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October/November 1999      Volume 4, Number 5
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The Last Buck


Poignant memories and life's surprises

The morning broke cold and still that December day in 1977. It was muzzleloader season for deer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula - the month following the frenzy of the general rifle season - a time when my father and I could hunt whitetails alone, without others encroaching upon us. It was just he and I, and herds of deer, when we all came together in their winter yards.

I was home for Christmas break in my freshman year of college. I had missed the general rifle season, with lectures to attend, exams to take, papers to write, and other obligations. It was the first time that I'd missed rifle season since I was of legal age to hunt deer.

I awoke early that morning (I didn't sleep all that well, anyway) when my father came to my room and announced, "It's daylight in the swamp!" That was one way he would awaken me on days when we were to hunt. My father always cooked breakfast for us - corned beef hash, eggs (over easy), toast, and strong, black coffee. It was a ritual.

We left our home in Manistique an hour or so before daylight and drove to old U.S. 2 north of Gulliver, where friends of ours were logging. It was an area that my father knew well, where he and his father had hunted for years, and now my father and I hunted it. It was an area where deer have yarded since the beginning of time.

Snow lay deep upon the land - it had snowed hard since Thanksgiving. But the logging roads were cleared, and the timber was decked, with slash piles here and there. I sat concealed by a slash pile, watching a skidder road in front of me, where the deer could move easily, and the edge of a thick cedar stand, where deer would bed, off to my right. My father sat some three- to four-hundred yards from me. It was bitterly cold that morning - the snow crunched and squeaked beneath our boots as we tried to sneak to our stands.

Even before daybreak, only minutes upon my stand, I felt the sting of the sub-freezing (possibly sub-zero) temperature. We wore wool then; that was before Gore-tex and other popular brands of warm hunting clothing. I wondered how long I could sit still.

Daybreak brought the chatter of squirrels, the songs of chickadees, and the movement of deer. Everywhere! It's amazing how warm I became once deer began to move around me. I counted some sixty does, but no bucks. I sat patiently for hours, motionless, waiting for a buck to appear. A doe then snorted, and they all bounded into the cedars. Then more snorts from within the cedars; then silence. Moments later, my father whistled, so, shaking off the cold and moving quite stiffly, I walked to where he stood. He too had seen many does that morning, but no bucks. It was nearly noon, so we decided to drive over to Hickey's Tavern for lunch.

At Hickey's, we ate hamburgers, drank coffee, and planned our strategy for the evening hunt. Our strategy was much like that for the morning hunt: we would sit until dark, and, with luck, get a shot at a buck. There was nothing exceptional about the way we hunted. We hunted as we were taught to hunt, as our ancestors had hunted, and we were successful at it. We filled the larder every season.

So once again, by 2:00 p.m., we were sitting in our stands awaiting dusk, the time when deer began to move again. But, this time, I saw no deer. Maybe I shivered too loudly.

Just moments before dusk, nearing the moment when for all practical purposes the day's hunt is over, I heard the familiar "POP-phooosh" of my father's .45 caliber muzzleloader. I grinned and joked to myself, "Well, I guess I'll be dragging out another one of the ol' man's bucks." When my father shot, we could count on winter meat. He was a remarkable shot. But he also believed that a well placed shot, the most certain and immediate kill possible, was what mattered most in hunting. I knew that he would take only an ethical, harvesting shot. I waited for ten or fifteen minutes and slowly walked to where he sat, but found him sneaking toward the stand of cedars. I whistled. He looked at me and grinned.

"Well, where is he?" I whispered, waiting for the story of the shot.

"I watched the buck for about half an hour. He was acting like a buck, but I couldn't see horns. But then he ducked under some brush, and I saw the rack. I stuck the sights behind his front shoulders and squeezed off. It felt like a good shot."

"Let's go find him."

So my father and I, with only one flashlight that worked, walked to where the buck had stood before the shot, about forty yards from his stand, and sure enough, there the in snow beside a set of tracks was hair. A few yards farther, we found some drops of blood. We followed the tracks, finding blood here and there for about fifty yards, and found the buck. It was a perfect lung-shot. The buck was an eight-pointer (eastern count). It wasn't trophy size, but a dandy in its own right. Its rack was symmetrical - a basket rack, we called it.

I held the flashlight for my father while he tagged and field dressed the buck. As luck would have it, the flashlight faded just as my father finished, and we decided to leave the deer there overnight. We covered the buck with brush and snow, tied a handkerchief to a limb beside it, stumbled our way out of the cedar stand, and made our way to where the truck was parked. We dragged the buck out the next morning.

There were no mounts kept in our house; my mother wouldn't hear of it, and that was her domain. So we hung the racks of the bucks in our garage. Some were trophy size; all were trophies.

In late September of the following year, my mother telephoned me at college to call me home. My father had passed away.

Later that year, I withdrew from college, joined the Army, and served three years in Europe. After my tour of duty, I returned to my home in Manistique. I thought about the rack. I had plans to mount it as a tribute to my father's last buck; I searched for it, but couldn't find it. No one knew what had become of it.

All of life's material possessions can be lost in some way, and memories are all that remain. I think of that hunt from time to time; among many fine memories it's one that I cherish most.


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