“Watch his back trail…”

 

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Every season, when the cold of December descends and only the brave (or insane) venture into the woods, I usually have an interesting public land encounter of the two-legged variety. Here is such an encounter.

After spending a week in South Carolina and coming home empty-handed, I returned home to my favorite sliver of public land for solace. I hadn’t been there since the Spring turkey season and had no idea what to expect.

I arrived to find a camo-clad, twenty-something kid climbing out of a rusty pickup. He stood the prototypical Michigan blackpowder hunter; a muzzleloader of the percussion cap variety slung over his shoulder and a blaze orange knitted cap on his head. Never a fan of awkward silences, I decided to exchange subtleties.

“How you doing man?” I asked. “Cold enough for ya? I thought I’d be the only one crazy enough to be out here.”

“I just wanted to get out of the house and back into the woods.” He laughed. “Works had me pretty tied up.”

“Gotcha. Same for me, only I have three reasons. They’re all female and of varying ages. I needed a little peace.”

He turned his attention back to his gear. It was time to ditch the subtleties and figure out where this cowboy was fixing to go. I didn’t want to be anywhere near him when he touched off that smokepole.

“So…where are you thinking of going? I asked, slinging on my side-quiver. “I think it best to stay out of each other’s way so we both have a good hunt tonight.”

“Not sure.” He said. “Never been here. Figured I’d just go for a walk.”

He was a walker. Walkers were the worst. I had to reign this in and right quick – establish myself as the alpha male and what not. “Well…” I trailed off. “Since you’re new here and hunting with black powder, I would take that trail to the right. Hug that for about 400 yards and you’ll come to a big bowl. Use the wind and set yourself up on one of those ridges. You’ll definitely see deer there, but I would sit tight until dark.

“Really?” he asked, a bit skeptical.

“Yep.” I said, leaning on my longbow for emphasis. “I’d hunt there myself, but I can’t get in close enough to shoot what you’re going to see.” He looked off to the right, contemplating this favor from his neighbor. “That way, huh? Sounds good. You hunting in a treestand with that thing?”

“Nah. I’m going to be sitting on that ridge over there, which is another reason I’m sending you back that way. I don’t want to get shot.”

He laughed at that. We shook hands and exchanged names. His was Nathanael and I hoped he would honor our gentleman’s agreement – for both our sakes. I wished him luck and we set off in opposite directions.

My plan was to hunt a well-traveled draw near a bedding area I was quite fond of. I had killed a deer there before and stayed out of it until the late season to keep it undisturbed. There was a foot of snow on the ground with a flurry of lake effect arriving from the North West. I knew this wouldn’t be ideal and decided to hunt the slope on the opposite side.

I climbed on to a ledge and tucked into a grove of dogwood saplings for cover. I made a few adjustments and was happy with the spot. It overlooked a beautiful ridge with rows of tall, red pine to the East, and butted up to a nice hardwood flat to the North. A well-used draw marked the boundary. I was certain I’d see something well before it saw me and settled in to enjoy the evening.

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I had forgotten how much I missed hunting in December. The fresh snow and thick pine smell reminded me of Christmases in Northern Michigan when I was a boy. We would be headed that way soon and I couldn’t wait to share that feeling with my little girls. The thought kept me warm as the sun fell.

At quarter to dark, the sound of boots on fresh snow snapped me to attention. I knew who it was the moment I saw the orange hat. My new friend had either forgotten our agreement or lost his way. I could relate to the latter, but his attempting to find it put him dangerously close to the bedding area. And by “close” I mean “directly on top and through”.

I planned on giving him a whistle or a wave, as he worked his way down the draw in front of me. And I would have, had he seen me. Instead, he took off the hat, scratched his head, looked around, and then down at his feet. He noticed my footprints then and I assumed he would glance up the slope and spot me sitting in the snow like “Bear Claw” from Jeremiah Johnson, which I would’ve preferred because I really wanted to ask him if he “skinned Griz”. He decided to follow my trail back to his truck instead.

I figured the hunt was over but remembered something a buddy always told me when I’d complain about other hunters moving before dark. “Watch his back trail. He might’ve kicked something up.”

“Oh…what the hell?” I thought. “If they’re coming I might as well get ready for them.”

I knocked an arrow and waited. With a few minutes of daylight remaining, I glanced over my shoulder and happened to see three gray masses appear from the brush. “I’ll be damned.” I thought. “Deer. Right off his back trail.”

They still had snow on their backs and had definitely been disturbed, but it didn’t seem to bother them. They worked the ridge, cut my trail in, and headed toward me using my own boot prints. They were downwind, which was the really bizarre part. Were they dumb? Were they hungry? Unpressured? Had the thermals pushed my scent away from them and into the saddle below?

It didn’t matter. I was about to get a shot.

I turned around, found a lane, and waited. Two of the does stopped ten yards shy of my comfortable range. The lead doe kept coming and I was happy to have her. At 15 yards she stepped behind an oak and would be broadside when she crossed it. I couldn’t have planned it any better. I raised my bow arm, put tension on the string, and began to draw the moment I saw her front leg cross the trunk of the tree.

Then, the unthinkable happened. She dropped, whirled, and exploded up the ridge; leaving me dumbfounded with an arrow dangling from the riser. I had never seen a deer move that quickly or quietly. She floated over the drifts like an apparition – legs hardly touching the ground.

The others looked as shocked as I did. One followed her because it seemed like the thing to do. The other stayed put, scratching acorns out of the frozen leaves. There wouldn’t be another shot. By the time I’d made sense of the whole ordeal, it was too dark. I decided watching her eat would have to suffice. Whitetails had always fascinated me. I stayed until I couldn’t feel my face or hands, then slipped back toward the car. She was still there when I left. I could hear her scratching.

“There are worse ways to end a hunt.” I thought, forcing a frozen smile.

The gray truck had gone by the time I reached the lot. I unstrung my bow with numb fingers, loving every minute of it. I couldn’t help but feel indebted to my orange-capped friend and a little bit sorry he missed all the fun.

“Thanks Pilgrim.” I said, as I started the car.

Do you hunt public land? If so, please consider joining Backcountry Hunter’s and Anglers. They are doing an excellent job keeping public lands in public hands. Visit backcountryhunters.org for details. If you have a story of your own, please comment below.

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The Death of Dusty

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My longbow died in August.

Odd to think of a longbow as a living thing, but I always have. So much goes in to the making of a bow – passion, anxiety, sweat, tears, blood – it isn’t a stretch to consider the result a spiritual extension of its creator. When you spend enough time working on anything, you cannot keep a part of you from seeping into it. I’ve always said you buy the bowyer when you buy a bow. That is the reason.

Dusty began life as a conversation. I had known Tracey and David Balowski of St. Joe River Bows for several years and wanted one of their bows. It never seemed to work out financially, however. I had a several longbows and there was no logical reason to buy another. But my relationship with the Balowskis grew and my wanting with it, until a used model popped up on their website and forced my hand. It was older (a Dick Swager bow) sculpted from a piece of Osage that had aged a beautiful burnt orange. They were kind enough to send it to me for a “test drive” and I ended up buying it soon after. “Josey” became my turkey bow and I carried her into the woods my first seasons.

We had a series of adventures together. Still, something wasn’t quite right. Tracey didn’t make Josey and that bothered me. Dick had done a wonderful job, but we had never met. Tracey was now extended family and I wanted one of her bows. She felt the same. We talked about my bow for several months before I decided to order one. I’d bring it up whenever I saw her and shot her a message whenever I got the chance. I can be terribly indecisive and often used her to talk me into a concrete decision. This went on for several months. When I finally gave her the “go ahead” to put my longbow into production, she had no idea what she was building. I decided it best to give her my specs and let her handle the rest. She seemed happy with the arrangement. She was an artist, after all, and people seldom let her have that freedom.

The waiting was painful, but a lot of fun. Tracey loved a good surprise and seemed to enjoy keeping me in suspense. David, on the other hand, was a little easier to pry information out of and accidentally leaked Tracey and her Mom had found a gorgeous piece of tigered hickory to work with while shopping for bow wood. I had never heard of such a thing, but it sounded good to me. He said something about giving it a “gray wash” but I had no idea what that meant. I envisioned him pouring a bucket of paint all over the bow and wondered why they would do such a thing. Still, I reserved judgement and let them work out the details as promised.

My bow arrived in a tube five months later. It took me far too long to unwrap the damn thing. I was excited and shaking. I was sweating by the time I freed the bow from the tube and pulled it from its sock. It was worth it. The gray wash was really just a stain of sorts and it made the grain of the hickory pop in a way I had never seen before. This gave the bow a dusty finish. Tracey chose Osage as the accent wood, which was the perfect contrast to the hickory. It reminded me of a gold nugget hidden amidst the silt in some crotchety miner’s pan.

I bonded with Dusty the moment I strung him. He went everywhere with me. We were inseparable for two years, culminating with the taking of my very first buck in November. I had finally found my bow, after years of looking. I had a connected with Dusty, just as Tracey had connected when she built him.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever.

August brought the Great Lakes Longbow Invitational, and a whole mess of archery-related activity. As acting president of the Michigan Longbow Association, I spent most of my time thinking about the event and little time worrying about shooting or the whereabouts of my bow. This year was no different, but the weather made it worse. Charlton Park was exceptionally humid. I arrived on Wednesday to setup and was miserable by the event’s opening on Friday morning. You couldn’t move without sweating and didn’t stop once you started. It rained on Friday afternoon and that didn’t help the situation. And by “rain” I mean “biblical downpour”. Members and council members were scurrying around like ants taking care of whatever needed taking care of.

Dusty was at camp during the chaos. I’d strung him up that morning to shoot an event and left him there to dry on the rack afterwards. I had intended to put him in the camper and out of harm’s way, but was distracted by the collapse of our merchandise tent. Thankfully, my Dad made it back in time to move Dusty and the rest of our bows to the only dry place he could find – the backseat of his car. I thanked him for his quick thinking and figured I’d snag Dusty when the rain stopped. It never did and my bow stayed in the car until the following morning – strung.

The sun heated everything up in a hurry when it came out the following morning. The family wanted to get some shooting in and grabbed their bows early. I did not. God only knows what I was doing, but Dusty remained in the car. Several hours had passed by the time I remembered. A wave of heat hit me when I popped the door open and my stomach knotted. Dusty was really warm to the touch and developed an area of foggy glass near each fade. “Oh God no…that wasn’t there before.” I said aloud. “This can’t be right. This can’t be right at all. I’m such an idiot!”

I felt sick. I unstrung him immediately and decided to leave him in the shade until Tracey had returned from her booth that evening. The damage had already been done and I didn’t want to bug her until then. I ran into David first and told him what happened. He told me Tracey would be down shortly. I handed it over – head hung in shame. Suddenly, I was 17 again and just about to show my Dad the aftermath of side-swiping his Durango against a tree after homecoming.

Dave looked at the bow and back at me. “Yeah, that’s not good Nick. We’ll see what Tracey says after dinner. I’ll show it to her then.” It didn’t matter. I knew what was coming.

I checked back later to find them hunched over a picnic table. Neither one of them looked happy. As I drew closer, I could see that Dusty was the subject of the hunching. Had it not been for the comings and goings of camp I could’ve sworn I had arrived at a visitation. Tracey looked sad. “I don’t know Nick…” she paused, gently rolling Dusty over. “I don’t think I can let you shoot this bow.” My heart sank. “That bad, huh?” I muttered. “I’m afraid so. The glass is definitely compromised. When a bow gets hot enough, things start to fail. And this is in a really bad spot.”

“Can you fix it?” I plead. She paused again, picking Dusty up and running her thumbs over the fogged glass. “I will try. I might be able to work the glass up and get some glue in there. I’ve only done this one other time and it really is a risk.”

“So even if you can repair him, theres a chance he’ll break again?” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “There’s just no way of knowing. You could have him for years or he could fail you on a hunt. I don’t want that for you.” She paused again and looked at me. “I think I need to make you a new bow.” Under any other circumstance, this would’ve been music to my ears. Not this time. I felt as if I had just lost a friend and let Tracey down as well. “I can’t afford that right now.” I said. “I’m finally taking the girls to Disney in the Spring and that is where all of my money is going.”Dave clapped his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll figure all that out later.” He said. “Why don’t you stop by our booth tomorrow morning and try out the bows in stock?”

“Sure…” I said. “That sounds cool. It’s something I suppose.”

“Good!” He said. “Do you have a bow to shoot this season? I know you were pretty dialed in with Dusty. We’d be happy to lend you one.”

“You’d lend me a bow for the season?”

“Sure. Why not? It’ll get you thinking about what you want.”

“I wouldn’t be comfortable with that Dave. I’d end up damaging it and feel terrible. I have another bow I can shoot.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. Just think on it.” He said. “We’ll see you in the morning.”

I popped by bright and early to choose a bow and get a round in before the activities of the day started. There were plenty to choose from, mostly the shorter “Torrent” model longbows that were now all the rage, but those didn’t feel quite right to me. I shot a round with one of them – a really smooth shooter – but couldn’t adjust to the shorter riser. Still, I was feeling better. The excitement of a new bow started to replace the agony of losing Dusty. Plus, the sun had come out and the park was waking up. Wet dreary faces were once again flush with happiness and purpose. Everyone was having a good time, including my family who had been dealing with a leaky, sticky, camper since we’d arrived. I realized that the event was a success. The membership had pushed through the weather and had a fantastic time. My stress was gone by the time I met Tracey at the booth.

“Well how’d it go Nick?” Tracey smiled. “Did you like that Torrent?”

“It shot really well – super smooth – but I don’t think these shorter bows are for me. Dusty was a classic with a longer riser and he fit me perfectly.”

She smiled. “Well, you’re a tall guy, and that style might be what suits you best. Why move away from something that works?”

“Awesome. As much as I want one of these new Torrents, I think the Classic is for me. But let’s do a takedown this time. I want to travel more.”

“We can do that. Do you have any woods in mind?”

“Well, this weekend was a rollercoaster for me. It started out rough, but got a whole lot better in the end. I was staring at the fire last night…everyone was having fun and I had this idea about a phoenix. You know…the flaming bird?

“Uh huh.” She laughed. “I’m with you.”

“Yeah. A phoenix rising from the ashes. Something good rising from something bad. Plus, Dusty was kind of ashy in appearance.”

Tracey lit up. You could tell the wheels were turning. “I love that idea.” She said. I’ve got some special pieces laying around I’ve been wanting to use. Maybe we could make it grayish, like Dusty, and work the brighter, fiery parts into the riser.”

“Now you’re talking.” I beamed. “Tell me more…”

Tracey is currently working on my “Phoenix” and I cannot wait to see the result. I can’t wait to share the results with you. Stay tuned! If you have a bow story you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment. I may not always respond, but I read them all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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