ... something ... what?

The deer jumped suddenly, straight up in the air, then sharply right, across a creek. It seemed to stick out its tongue. No, it was missing its lower jaw.

It was hideous to watch. The Captain took a shot and hit its front shoulder, and abruptly, thankfully, the deer was dead. It dropped at the edge of a creek, about 30 feet from where we stood.

We gutted the deer where it lay, the guts warm, the process unreal. One deer down in five minutes? It was too lucky.

We left the innards for bear or bird, whoever should come across it first. Back the next day, with the central Pennsylvanians, we learned it was marten.

That morning we hiked for hours, days, weeks. We called in the muskeg. Nothing. We called in the hills. Nothing. We crossed the same stream a dozen times. We hiked into the alpine, and looked two feet to our right, where the brush dropped 40 feet to a turbid creek.

It was warmer, and the deer were gone. They were frightened away by the sound of seven hunters with guns tromping through the brush. Or perhaps the warm weather had driven them away.

At least we got one.

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