Landscapes of a Western Mind: End of Season + Lessons Learned Afield

This post contains photographs of shooting, cleaning and butchering deer.

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If you've ever had the chance to watch the wind move over the grasslands, like waves of water, you've witnessed the depth and complexity of that land.  

If you've ever seen the sunrise over the mountains, casting pastel light over the emptiness of the prairie you're one of the lucky ones.

Experiencing the transition from the darkness of the early morning to the colorful soft sunrise to the bright warm day ahead makes getting up at 4:00 am for a last chance deer hunt worth it.

4 AM never comes easy. No matter how excited you are for the day ahead, it's not a time that our bodies or minds are used to. Most of the time you experience 4 AM, you are asleep. Getting up that early, whether for hunting deer, fishing for Kings or cooking breakfast for a campful of hunters is an undertaking.

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Once we were out of bed, dressed in our layers of hunter orange and loading the Subaru with rifles, tarps, and snacks, we were hopeful that the last day of the season would be successful for my younger brother David and I. A few hours of driving found the three of us, Jamie, David and I, on a ranch outside of Livingston. We met up with the ranch manager, Doug, and parked our Outback between the flatbed trucks and tractors of the ranch's headquarters. We went through introductions and an overview of the day. Guns loaded, we started walking through the gate into the wide open landscape ahead of us. We spotted our first few deer early on, a few whitetail does on the other side of the river. We decided to pass on them since it was so early into the hunt. A few minutes later we came upon more, seemingly trying to blend into the herd of horses that were occupying the area. A few deer wandered a safe distance from the horses and David posted up to take a shot.

Neither David or I have shot our rifles in years. We were mostly sure they would be sighted in still and overall confidence that they would work properly. David's first shot was a miss but we chalked it up to nerves, being tired and out of practice. We checked the area to see any signs of blood, sign that we need to pursue this animal and stay within the realm of ethical hunting. There was no sign that the animal was hit, and walked towards the grove of trees to see if it had made its way down there. We spooked the deer saw her running up the side of the hill. We reconvened and decided to take David's gun to the range for a quick tune-up, just to be safe.

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Walking through the empty corrals and arenas we saw a doe on the hill right behind the barn. She was on the horizon, a dangerous place to shoot an animal since you do not know what is behind it. It was my turn. I steadied myself against the fence and waited for her to come down. A couple minutes of waiting, she ventured down the hill, presenting a perfect shot. I lined up the shot in the crosshairs, prayed that my sights were still accurate and my body was steady, reminded myself not to get too close to scope, and squeezed the trigger.

Shooting a deer (or I am sure any larger animal that you hunt with a bow or rifle), time moves slowly. Unlike bird hunting, which is a quick reactionary shot, shooting a deer is premeditated. You wait for the clear shot, brace yourself, take a deep breath, carefully aim and shoot. There is an incredibly brief moment between pulling the trigger, the bullet firing and lowering the rifle where time seems to slow down. Suddenly it is just you and the deer. The sound of the shot is still echoing, your ears still ringing, and you look through your crosshairs, where a deer once stood to see it on the ground. That fleeting, maybe five second long moment is the most intense moment of any hunt. It is the moment the rest of the world falls away. You can't be thinking about anything else, you are singularly focused on that moment in time. The moment of truth, in a sense. It is the moment you find out if you were successful or not.

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I pulled away from the scope and did not see the deer, we walked around the barn and there she was, laying on the side of the hill. We drove in the gator up to get her and saw another doe standing in the field. I handed David my rifle, knowing it was sighted in and more powerful than his and would get the job done. David found a good place to brace to go after this doe and after going through motions of preparing for the shot, took it. A clean shot and we had two filled tags. High fives all around, Jamie and Doug went down to grab the tractor to bring the deer down to clean. David and I went to our deer to cut our tags and drag them up the hills to the road.

I was surprised to feel how easy it was for me to drag and pick up my deer. I have been working out and doing competitive powerlifting, but haven't really felt strong outside of the gym. I was happy to feel how easily I was able to drag that deer uphill and then lift it into the bucket of the tractor. It was nice to feel strong.  

We took the deer out to clean them, something we haven't done again in a while. Under the supervision and instruction of Doug, we carefully and efficiently cleaned our animals. Doug offered some expert tips and tricks to help us along the way. David and I couldn't be convinced to take a bite out of the liver, but Jamie did.

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We took the deer back to rinse them out and let them dry before we packed them into the Subaru. We joined Doug and his wife, Karen, for a delicious brunch of homemade biscuits, elk gravy, and eggs. After brunch, we headed to the range to shoot David's gun and see if we could get it sighted in better. The range was situated in the middle of a field, up against some hills overlooking the property. David was dead on every shot, hence why we ended up blaming the first missed shot on a lack of sleep and nerves. The deer were dry and fit them into the back of the Subaru to be taken to the game processor. We drove out their place, only to find that they were overwhelmed with game and couldn't take it until the end of the week. It was nearly 65 degrees outside and we didn't have anywhere we could hang them and keep them cool. We called every processor in Livingston and Bozeman only to get the same answer, they were too busy to take on more animals right now.

Luckily for us, we have friends like John who is a butcher and was more than happy to have us bring the deer to his house and help us skin and butcher them. A few hours later, we had a cooler full of meat for roasts, steaks, and burger. We spent the time learning about butchering and Kung-Fu and listening to old school rap.  

This year I wanted to hunt for a few reasons, one was to simply put food on my table, another was to be more mindful about where my food comes from, another was to get outside and another was to embrace the lifestyle.

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What we put into our bodies is vitally important to how we and the environment function. If I am given the choice and opportunity to harvest your own food, you not only are monitoring what goes into your body and being more mindful about what you eat, you are also choosing a more environmentally friendly path for consumption. Overall, being mindful of my choices, not just in food, has been a focus of mine. It is important to recognize why we are choosing what we do and to see how it might negatively or positively impact our lives. When you can open your refrigerator and know that you engaged in a fair hunt, know exactly where that deer came from and what it’s been eating and know that you are contributing to conservation efforts, it makes the meat taste all that better.

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Hunting has been apart of my life since I can remember. I think I got my first hunting license when I was around 10. I had been out countless times before that, duck hunting on the shores of Lake Erie, dove hunting in the soybean fields of northwestern Ohio and Pheasant hunting at the game preserve. It’s something that was ingrained in me from an early age. It was also something I fell away from for a few years as life underwent huge changes. I tried out living without it, trying to pursue a more arts and fashion based lifestyle, but that lifestyle isn’t for me. I could never live in a big city and give up the outdoors. I think that was my rebellious phase, trying not to be known as a hunter, fisherman or outdoorsman. I think I wanted my identity to lie somewhere else, but I never could shake that part of me. As I have gotten old and more confident and comfortable with myself, I have circled back to that lifestyle. I have learned that I can combine my art and the outdoors, I didn’t have to choose. I am excited and comforted knowing that moving forward, I am equipped with the confidence, strength, knowledge, and passion to embrace who I am and my background. I am excited to see what the future holds and always humbled and honored to be able to explore and experience the world.