An hour before the first light of day we put the guns in the truck and set out from Lynchburg, Virginia, for Amherst County. We drove into the Blue Ridge Mountains on a cold November morning. Doug, the expert deer hunter, and I, the rookie, silently sipped our coffee as the truck bounded up the mountainside. We met a third mate, Dave, at a locked gate and proceeded up to the high slopes.
This is still the only time I have been deer hunting. For many years, I had known hunters who had developed deep connections to the land in their pursuits. As someone who had learned to love the woods a different way, I had long been curious about the sportsman’s perspective of the landscape.
Our talk was efficient and subdued — mostly about tactics for the day. Light bending through the atmosphere around the Earth let us see form but not color. The temperature hung just above freezing. If I were dressing to chop wood, shirtsleeves would suffice on such a day. But for sitting motionless on a metal bench, I pulled insulated coveralls over layers of denim and flannel.
Doug and I set off for a two-man tree stand on a southeast facing slope, while Dave climbed one on the north side of a small ridge that looked down into a hollow. Before we took our position, we surveyed the downslope. I have spent a lot of time in forests, and oak forests especially. I know what they look like and the sound that dry November leaves make. I know the feel of a cold autumn wind and the scents it carries. Doug’s reading of the landscape this morning used an entirely different expertise. He knew how to spot deer paths in bare woods. He checked them for fresh scat. He looked for disturbances in the leaf litter where deer might have bedded recently. He found fresh scrapings on saplings from bucks in rut. All of this was communicated with hand gestures and short whispered phrases.
Our double tree stand, cozy for two large men, was a hundred yards upslope. We mounted it before the first direct sunbeam pierced through the leafless November canopy. The pitch of the slope and the foothills below prevented our seeing the valley proper, but we could see the eastern sky above.
The objective while hunting deer is to fade unnoticed into the mountain. The night before we washed our clothes and showered with soap designed to slough off our human scent. Now, for the sake of the hunt, we did not move, save for slow short gestures. If a sound caught our attention, a half inch push with an elbow would nudge the other in the ribs, and a nose point would indicate direction. It was cold being still, but having a mate on one side gave some warmth and break from the breeze. I’ve always said I don’t fish because I’m not patient enough. Yet I had no trouble sitting in a tree listening, watching, feeling the air. Our eyes moved to survey the line that our reconnaissance had told us the deer would follow. Our ears twitched at the least ruffle in the leaves. But every time, it was just the sound busy grey squirrels make moving acorns. While we tried to become part of the landscape, we also tuned all of our senses to it.
Midmorning the rising sun felt good on our faces. I admired the sky, bright blue with fast-moving clouds. As I watched a cloud blow to the northwest I expected the sky to clear but it never did. I was puzzled. So instead of looking at the object I tried gazing at the void. I studied the spot where I expected to see sky appear from behind the drifting cloud. Instead I saw wisps forming, blowing and billowing, coalescing into opaque white. It was like watching a cotton candy machine: you see nothing, then gossamer drifts materialize, swirl together, and take shape. A moist easterly wind was blowing across Virginia until the Blue Ridge Mountains pushed it high, cooling the air and condensing the water vapor right there. It came in pulses. It was as if I could see the wind itself. Eddies of white swirled up from thin air forming a long drift of dancing clouds. Watching the birth of this cloud from a tree stand transfixed me. I had never been still enough to watch clouds form.
By noon we had nothing to report in the megafauna category so we descended and regrouped for lunch. Dave, it turned out, had had no more luck than we. There were other hunters lower on the mountain, but we had heard only a single gunshot all morning. We hungrily consumed lunch on the tailgate while the experienced hunters talked about tree stand placements and the secret habits of deer.
After lunch we decided to split up and try different prospects. I went to Dave’s morning lookout down an old logging road, and the others found their own spots. We were to reconvene in three hours. It turns out, as much as I like being in the woods with a friend, I like hanging out there by myself just as well, if not more. It helps that the Blue Ridge Province is my home landscape. One acre of these woods anywhere up and down its spine from Georgia to Pennsylvania provides me with endless enchantment.
I was marveling at the beauty of the forest when I heard a disturbance to my left. This was not the busy pouncing of a squirrel — something large was pushing through the leaf litter. Looking down the long slope to a small stream, I saw a doe coming in view. She was nonchalant, as though it didn’t matter that the woods were full of men with guns. A few minutes later she passed a hundred yards directly below me. Then she moved offstage to the right.
Soon I heard an even bolder sound coming along the same path. The solidness of the stride was unmistakable. A large whitetail buck, full rack, moved down the trail on the scent of the doe. His muscles rippled as he plowed through the dry leaves. Hunting before the first snow gives yet another advantage to humans with guns because it is impossible, even for forest animals, to move silently through fallen leaves. That said, his coloring was nearly perfect camouflage with the brown bark of the oak trees.
A lusty buck in rut follows exactly the path laid down by the doe leading him. He must have sensed me uphill because he stopped behind a tree and peered up. I looked back into his eyes. I had left the gun in the truck for several reasons but mostly because there is no certainty if a gun in my hands would serve mortality to the hunted or the hunter. I did have an old camera phone, which was good enough for my grainy prize. One looked at one for a while, and then the buck continued on his deliberate objective. I spent the rest of afternoon melding into the forest, inert but with senses alert. Spending time alone in the woods with nature, bathing in the forest air, definitely has its virtues.
At the appointed time I rejoined my party and found they had had no sightings. I already knew they were empty-handed because there had been no shots all afternoon. I told them of my visitors, partly to brag and partly to arouse envy. How quickly, even in a rookie’s mind, hunting becomes sport, and sport becomes competition, although I was privately rooting for the deer. Incredulous, they were certain I’d exaggerated the details until I showed them the grainy photographs. For me, it had been a perfect day in a Blue Ridge landscape.
Dave went back the next day and killed the buck. It’s what hunters do. Absent wolves and mountain lions, which we have removed from the landscape, humans have the responsibility of keeping the deer population in check. The difference is we target the biggest, strongest creatures instead of culling the weakest. Apparently, based on the rating system devised for these events, this was a championship stag. I just hoped he’d caught up to his doe first.