4:45 a.m. last Saturday.
I rolled out of bed to turn off the alarm and got dressed in the dark. Long underwear, jeans, sweatshirt, heavy socks. With a half-brewed pot of coffee nearby, grumbling its way to being fully-brewed, I sat at the kitchen counter and rubbed my face and eyes with my hands listening to the wind outside. Rain in the forecast. Gusts from 16 to 25 mph out of the southwest. It was going to be a bitch sitting in the tree-stand this morning. I did one last inventory of my gear, filled my thermos and shut the lights off.
I’ve only become comfortable in the last few years walking in to my stand in the dark. I used to focus so much on every footstep, every shadow, every sound that I’d find myself frozen at times…caught in a stare, worrying about spooking an animal that really wasn’t there.
Now I find it almost meditative. Beginning my walk in complete darkness, welcoming the awareness of the field beneath my boots, the smell of fall on the wind, the way my eyes adjust and knit together the silhouettes of trees against the skyline. My sense of direction operates unconsciously, and I find my stand most times without having disturbed the natural order that slumbers around me. The weather the way it is this morning though, I could’ve been dropped off at my tree by a helicopter and gone un-noticed. By 6:15 a.m. shooting light was still a good half-hour/forty minutes away. The rain began to pick-up.
Using my jacket to block the wind, I lit my pipe, then poured some coffee into the cap of my thermos. By 7:00, weak daylight filled-in the bramble thickets, sumac, black walnut and waist-high grass that cover the three acres in front of me. The pop of each rain-drop was loud with my hood up. My tree swayed with each gust. I decided to get down and find a worthwhile ground-blind.
It’s interesting. I enjoy long, foul-weather days, as long as I’m out in it to hunt or fish. There’s clout and respect that come with being able to rise above the elements and normal measure of patience and take a nice buck or land a hard-fought fish. Earning the right to tell that story takes a level of due diligence that fair-weather sportsmen simply can’t claim. By the same token, I could see no deer or catch no fish and still have a worthwhile story for having spent so many hours in crappy weather, voluntarily.
I took my time moving to a tangle of a couple old downed trees. Comfortable with visibility and cover, the wind proved frustrating though and I figured my morning’s story would fall into the category of having seen nothing, but yea, I was out in that crappy weather. I looked up and froze.
A raccoon had just crawled out of a thick tangle of underbrush not five paces from where I stood. A fair estimate would put him at 40 pounds, and my first thought was are raccoon in season? I decided to just watch him as he stood still, nose up, testing the wind for smells that would suggest he do an about-face. He began rambling slowly over the wheat grass toward me. Right toward me. I did an inventory of how many layers I had on my legs…heavy socks, long underwear, jeans, camouflaged hunting pants, boots. I’d definitely be able to dispatch him before he got through all that. I held still.
He walked up to my feet. I looked straight down at him. He sniffed at both of my boots, turned and rambled back into the underbrush he had crawled out of. No hurry. No fear. I was just another odd smelling downed tree in the universe of his daily trek to wherever. I gave the deer another thirty minutes to show themselves, but my heart was full enough with such a cool encounter that I didn’t care if I didn’t see anything else all morning, or if the weather was crappy.
I had a great story.