Clumsy Predators

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As seen in the Winter 2019 edition of STICKTALK, the official publication of the Michigan Longbow Association. You can expect content like this (and more) quarterly for a mere $20 a year. Check out the MLA here.

It began on a dreary afternoon that was nowhere near inspiring or even remotely special. In fact, it was rainy and much too warm for the likes of October. The latter I could tolerate. The former is what kept me out of the woods that morning. I’d weathered the rain before. It wasn’t the discomfort that kept me in bed. Rather, it was something my old friend Hawley would always say that stayed me from the woods.

“Hunting in the rain ain’t no damn good. If matted fletching and poor arrow flight don’t get you, the lack of blood will. You won’t find a drop of blood once that rain begins to fall.”

I knew he was right. But advice – no matter how accurate – isn’t always potent enough to slow the beating of a hunter’s heart. Precipitation might have kept my bow on the rack that morning but nothing short of a hurricane would do so twice. I was headed out the door and into the woods when our cuckoo clock chimed 3 p.m.

My footsteps were quiet as a result of the morning soak but my ears rang from the water spilling from the still-green oaks and maples. I would need to move slowly, rely on my eyes, and shift very little once settled. The land moved here. It climbed, crawled, snaked, and swirled – everything but lay flat. I loved all of it but favored one chunk of earth (or lack thereof) in particular: “The Brown Bowl”.

The bowl was a canyon with steep, wooded slopes on all sides, a creek up the center, and a muddy slough to the South. A series of sister ridges rippled out beyond its edges – the aftershock of some ancient geologic event. The shifting wind, ample browse, and natural funnels made this piece a fantastic choice for anything furry and 4-legged. It had been a year since I hunted this property and the idea of crossing paths with a wayward whitetail washed away the morning’s disappointment. I shouldered my bow, checked the wind, and set a course for success on the eastern edge.

Rubber boots seemed the obvious choice for the hike in. The forests’ sloppy surface squished and belched beneath my feet and licked at my calves wherever water collected. I giggled at the sound, knowing full well my six-year-old would do the same had she been there to witness.

“You tooted, Daddy.” She would squeal. “You smell like stinky farts.” And there would be no defending myself, as there was always plenty of evidence to back up the accusation. Mackenzie enjoyed the squishy things and didn’t mind getting her hands and feet dirty. Her favorite hobby was making slime from baking soda, glue, saline, and food coloring, in fact. The basement was littered with the remnants of the activity, which drove me crazy more often than not, but was worth the joy of observing her creativity. Her sister Aubrey shared her passion for the gooey. She loved the water and embraced it at the expense of material things such as boots and snow pants. She never met a puddle she didn’t like to stomp in.

I smiled. The thought of my children followed me everywhere – even those places I sought to exclude them from – but they were never totally absent. They added to the experience, in fact. Trudging through mud, sloshing through puddles, and destroying perfectly good trouser bottoms were all part of the adventure. That was what hunting was — after all — an adventure, which were usually silly things. They began in the thrill-seeking, logic-bypassing portion of your brain, are encouraged by the heart, and culminate with little more than the desire to have another. Everything was an adventure to children below the age of ten. Hunting wasn’t any different for adults below the age of 100.

It was the notion of adventure that carried me to the creek, which was usually a few inches deep and narrow enough to jump across with solid footing on either side. I discovered the ongoing rain had made it anything but. It had increased a foot in all directions with loose slop on either side. Even with the rubber boots, crossing it the traditional way would make for an unpleasant evening sit. I wasn’t willing to risk it and looked up and down the bank in search of a means to cross and remain dry while doing so. A solution presented itself within the bowels of a recently felled maple, spanning bank-to-bank.

“Why that’ll do just fine.” I thought. “It appears my luck is changing for the better.” I would soon be reminded of karma’s delicate balance. That maple was as slick as a freshly caught brown trout and crossing it didn’t go as smooth as anticipated. My rubber boots had succeeded in keeping my feet dry and scent contained but failed miserably where traction was concerned. Had you witnessed the beginning of my ascent, you wouldn’t have noted anything out of the ordinary. I set out across the log creeping cautiously – toe-to-heel – as if stalking a Pope and Young caliber animal. I learned to trust my toes afield. They kept me quiet and upright no matter the obstacle and I am certain the results would’ve been similar had I stuck with the plan. I did not. I chose hubris over caution, straightened up, and strutted the remaining feet to the opposite bank. It was there, where log met earth, Mother Nature would remind me how insignificant I was.

The log had been there for some time and the bark around the end had been worn away to the bare flesh beneath, which had been marinating in the rain for several days. Add a little bit of mud and carelessness and you’ve got a recipe for the greatest tumble this particular stretch of woods had ever seen. It happened fast. My head went back, my legs shot skyward, and my arms flapped helplessly in a circular motion. Several preservation-inspired thoughts shot through my mind mid-plummet: “Save your head. Save your shoulder. Save your bow.” They were not in any particular order, so I tried to do all three at the same time. I dropped my shoulder, rotated to my left, stuck my bow out to brace my fall, then pulled it back to keep from damaging it.

The results were mixed. My forearm and hip took the brunt of the impact, causing my entire left side to go numb with pain. My bow quiver popped off, cartwheeled into the bank, and rattled to a halt in the mud. My lungs emptied. My eyes filled with stars. Never, in all of my years playing contact sports, had I taken a hit like that. I tossed my bow to the bank, rolled to the arm I could still feel, pulled myself to my feet, and immediately checked to see if anyone had seen the mishap. My entire existence was on fire – my body from the pain, my mind from the embarrassment. I gathered my gear, hobbled to a large oak, and sat against it to re-strap my quiver and get my head back into the hunt. And I might have stayed there had it not been for the repressed voices of over a dozen football coaches screaming at me in unison.

“You’re fine Viau! Get up! Nothing is broken! Rub some mud on it! Walk it off! You’ll be fine! You’re tough! You ain’t hurt! The game ain’t over! Get up! Get back out there!”

And I did. I stood up, grabbed my gear, and slipped down the trail towards the Bowl. Whether it was the manifested collective of barking coaches or my unwillingness to revisit the bridge mattered very little. I was there to hunt and I was going to hunt – even if it killed me.

The walk was uphill and seemed longer than usual from that point. I looked forward to it most hunts. The rolling, hardwood ridges and brush-covered flats had begun Autumn’s transformation and the air always had a potpourri smell to it. Pain aside, I loved hiking these areas. There was something about elevation that made the experience more exciting. Hunting terrain like this was a game of give and take with little in your favor. You needed to understand how the wind affected your scent and be ready to adapt when it changed. You needed to sit extra still when it was time to sit, move extra slow when it was time to move, and avoid wet logs at all costs. These were things I learned the hard way – the latter being my most recent entry – with very little to show for it save for a handful of near successes, a numb arm, and a sore hip. But I regretted none of it. Nor would I ever stop. If I took my lumps on one ridge, I’d climb the next. There was always another ridge and adventure waiting on the other side.

This hunt would be no different. The lumps had been taken and the next ridge was ahead. An eerie feeling washed over me as I climbed it. The steady breeze gave way to sporadic gusts with periods of stillness sprinkled between. Water dripped from the canopy above and steadily pattered the ground below. I moved in silence. I could hear everything. And could see everything once I got to the top of the ridge. That is where I saw the feathers – small pile at the base of a maple. An unlucky crow had met its end by the claw and fang of a predator far more efficient than I. I couldn’t help but envy the beast. What stealth it must have required to get that close. What skill to kill so quickly – so efficiently.

“I bet you never make a mistake.” I thought, examining one of the feathers. “I bet you’ve never missed an opportunity.”

Suddenly a loud “CRACK” erupted from a hollow to my right. The rustling of leaves came after, followed by the un-mistakable sound of claws on bark. I crawled to the edge and peered over, hoping to catch a glimpse of the perpetrator. What I saw was the epitome of woodland comedy. There, in on the trunk of a large maple, was a bobcat, clinging to the trunk by one paw. He flailed there, searching frantically for a foothold but, finding none, plummeted to the earth, in a twisted ball of furry fury. He stuck the stereotypical feline landing, but slipped on a wet log, dragging his rear-end behind him. He stopped, looked around, shook the water from the tufts behind his hind legs and walked off into the woods, as if nothing happened. It was sad to see bad luck befall such an efficient killing machine. I felt bad for him but a whole lot better about myself.

I rolled to my back and laughed, right there in the wet leaves. I had witnessed some hilarious activity in the woods, usually by squirrels or chipmunks, but never from a predator on a stalk. It was a very special moment. Something I would probably never see again.

“What a pair we make.” I chuckled. “A couple of clumsy predators making the best of bad situations.”

I climbed to my feet, bushed myself off, and was about to continue on when I noticed the feathers out the corner of my eye.

“Maybe there is hope for me yet.” I chuckled.

I plucked one of the primaries, stuffed it in my pullover, and headed up the ridge, in search of redemption.

If you enjoyed this please consider purchasing a signed copy of my book. You can do that here. It is also available on Amazon in both Kindle and print. I will also be at the Traditional Bowhunters Expo in Kalamazoo this weekend. You can find me at the St. Joe River Bows booth. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Finer Things

Driving through the mountains.

(As published in STICKTALK magazine, April 2018)

The road was wet and the fog had rolled in by the time we entered the Smokey Mountains. I was at the wheel with narrowed eyes, navigating the weather. To my left and needing little introduction was the Ol’ Archer, watching the landscape switch from rock face to rolling hills. We were headed Southeast by mutual friend invitation and would be testing our prowess on feral hogs in a matter of hours.

We’d hit the road the night before, and after an overnight stop somewhere in Kentucky, were back at it bright and early. The conversation was as fluid as the windshield rain despite the early morning hours. It was my turn to drive. My compatriot had started the morning but required sustenance a couple hours in.

“I find it best to travel in short spurts.” He mused, staring out the window. “Makes the time go faster and the driver more aware.”

I didn’t disagree. The old man was a bit of an Eeyore sans his soda and snacks and I knew we’d make better time with me behind the wheel. Not that he approved of my speeding. He did not and took no issue expressing his opinion on the matter — though not directly. My father would have told me to “slow my ass down”. The archer wasn’t so bold or obvious.

“Ya know…those out of state cops will take your money.”

While I wish I could credit the old man with the phrase, it wouldn’t have done the author the justice he deserved. Andrew, our dear friend and founder of the feast, had coined the phrase earlier that morning whilst calling to check on our progress.

“Slow down boys.” He said. “Those southern cops love Yankee money. They’ll be happy to take it from ya.” For the sake of comedy, the archer paraphrased and claimed it as his own through Tennessee.

“You see that cop up there?” He’d ask.

“Sure do.” I’d reply with a roll of the eyes.

“You know what he’ll do, don’t ya?”

“Take my money?”

“You know he will!” He’d howl. “You better believe he will.”

It was a running gag that spanned the remainder of the state and into North Carolina. When he wasn’t trying his hand at comedy he passed the time drinking soda, eating trail mix, and telling me about the way things used to be when the longbow, as we knew it, was still somewhat new. I enjoyed these stories the most. They never flowed in a straight line. They twisted, turned, arched and climbed like the southern road beneath the wheels of my Caravan. It didn’t take much to send him off course and on tangent — a single question would usually do the trick, especially if longbow related.

The Archer appreciated hand-crafted archery equipment. He had it stuffed in every nook, cranny, crevice, and corner of the old farmhouse he frequented between the various shoots and gatherings of the year. There were some wonderful pieces in this collection and I loved hearing how he came about them. But the old man, it seems, wasn’t satisfied with the accumulation. He always wanted more. In fact, he carried cash on him in case he ever ran across something he fancied at a price he could haggle over. (I cannot stress the latter part of this statement enough.) He was frugal to say the least, which made this particular conversation so interesting.

“Just once I’d like to own something really nice.” He said.

I couldn’t help but scoff at the statement. “You own an entire bedroom full of beautiful sticks of all varieties. You have one-of-a-kind knives in cases, leather quivers hanging from anything with a hook, and buckets of arrows. You know what some would call that? An affliction.”

He chuckled and shot me a “you’ve got a lot to learn” grin. “You might be right.” He said. “I have a lot of stuff. Some of it is good. Some of it might even be great. It might get the job done, but I wouldn’t consider any of it fine.”

“What do you mean…fine?” I asked.

He fished a couple sodas out of the cooler at his side, handed me one, cracked the other, and wetted his throat in preparation for the explanation. I could tell, by the length of the drink, it was fixing to last us awhile and decided to follow suit.

“There comes a time in an old man’s life when he begins to crave the things he wanted when he was a younger man but could never justify buying for himself. Could be a longbow, rifle, guitar, boat, motorcycle, exotic hunting trip…it doesn’t matter. We all want something at some point and that something doesn’t go away as time progresses. We just get older.”

He took another long drag of his soda, swished the remainder around in the bottom of the can, and stared long and hard at the dreary, wet highway in front of him. “I’ve been putting stuff off most of my life.” He said, finishing off the can. “There ain’t much left now.”

The Archer always spoke of his demise, as if it were a package arriving in the mail. I got used to it but could never figure out if he was depressed or just being funny. I always assumed it was the latter, if only to make the situation less awkward. It seemed different this time — too “matter of fact” for my liking and there seemed to be heaviness behind the words that wasn’t there before.

“So what sort of things are you looking for?” I asked, attempting to change the subject and lighten the mood. “You just bought that brand new (to you) Black Widow and you never shoot the damn thing.”

“Because it’s a touch heavier than I’m used to!” He shot back. “I’ll adjust. It’s too nice a bow to leave on the rack, collecting dust.”

“Well, if it ain’t a bow, what is it you’re so smitten over?”

He pulled a package of trail mix out of the cooler and teethed it open. Half of it was gone before he replied and he seemed to be in better spirits.

“I’ve always wanted an engraved, leather hip quiver with a matching belt. And I mean a real nice one with some kind of extravagant hunting seen on it — a buck or something of the like.”

Out of all the items I’d imagined he would name, this would be the last on a lengthy list. He made his own quivers and had for years. Each were simple, yet charming in their own way. I asked him to make me one several times, in fact. He always had the same response.

“C’mon over and we’ll build it together.” He’d say. I always assumed it meant he didn’t want to do it himself. He knew full-well I lived several hours away (and not round trip). Still, the fact he wanted me to build my own made his wanting to buy something someone else made his statement a touch ironic. But the Archer was a lot of things and quirky was one of them.

“Well, does it matter who the maker is?” I asked. “I know a guy that builds a nice quiv…”

“Yes!” He interrupted. “It does indeed. I want a guy by the name of Art Vincent to build me one. Cedar Ridge Leatherworks. He builds some of the finest quivers you’ll ever see.”

Now I knew he wasn’t joking. The leather goods of mention were a work of art. And not the kind of “functional art” someone might label their favorite blue jeans or wool shirt. Art’s were the kind you could hang on the mantle and stare at or brag about when not in use. You didn’t see them on the ranges often. When you did see one, it usually hung from the hip of an old timer who had put his bow through the proper paces time-and-again and lived to be happy with the results. A quiver by this particular maker was a right-of-passage purchase and priced accordingly.

“So why haven’t you bought one, yet?” I goaded.

“Oh, I was hoping my wonderful wife would buy me one for my birthday or some other special occasion.”

“Well, does she know you want one?”

“No. Well…she might suspect. I’ve mentioned wanting one a few times, but I’ve mentioned wanting a lot of things a few times.”

“Those things are fairly personalized, aren’t they? Does she know what you want? I mean, you wanted the buck, what if she gets you one with a turkey on it instead?”

“She wouldn’t do such a foolish thing.” He laughed. “That woman knows me. I ain’t ever shot know turkey with no longbow.”

“Well, then how in the heck is she supposed to know what to get you if she doesn’t know what you want?”

“She’ll figure it out, I suspect. Always does, that wife of mine. Always does.”

I couldn’t figure out why he had danced around the purchase of something he wanted so badly. At least, not at first. He could have bought that quiver himself. He had the money and he knew what he wanted. Then, somewhere near the South Carolina border, it hit me — wanting had little to do with it. The old man wanted it to be a gift. Buying it for himself felt incorrect in his odd way of thinking. It seemed self-serving, or even gaudy to buy such a thing. A gift, however, had meaning. A gift was earned.

What I suspected the old man didn’t know, was that he had already earned it, in every way possible. His quiver was bought and paid for with the lifetime of integrity, commitment, passion, and joy he dedicated to the bow and those he shared it with. No level of payment could ever be awarded for such things. The engraving he selected, no matter how fine, would tell his tale proper. Or maybe he did know, and just didn’t agree. Maybe, in his mind, you never stopped earning it. Archery was an art of challenge and repetition, after all. Something you could work your entire life to master and be humbled the day after. It took a special type of person to understand that and keep at it for so long and the Archer was a shining example.

I knew then, that people like him where the gems of our beloved pastime. People like him where the “finer things” and I was proud to have recognized it and have something special to aspire to.

“I’d slow down if I were you. I think I saw an SC cop back there a spell.”

“Ya know, maybe it’s not that I drive too fast. You just drive too damn slow.”

“That maybe the case my boy…” the Archer laughed, “but they’ll take your money. You better believe they will.”

The End

This story was featured in the Spring edition of STICKTALK magazine. STICKTALK is the quarterly publication of the Michigan Longbow Association and every issue is a fantastic read. All you have to do is be a member, which will cost you $20 annually.