A few mornings ago, I saw the fresh tracks of a big buck in a creek bed at the base of a mountain. I was walking my golden retriever Fen and I whistled her to my side. She studied me attentively as I scanned the dark woods for movement or the shape of an animal. Seeing none, I trudged on, thinking how I ought to write a column in honor of deer and the 2017 hunting season.
It was a good year with lots of memories. There was being roared at by a bear shortly before my gal MC, editor of the Capital City Weekly, and I came across a group of bucks in the high country. There was packing an animal over a mountain beneath an incredible display of northern lights. There were the bucks that got away — three of them, to be precise — on two different hunts. There was the buck my niece Kiah took after we’d made a long stalk. I think I may have been more excited than her. There was the unlucky buck that blundered into me on Admiralty when I wasn’t hunting but still had my rifle at hand. There was the time spent with my dad, brothers, MC and nieces.
After my last hunt of 2017, I cleaned and oiled my rifle as heart and chunks of backstrap sizzled in the skillet. Venison in the late season tastes a little different than fat August bucks. It’s still delicious if you properly care for it. Even a buck in full rut is good eating if you’re careful not to cut or touch one of its many scent glands and get it on the meat. I separated chunks of raw meat into different piles that would become roasts, steaks and burger. A few hours later, everything was ready to be stored in the freezer. I thanked the deer one last time before tucking packages away for the winter.
There was never a time when hunting wasn’t part of my life. My earliest memories include the smell, touch and the taste of deer my dad brought home. Growing up, I’d listen raptly to my dad’s stories and dream of the day I’d become a hunter.
The first deer I harvested was a life-altering experience. I’d just quit the football team, telling my disappointed coach and dad I’d rather spend my time in the woods. A few days later, my friends Jesse, Ed and I skipped school to look for Sitka blacktails in the high country. After a few comical incidents — including passing on the first buck we saw because we thought it was too far to shoot while it grazed a mere 100 yards away — we managed to take a beautiful fork-horn. We smelled like deer and blood and slept out next to a fire. It was the best night of my life — well, up until that point.
It’s hard to believe twenty seasons have passed since that first deer. The 7-mag my dad bought me the winter after I brought meat home on my own shows the passage of time. It’s worn, scratched and most of the blue has been rubbed off the barrel. In a few places it’s scarred by rust. There’s duct-tape on the stock — and not even the camouflage kind. My sling is homemade, part of which involves a shoe string. Most self-respecting sportsmen would be horrified, but that rifle has fed me and my family for 19 years. I wish I would have kept track of the different animals. One older hunter told me he could remember each of the 84 deer he’d shot. Another man, who’d hunted for years, told me he wished he could take his bullets back.
That’s the paradox of hunting. As much as I love it, I’ll always struggle with the killing part. A lot of people who hunt for meat feel similarly. I always thank each animal and return the nonedible parts to the woods. Some hunters I know say a prayer over each deer. We all have our ways of dealing with the silence that comes after the shot.
Most people – me included – have access to delicious foods from all over the world at a wide variety of grocery stores. When I wonder if I should become a vegetarian, I tell myself that it wasn’t until the last hundred years that we humans largely gave up hunting and gathering. Hunting makes me better appreciate the relationship I have with my food. It doesn’t make taking an animal’s life any less heavy. It’s a privilege and gift I feel more deeply with the passing of each season.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer and pens this column, “Off the Beaten Path.” His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” Contact or follow him at www.facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.