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Killer Hike

When a lifelong backpacker decides to shoot a deer, will he lose touch with the wilderness he loves--or get closer to it?

Day three: Gator’s last chance at a deer. We decide to hit it hard, hunting the Blue Mountains’ ponderosa pine forests in the morning and working the isolated Grande Ronde River breaks in the afternoon.

At first light, Gator and I and Shaun Bristol, who has joined us for the morning, set up on the edge of a Blue Mountain meadow. We’d seen some does browsing in the field at dusk the previous night, and figure we might catch a buck among them this morning. We lean against the rough bark of the ponderosas, trying to blend in and remain motionless. If open-field hunting is all about covering ground and flushing game, forest hunting requires opposite tactics: Hide and wait for the prey to come to you. Or so we think. We’re hunting for the first time without Jennifer—a solo flight of sorts.

As Gator creeps forward for a better view, a spear of meadow barley nails him in the eye.

“God damn,” he says, pulling the barbs out of his eyelid.

“Um, guys…” Shaun is trying to get our attention.

“Did you get it out?” I ask. Gator shakes his head.

“Guys…” Shaun says. I look back at him. He points to two whitetail bucks quietly crossing

the road 20 yards behind us.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say. The deer catch our movement and bolt into the
forest. I laugh at the thought of Gator and me standing there, Jethro and Elmer Fudd, as our prey fearlessly strolls by.

In the afternoon, we load our packs with food and water and hitch a ride to the rim of the Grande Ronde River canyon. The Grande Ronde, a tributary of the Snake, unwinds like a curling ribbon through the Columbia Plateau near the Oregon-Washington border. It’s world famous for its steelhead, and the dry, brushy ravines above the river are prime habitat for deer, coyote, wild turkey, chukar, black bear, elk, and bighorn sheep.

We have a plan. Gator and I will start about a quarter-mile apart at the top of the rim, then pick our way down in a V that meets at the bottom of the ravine. I’ll flush the deer in Gator’s direction.

As I heel plunge down the scab-land ravine, my eyes scanning for movement, Gator in my periphery, a sort of perfect moment comes over me. My own hunt is done. Because I’ve already bagged my deer, I can relax and enjoy the hike, the camaraderie, the strategy and cunning, the suspense, and the pure joy of physical movement in the wild. Gator, on the other hand, hunts with all the pressure and anxiety of a live trigger. If you’re doing it right, hunting comes with a huge responsibility. You’ve got to line up a good shot, not carelessly wound the animal, not shoot something illegal, not crack off an errant bullet that flies into a house a half-mile away, and not kill your partner. It’s not that far from mountain climbing, in fact. A certain amount of danger and risk enhances the experience of moving across wild terrain. It revs up your adrenaline and puts the senses on edge. Hunting combines strategy, motion, experience, skill, and danger.

It does something else, too. By the end of our three-day hunt, I feel like I’ve been given a fresh pair of eyes. Landscapes that were once barren to me become lush and vibrant, alive with life, crackling with possibility. Where once I saw lowland scrub—white noise for a backpacker—now I see a living habitat where rosehip bushes function as secret deer beds. Blank hillsides aren’t blank at all; they’re terraced with game trails. I see water and imagine the animals it might draw. I start to think like a predator. To be perfectly frank, hiking as a hunter is fun.

After a couple of hours, I’ve flushed only a doe and a mangy coyote from the brush. Gator and I take a break. The late-afternoon sun beats down, and we strip off layers.

“I don’t know if it’s in the cards for us today,” I say.
That’s when Gator spots the buck.

It’s just below us, in a dry creekbed: Mule deer, a buck of unknown antler points. The deer takes off uphill, moving over a ridge before Gator can get a look through the scope.

Gator scrambles across the creekbed and muscles up the ravine. I follow for a while, but I’m in no shape to be chasing uphill after a man who has climbed Rainier 190 times.

The buck keeps moving high. Gator follows. Over one ridge, then another. I shadow them from below. Finally, Gator peeks over the edge of the last ridge and puts the buck in his crosshairs. The deer stares back at him.

“He was at an angle where his antlers lined up exactly in a row,” Gator later tells me.

“So I couldn’t get a read on his points. I couldn’t confirm that he was legal.” They stood there like that, frozen for a few moments. Then the deer turned. Gator saw the antlers—a three-pointer, legal—but the deer’s butt was angled toward him. A lousy gut shot if he took it. A wounded deer, the meat spoiled. Plenty of hunters have pulled the trigger in that situation.

Gator didn’t.

As the sun fades behind the canyon’s rim, we hike out through an old apple orchard to a road beside the river. There, Jennifer, Shaun, and Ted—a happy, relieved Ted—greet us with a warm truck and cold beer.

“Well, what do you think of hunting now?” Jennifer asks me.

“Harder than it looks,” I say. “But a hell of a lot of fun.”

“Are you going to become a hunter now, Bruce?” Ted asks.

It will take some time, some reflection, before I can answer that question with any certainty. To do it right, hunting requires long-term preparation. The payoffs, though, can’t be expressed in antlers or meat. Hunting offered this lifelong hiker an enriching and profound new way to interact with the land. Different landscapes opened up to me. I’ve met the Cabela’s crowd on their turf and, hopefully, shattered some of their own stereotypes about fleece-wearing treehuggers.

So call me a hunter. I’ve got visitation rights with my rifle, and if someone asks me to join his deer camp next season, I just might grab it and go.

Bruce Barcott brought home 55 pounds of venison from this hunt. He wrote about mapping his new home, Washington’s Bainbridge Island, for the May 2010 issue.

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