The Initiate

By Francis Marion – First Published on April 26th, 2016

Prologue:

I am a big believer in the idea that the recipe for raising good kids is simple. Be patient and give them your time. If you spend time with them, take an interest in who they are and what they like and include them in activities (both work and play) that are gateways to adulthood then most of the time you’ll end up with good kids. I’m especially proud of both of mine. They are both turning out to be very fine human beings.

In the years that I have lived in British Columbia, I have learned that hunting deer in the southwestern region of the province is simple. In the opening days of September, the deer are still in their summer range. This means they are up high. As the season wanes, the weather cools and the first snows hit they move to lower elevations. I say this facetiously of course, as this is where the simplicity ends.

Early deer season in our part of the world is decidedly not simple. I am a child of the prairies and growing up in Saskatchewan, “deer hunting” meant pushing whitetails out of pockets of bush in the agricultural zones. It is an activity as much akin to wing shooting as anything else. The same activity pursued in my current local is dramatically different. Here, just getting to where the game lives is more akin to an “Iron Man” competition than it is to hunting elsewhere and the older I get the less that statement seems like hyperbole.

Over the years I have learned a few important things about hunting in the high country: everything is steeper, further and heavier. Small mistakes can compound themselves quickly. Too little water, the wrong clothing, a slip of the knife or the foot or grabbing the wrong branch can spell disaster. Simply being in the alpine is risky. Hunting deer and other game there is challenging. Successfully taking game there is life affirming. It is why I go back year after year whether I am successful or not.
And this is why – in his 12th year – I brought my son with me on one of my sojourns to the top of the world. It was my hope that he would appreciate not only the challenge of hunting such a place but also of simply being somewhere so unique and stunningly beautiful. He never connected with a deer that year but he proved to me he could carry his own gear, rifle, and weight. He was willing and prepared to join the odd but proud fraternity of high country hunters. Moreover, he truly seemed to appreciate the place. And so it was that we planned a return for the fall of 2014.

And this is why – in his 12th year – I brought my son with me on one of my sojourns to the top of the world. It was my hope that he would appreciate not only the challenge of hunting such a place but also of simply being somewhere so unique and stunningly beautiful. He never connected with a deer that year but he proved to me he could carry his own gear, rifle, and weight. He was willing and prepared to join the odd but proud fraternity of high country hunters. Moreover, he truly seemed to appreciate the place. And so it was that we planned a return for the fall of 2014.

Twelve months later on the opening morning of the youth deer season, myself, my son and a good friend of ours parked our SUV at the head of the same old horse trail we’d climbed the year before. The season takes place in early September in our neck of the woods, which means the deer are in their summer range. Where we live in the southwestern region of BC our day-to-day lives are lived at an elevation barely above sea level. Thus “high up” is defined as anything over about four to five thousand feet. In the “Cascade” and surrounding regions, this is the place where the trees shrink, the air thins and the forest gives way to alpine grasses, shrubs, and flowers.

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Ascending the mountain and our bowl via the back way… what a view!

As we ascended the mountain, just a few short weeks after my sons 13th birthday, I wondered what the hunt would bring for him. We had come with the intent of hunting for just the day. This meant an early morning and upwards of three to four hours of hiking and climbing to gain the elevation needed to simply begin looking for deer. This would then leave us with about five to seven hours on the mountain before we would need to pack up in order to beat nightfall. Descending thousands of feet in the dark has never been my idea of fun, much less with an extra fifty to eighty pounds of venison on my back. As such the pace would be steady and deliberate. The boy would have to keep up if we were to have any chance at being successful.

We liked to hunt a particular bowl we knew held game so over the course of the morning we headed for the back end of the south side, circled around, over the top and parked ourselves at the upper western edge of the north-facing slope. We had a great view of the south-facing slope across from us so we pulled off our packs and started to glass. My son had kept pace well and the adults were grateful for the pause.

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Nearing the top our bowl – only a few hundred more yards and a few more feet in elevation to go before my nap…

Shortly afterward, I decided to take a nap. With a cool, dry breeze in the air and the warm sun on my face who could blame me? The soft alpine grass made a wonderful makeshift bed and I drifted slowly off to sleep. It would turn out to be one of the shortest naps I’d ever taken…

“Dad – there’s two deer coming over the top of the opposite ridge,” whispered my boy just as I was losing consciousness.

I popped open a single eye.

“Bullocks,” I said, “I don’t see anything,” I closed my eye in an attempt to go back to sleep.

“He’s right,” my friend interrupted, “I think one is a buck.”

I opened my eye again and felt around for my binoculars lying in the grass next to me. I held them up to my open eye like a monocular and began scanning the opposite side of the bowl. I was still sprawled out on the grass in the same position I’d dosed off in when I saw both deer descending the opposite slope. “Hmmph,” I said, “Yep. The lead one is a buck.”

My son was ready to roll. I wasn’t. I’d just started my nap and was still groggy.

“They’re too far away,” I said. I put down my binos and opened my other eye. My hunting partner already had his laser rangefinder out. As I looked for mine the buck and his doe bedded down across the bowl from us near a small patch of trees.

“How far,” I asked my buddy?

“A little over 400 yards,” he replied quietly.

“Son, that’s too far for you to shoot,” I pulled my range finder off my belt and confirmed a distance of 408 yards, “you’re going to have to make a stalk if you want to try and take this thing.”

“Ok dad,” he responded coolly.

He grabbed his rifle and I grabbed my binos and shooting sticks. We made a plan to get closer. We were going to have to use a few small boulders and a couple of shrubs for cover as there was little between the buck, the doe and us.

Waddling off we began our descent into the bowl as we were just slightly above and across from the two deer. We duck walked from our position to a shrub, from the shrub to a boulder and finally to another small shrub. Pretty soon we ran out of shrubs and boulders.

We stopped. I put the range finder on the tree next to the buck and got a solid reading of 202 yards. We were out of options and cover. There was nothing between us and the buck but grass and a few alpine flowers. What’s more, the buck had turned in his bed and was now looking straight at us. The doe’s ears were on red alert. It was the end of the stalk.

“Ok son,” I said quietly, “they are basically straight across from us at a little over two hundred yards. Your rifle is sighted in for 100 yards so I want you to put the crosshairs right on the center of his chest just a few inches above the bottom of his neck. You should hit the vitals square on. Remember to breathe easy, relax and squeeze on the exhale.”

I put out the shooting sticks and he crept up into kneeling position behind them. He loaded a round into the ’06 and exhaled.

I prayed for a clean kill.

For a moment worlds collided and time stood still. At the sound of the rifle, I was 12 years old again, dressed in hunter orange with my first whitetail in my cross hairs. I was lost between then and now, there and here and as the sound of the shot dissipated and time and space reasserted itself I was overcome with relief.

My prayer was answered. The fork horn buck never moved from his bed.

“Great shot son,” I heard my father’s voice in mine as I put my hand on my son’s shoulder. Without prompting he ejected the spent casing from the chamber of his rifle. “You won’t need another round. Well done,” I said and stood up from the long grass we were kneeling in.

My boy was trembling with adrenaline. We took a moment to breathe then we looked at each other and high-fived. The moment from the sound of the shot blossomed slowly from one of deliberation to one of celebration. We shouted and high-fived again and I put my arm around him.

As we approached the deer I looked for signs of life in the young buck then, confirming it was dead, let my son kneel down next to his first kill. He ran his hands through its coarse red and brown hair and over the soft velvet of its antlers. He was speechless. So was I.

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You can’t see it but were both grinning from ear to ear.

Taken at around 6000 feet elevation my 13-year-old son stood for a moment like he was a giant amongst men. He helped me gut and butcher the deer and then my partner and I loaded up our packs with the meat for the long hike out. My son carried our gear and his trophy rack. Two points or twelve – it mattered not. He cut the rack from the buck’s skull himself and strapped it to his pack. Trophies, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Today my son had earned his place in the rare fraternity of high country hunters and he knew it. He never complained about the work or the hike out. He took it all like a man and carried out his two point as though it were a Boone and Crockett buck.

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Leaving the bowl and heading back down the mountain towards the vehicle.

Three to four hours later, our bodies tired and battered from the hike down and out, we finally arrived back at the Jeep. We loaded our gear and headed the rest of the way back down the mountain in comfort. It was a quiet ride. Exhaustion seems to breed introspection amongst hunters and as we came back into cell range I handed the phone to my son.

“Call your mother,” I said, “and tell her we’ll be home after dark.” They were the first words we’d spoken since we loaded the SUV.

While my boy was chatting with his mum, my partner asked me how I was.

“Sore and tired,” I replied, “how are you?”

“Sore and tired,” he responded.

“Do it again next year?” I asked.

“Absolutely. I’m there,” was his response as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

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