The Opening. A hallowed day, a day of sanctity and celebration. Mark it in red letters on the calendar, put it on a flag and raise it high, send puffs of white smoke into the air to signal the arrival. It is a day of note.
We, the guy I hunt with and me, start the season off by having the alarm clock fail, oversleeping, and having to rush to the stand. We arrive to hear the first report, a distant shot that marks, officially, the start of the season. We did not plan it this way, but things sometimes happen like that.
There is no drama on this morning, save for the emotional impact that we hang on it. The air is thick with haze, heavy, as if burdened by the weight of November. Gone the lightness and color of October; here now the heavy gray of the eleventh month. November brings a gravity that October lacks. Pines stand as stoic sentries over rust-colored fern and leaf, over wan and bleached grass now faded as season’s warmth.
The sun makes its weary way to top the thin fingers of lonesome popple and birch that reach high. The air is humid. The man on the radio told us that temperatures will run 15 degrees above the average, and who am I to argue?
An hour into it and deer move, color and heat on this drab day; four charge across the opening, white tails high as sails; bound away into the cover of pine and brush. We wait; nothing else follows.
Another hour. A deer moves, emerges from the leaf and oak as if an apparition. But this is real; movement becomes form becomes deer. Becomes buck. The buck stands behind the edge of cover, considering the land ahead of him, then turns: antler bleached and caramel-colored, eight points.
It is 100 yards out but angled toward us; a low percentage shot, a shot that will more often lead to cripple, not clean kill. We hold steady. Then the buck moves, turns toward us and we see the spread of antler, wide as the ears. Then the moment of truth: If the buck turns to the right, he will move into the open and we will have a clean shot and Ted will kill him. Turn left and he will be in thick cover; no shot.
Three quick strides, fast now, and without pause the buck turns left and disappears as certainly as if he left the stage and the curtain falls. There is no second act. There is only spare Wisconsin hill and forest; there are no more deer to follow.
Turkeys move through, 10 of them, feathers dark and shiny like a gentleman’s topcoat. They walk single file up the hill like a procession of monks, clucking contentedly all the while.
We hunt until the dark shadows come out from the trees into the open and claim the land for the night. Then we walk from the stand to the shack and there find turkeys roosting awkwardly in trees seemingly more fit for grouse. Eight of them, high in the bare trees as if strange ornaments. The birds see us and fly, dark birds in flight against the backdrop of rose-colored sunset sky, heavy wings rushing as the November wind. Then darkness falls.
At midnight, stars blaze with celestial fire so bright one wonders that they do not bring heat. Orion the Hunter strides the midnight sky bold and strong. A night wind blows and whirls; change comes on such a wind.
Alarm strikes at 5:30; jars us from sleep, a rattling, mechanical sound, a sound like an accident, a collision.
Outside it is calm, mild. The winds of midnight faded now; Orion gone, marched over the western horizon where darkness still holds sway. We eat a hasty breakfast, down strong, hot coffee and thus fortified, leave the shack for the stand.
We walk in the dusky shadows toward the sky to the east; light shows there, the pearlescent shine of dawn sky. We are early, as we should be. We walk toward the eastern glow as pilgrims to the promise of a better day. We walk quietly, sliding like shadows toward the hunting stand. Today we do it right.
Ted leads. Then stops. The dark form of the tree stand rears up in front of us. I ask why he stopped. He turns and says, sotto voce, “There’s a porcupine in the tree.” I peer around him. There is a roundish dark form; faint light of dawn catches white of quill. The porkie is still; then it begins to climb up, toward our stand.
Stealth gives way to action. We shine a flashlight at the animal. The porkie stares at us with a countenance that suggests a low rank on the totem pole of native intelligence, more animated than a chunk of wood, but no more intelligent. Dim eyes stare back at us, puzzled and nearsighted like an elderly gentleman who has misplaced his spectacles.
I pry a stick from a windfall; it snaps like a rifle shot at the dawning. I prod the recalcitrant beast with the stick, beat on the stanchions of the stand as if a drum set. All we lack is a bass drum and a fife to sound our arrival. I sense the deer herd slinking away in horror.
I look at Ted; Ted looks at me. What to do? Shooting sounds extreme; a kick to the quill-backed beast inadvisable; a stick has failed. We decide to live with it and climb to the stand, swinging around the porkie.
One never hears porcupines described with favor. Words such as canny, clever, cunning, smart-as-a-whip, never grace the simple beast. One does not hear of anyone teaching a porkie tricks (“Watch, I’ve taught ol’ Quills to sit,” or “Fetch the ball Pork, go get it”). No, porkies just don’t get it. To call them slow learners is to flatter them; there is no indication they learn at all. This one stays put. We settle in.
Then the porkie begins to eat the stand, teeth grinding rhythmically in the cool air. He or she (I defy anyone to tell the difference) gnaws a damnable rhythm and the floor of the blind seems to act as a sound box amplifying all. The hollow sound of teeth on 2×8 echoes as a dirge.
I reach my leg out of the stand, stretch down blindly and kick at the beast. The chewing ceases. I return my foot to the firmament of plywood floor, satisfied in the manner of all who find comfort in simple tasks. In a minute, the porkie resumes. We repeat this tango, the porkie and I, for several choruses. I tire of it soon; the porcupine later.
Then, moved by some flicker of what passes for thought in that pea-sized brain, the porkie decides to move on. It backs down the pine, claws scratching at rough bark, eventually reaches the ground, then waddles away, noiseless on the thick bed of russet pine needles as if it were wearing slippers or thick ragg socks.
It is just after 7 a.m. and it is the last we will see of four-legged animals that morning.
We will hunt the rest of the day. We will see deer, a few, with one good buck that sprints past at mach speed, perhaps still alarmed by the racket that took place as we dealt with the porkie. We climb down at dark, retrace our steps to the shack, stoke up the fire and settle in. And in the quiet of the evening, over a glass of wine and a snack of cheese and hard, aged salami, retell the tale of the porkie in the tree stand on a deer hunt that did not go as planned.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.