Mary Katherine’s First Deer

It’s a fine thing just getting your 13-year-old daughter to come hunting. Everything else is pure gravy.
by Rick Bass

She took her hunter’s certification test when she was 11, mostly, I think, because her friends were taking the course—it’s a rare family in rural northwestern Montana without at least one hunter.

But in the following year she chose not to go hunting. I had imagined taking her into the woods early in the mornings in the autumn, particularly with a new snow down, and particularly up into the high country, to look for, and perhaps follow, a deer or an elk. Not so much to find one as to follow one, and draw nearer to it: to know that passion. But it was totally her choice.

I think it might have been a little off-putting: the way I had returned so many times from a hunt frozen or ragged, drenched and soggy; and of the way, at each season’s end, my feet were blistered and tattered. I would tell her it didn’t have to be that way, but she didn’t seem eager to go try, and whether that was thereason, or the killing was the reason, or any of a hundred others were the reason, I couldn’t quite tell. And I didn’t probe too much, knowing better than to push. Twelve is awfully young, even in Montana.

That autumn passed, and a couple of her friends were fortunate enough to shoot a deer. I offered them my congratulations, and we traveled on into her 13th year.

We still went bird hunting over to the eastern side of the state a couple of times each year—Mary Katherine and her younger sister, Lowry, neither of them carrying guns but walking behind me and the dogs, wading the prairie beneath that huge sky, following the dogs as if harnessed to them, helping flush the birds when the dogs went on point—but still Mary Katherine had no desire to go after deer or elk, with or even without a rifle in hand.

Thirteen isn’t always the greatest age for togetherness between child and parent, and my mantra, as I watched her growing up quickly, became to meet her where she is. To remain vigilant, and to be present, and to watch for any opportunity to simply remain somewhat in her life, and for the time being to pretty much forget about having her in my life—within the borders and boundaries of my own passions—as it had been in the sweet and wonderful once-upon-a-time of her childhood. Those days were gone, and the trick, the task—the opportunity—was to find sweetness in these new days, for surely it was there, too, if now in different form and fashion. After a long period of not growing, I would be asked—or presented the opportunity—to grow, too. Not so fast as she was—only her peers could keep up with that. But to grow again after a long time of not, as if I had been out wandering the mountains and had crossed over into another, unfamiliar valley.

If I’m making fatherhood in such a time sound like an old hound sitting on the porch waiting to be let back in, sometimes that’s pretty much how it is. Watching and waiting.

The season of her 13th year passed—I continued to let her know that, anytime she changed her mind, I’d be happy to take her out to look for an animal, for any period of time—but she hadn’t even bought a license and seemed to have made her peace with not hunting. She wasn’t opposed to it; she just didn’t have a spark for it. And while I would have liked her to have that spark, it was her life, her choice, and all a part of the wonderful young woman she would become, was becoming.

Late in October, a good friend of hers went out with her older sister’s boyfriend, and was fortunate enough to take a cow elk.

In mid-November the whitetail rut began and the snow began to fall, and a couple of boys at her school were fortunate enough to find a buck. “I think I can find you an animal,” I said. “We could just go out for an hour or so.”

She shook her head. But she didn’t yell, didn’t shout, “Leave me alone!”

Thanksgiving came—the peak of drama for hunting season: deep cold, deer, elk, wild turkey on the table; time away from school, deep in the heart of home and deep in the heart of the valley—and I continued to wander out each day, just looking around to see what I might see, hunting with leisure rather than need, as I had found a young bull after a long hard season of hunting, and we weren’t short on meat.

The season was winding down. The Saturday after Thanksgiving I decided to casually float the offer one last time. A light snow was predicted, and for whatever reason—perhaps bored, perhaps antsy being away from her friends for two days, perhaps having gestated the matter for two years—Mary Katherine agreed to go out the next day, the last day, if only for a little while.

I was, of course, exultant. I cleaned my grandfather’s old rifle and showed her how to use it.

We practiced with its “false” trigger—the first 90 percent of the squeeze mushy, but then a calming firmness in the last 10 percent. We didn’t snap the firing pin or shoot a live round, for I remembered how loud the rifle was the first time I shot it and I didn’t want her being flinchy, didn’t want to give her any reason for changing her mind.

I went to bed disbelieving my great luck—to be a father to these two girls is more than I could ever deserve or hope for, and to be able to take one of them out into the woods, into the valley I love, to go on our first hunt, felt as if I’d been wandering in a field of happiness and then had fallen through a trapdoor into something greater.

I awakened early, my blood afizz with winter insomnia, wrote until daylight and then woke Mary Katherine. That had been part of the bargain: letting her sleep in. Certainly it’s finer in the woods before first light, but to tell the truth, I was also enjoying sitting there by the woodstove while everyone else slept, knowing that after 13 years of waiting I’d soon be walking out into the woods deer hunting with my eldest daughter, as my father had once walked out into the woods with me, as his father had once walked out into the woods with him, as had my grandfather’s father and so on, perhaps all the way back to the earliest man.

It was strange, packing two of everything: two cups for the thermos of hot chocolate; two blaze-orange camouflage jackets, two pairs of dry socks, two stocking caps. As we drove to the trailhead of an old larch forest, my blood continued to effervesce. I don’t think our frail bodies could withstand every day being like that, where nearly all we hope for is delivered, where everything beyond that deliverance—unasked for and unexpected—is gravy.

We parked, closed the doors quietly, and started up the steep trail, walking through new snow with more coming down around us. I don’t want to make too much of this, but after a lifetime of hunting by myself it was quite a different thing to be looking at the mountain with more than just my eyes. Whispering to her, now and again, pointing out the direction of the breeze, the bark-rubbed saplings where the bucks had been at work. Complimenting her quiet footsteps, pointing out old tracks and new. Entering with her that electric other world, as though passing through a looking glass.

Anything could happen. In the next step, or the next, we might see anything: a great gray owl, the track of a late-to-hibernate black bear, maybe even a grizzly, a herd of elk, a lion, a lynx, anything. A deer.

We came out on a shelf so stippled by new tracks, it reminded me of the trident calligraphy of shorebirds on a beach. We had been walking only about 15 minutes, looking for a good place to sit and watch. It was important not to overdo it, not to push on to the next horizon and beyond. The snow was lessening, a north wind picking up, the fog and rime from the forest cleaning out our lungs, our blood, our hearts. Beneath that shove of breeze, wedges and puzzle-pieces of blue sky appeared—the buttery-rich yellow-gold winter sunlight plunging down through the old larch forest, branches winter-bare, shrouded only in moss and lichen—and in one such column of light I saw the head and ears of a doe lying behind a fallen log near a creek a few hundred yards away, as illuminated, even at that distance, as though by a spotlight. She seemed extraordinarily becalmed, as animals often do on certain beautiful mornings.

We watched her awhile, and in a whispered conversation I tried to explain to Mary Katherine the inexplicable: that I didn’t want to hunt this doe for any number of reasons, of which the beauty and creekside tranquility were only one, but that it might be fun to try to sneak in closer and wait to see if a buck might be nearby.

As we watched, a young-of-the-year fawn, made frisky by the same cold clean air that filled us, popped up from behind the same log and ran in two quick circles around his mother, prancing and whirling, bucking and twisting like a tiny rodeo horse trying to throw a tiny unseen rider. It was more gravy, an opportunity to show that hunting, Continued from page 11 like some lives, comprises a significant amount of intuition; that when one is fully engaged one has greater authority, not less, to operate by one’s senses and instincts. You’re not always right, but sometimes you are, and it was gratifying to see the previously inexplicable—why it hadn’t felt right to hunt this bedded doe—so clearly explicated.

We crept, crawled, stalked toward the recumbent doe and her goofy fawn, always keeping a big tree or a tangle of fallen lodgepole between her and us. The north wind was in our faces, concealing our scent completely, and the sound of the creek, along which we were creeping and beside which she was resting, seemed to have mesmerized her.

We crept to within 60 or 70 yards and then hunkered down behind a random corral of blowdown, looking as though laborers had set the first two or three courses of a log cabin before being called away for some little irrelevance—a glass of water, a cup of coffee—from which they never returned. Sometimes in these parts there is a feeling that a dead tree has no value beyond its timber, but we can find as much value in a dead fallen tree as in a green standing one.

We were hidden well, a near-perfect setup, and existing deliciously in the moment. Much later I would allow myself to think about how long ago the wind had tipped over this matchstick corral of lodgepole. From the looks of things, it could easily have been 13 years ago—a gust of wind preparing a place in the future for Mary Katherine. But there by the creek, tucked in with her against the house-stacking of logs, watching and waiting, I thought none of these things.

In less than a minute a nice young four-point buck trotted in from stage left, just as I had whispered might happen. I tensed with excitement, pleasure, hope, disbelief, gratitude, hunger, desire—the whole complex and utterly specific, utterly inexplicable chain reaction of responses known only to a hunter when the quarry presents itself—and I felt Mary Katherine respond in the same way.

It’s not a question of right or wrong—there is and should be no set prescription for responses to the human experience—but I find it hard to imagine that almost anyone in such a setting would not likewise tense with anticipation, for it was really not so long ago that hunting was the main currency of human existence.

It’s fine, I suppose, for individuals to have lost that connection, that rootstock—there’s no stopping time—and it would have been all right with me if Mary Katherine was one of those people who, for whatever reason, no longer possessed or even understood that connection. But this was what I wanted to show her—to lead her right up to the edge of it—and it pleased me, and only surprised me a little to see that, given this shared experience, she felt pretty much the same jolt that I did.

Anything from here on was still more gravy. Nothing but marvel, nothing but miracle.

The buck stopped, posing, angled 45 degrees toward us, an impossible shot at any distance and with parts of his body obscured by trees, and gazed for long moments at the bedded doe, which turned her head to look back at him as if—or so it seemed to me—trying to pretend she had not known he was in the neighborhood.

I whispered to Mary Katherine to place the rifle over the top log and to find the buck in the scope, to be ready should he move forward into a position where she could take a clean shot. He was about 80 or 90 yards out. Mary Katherine tried but couldn’t find him in the scope—so many trees, so much snow on the ground, so much sky—but it was good practice for her, and we were in no rush, for I was beginning to perceive already that this deer was intended for us, for her. We—she—might not be successful in taking it; but we hadn’t come to this random corral on the first hunt, and on the last day of the season, not to be presented with a chance. As long as we kept up our end of the bargain.

After more gazing, more be-rutted mesmerization, the buck suddenly lowered his head and charged, not the doe but the fawn. Whether it was a mock charge or the real thing, I couldn’t be sure. It looked real to me, and I think it did to the fawn, too, for it stumbled over logs trying to get out of the way, zigging and zagging and tail-flagging almost as if at play, and yet using the scattered windthrow for an escape route.

The fawn, the yearling, came straight at us, eyes wild—thundering, if so small an animal can be said to thunder—and was just on the verge of running right over us before it saw some small movement—perhaps our own eyes widening—and veered away, kicking up a spray of snow as it bounded over the brook.

This is always the problem with getting in too close on a herd of deer or elk: Once one of them discovers you, even the best-laid plans usually begin to crumble, with that one discoverer, be it doe, buck, or even clueless yearling, huffing and snorting and blowing your cover. I was a little discouraged that we had come so soon to this place in the hunt—though thrilled, too, that we had seen so much so quickly: some strange and wonderful recompense for so many countless hours spent crawling and sliding, trudging and staggering, lost and beaten, sighting no game; as if all that perceived failure in my past had merely been preparation for the summary deliverance of this luck, this grace. Certainly the evidence of the day leaned in that direction.

The yearling chose not to stick around to blow our cover. Wisely, I think, he considered the threats of the day—an angry older buck, hunters crouching with rifle raised—and decided not to warn the others, but to let them figure it out on their own.

Amazingly, the scene readjusted itself to a classic wintertime pastoral of holiday tranquility. The lissome doe rose to her feet and cantered off a short distance, looked back at the buck, and then loped across the creek farther upstream, and I thought for a moment that she, too, was panicked. But the buck continued to stand there, trying to figure things out, and I continued trying to help Mary Katherine find him in her scope.

Then he began moving, his winter-gray body passing slowly through the trees, antlers gleaming.

“I think we’re going to get a shot at him,” I whispered. Mary Katherine lifted her eye from the scope, saw him, then put her eye to the scope and found him. “I see him,” she said.

“If he stops, and you’re comfortable with the shot, take it,” I said. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. But he’s a nice one, and this is a good hunt.”

She tensed, stilled herself, silently answering. I put my fingers slowly to my ears, but the buck didn’t stop, and disappeared into the trees lining the brook.

Still, it wasn’t over. He was clearly tracking the doe and yearling, and it was possible they would walk right into our laps.

“Come with me,” I whispered, noting an even more strategic hollow into which we could nestle ourselves, one with better crossbar-spars for resting her rifle. A perfect brace and a perfect setup, whether the buck continued downstream toward our tangle or whether—better—he should cross the creek and continue his traverse out into the open stand of mature larch, where he would be exposed and even closer. The most perfect thing would be for him to saunter through that beautiful open forest—visible all the way, his eyes trained for the gone-away doe and watching his footing amidst the lodgepole—to a little knoll about 50 yards to our right, where if he was still sauntering I could give a little grunt on the deer call and he might turn his head to look at the sound, pausing broadside, searching.

I explained all this to her, pointing and gesturing and whispering quickly as we belly-crawled to our newer, more secure spot. The brook masked and muted our faint sounds.

No sooner had we gotten settled than the doe entered this open stage, walking among the giant trees, exposing herself almost the entire way, and Mary Katherine asked if she could shoot this deer.

“She may still be with that yearling. Let’s wait on the buck. I think he’ll be coming.”

The doe walked on, aiming for that little knoll, where, as if we had already seen it in a vision, she paused, then disappeared over its far side.

Now the buck came onstage, following the doe’s trail as though fastened to her by an invisible pack string. He stopped 60 yards out. “Take the shot if you’re comfortable,” I whispered, to which Mary Katherine whispered back, “I see him, I see him”—again, I covered my ears—but then he started walking once more, and I felt Mary Katherine relax with disappointment.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll get another chance. When he crosses I’ll blow on the grunt tube, and when I do you be ready because he’ll stop. You don’t have to shoot, but if you do, hold steady, exhale, and squeeze cleanly.”

We waited, watching the deer cross his final steps for that place toward which, if you’re inclined to think about such things, he had been striding for 48 years or for all time, and we watched, as though counting his final paces.

Our breath rose in twin vapors. The buck kept striding through the old larch forest. Soon his path would carry him beyond us. I raised the grunt tube and blew, and again as though we with our imagination and desire had planned such a thing, the buck stopped broadside in the open and looked in our direction.

“That’s a good shot,” I whispered, “take it if you want.” Once again, I covered my ears and watched.

I hadn’t expected her to hit it. I had expected her to shoot high, or low, or not at all. Instead I heard the concussive sea-roar I had been waiting for, and was astounded to see the deer hop hunch-backed, all four feet off the ground like a rodeo bull, and then take off running.

“I missed him,” she said. “I don’t know how, but I missed him.”

I laughed. “No, you got him.” I pointed to the knoll. “He ran around behind that and then fell down stone dead. You’ll see.”

She shook her head. “I blew it. I missed him. I can’t believe I missed him.”

“No,” I said. “You hit him, I guarantee.”

She wanted to get up and go see, but I said we had to wait—generally an hour, but with so much snow we could cut it to a half hour.

It was a pleasure to sit quietly with her and replay the hunt in each intimate detail, to praise and brag on her, to see her pride and pleasure, though leavened by doubt.

It was a wonderful microcosm of our life. She was in a hurry to ascertain her success, or lack of success, while I was delighted to savor the waiting-time. She was in a hurry to grow up, while I wanted to wait quietly just a little while longer—one more year, one more month, one more week: this half hour, this moment, anything.

We sat and talked until we began to shiver. I kept telling her not to worry, and she kept worrying. It was a good transition time, I realized, for her to adjust to the reality of what had just transpired—that she had indeed just killed an animal, which, as has so often been pointed out, is not at all the same thing as walking into a store and purchasing it.

We got up and walked slowly, quietly, up the buck’s backtrail so she could see in the snow the before-and-after of the deer walking and then running, the scatter of loose gray hair and the blood like a signature, proof that we would soon be claiming this deer. But when we came to that divot-spot of hump-shouldered sky-leap I could find neither hair nor blood; only tossed-up black earth from the sharp-hoofed bolt, and Mary Katherine despaired, believing in her teen heart, and not for the first time, that I was wrong and she was right.

“It’s got to be here,” I said, still confident. I followed the tracks and finally found a few drops of blood and some loose hairs. “There,” I said, disappointed by how little there was. What if she had only creased his back? And after

I had assured her otherwise. Perhaps every guide has been in this heartsinking position, but this was my first time.

We followed the tracks carefully, quietly, in case the deer, only slightly wounded or perhaps not at all, should leap up in front of us. I showed Mary Katherine why it was important not to step in the tracks, to preserve the option of coming back and reinterpreting things should you get thrown off-track, to circle back and start over.

I continued to be discouraged by the small amount of blood and by the buck’s unhurried gait—the tracks seemed to indicate he was in control of his carriage. I worried what would happen when we ran out of blood spots, when the buck’s tracks merged with those of other deer.

Then the blood spots disappeared completely, and I cautioned Mary Katherine to scan the old forest to see if the buck might be standing at the far side looking back at us. It had happened that way with me many times during the rut, with deer as well as elk—the snort, the flag of tail, the unharmed animal, curious and not particularly wary, watching the hunter approach, the hunter’s eyes fixed on the ground and not on the path ahead—and although I was beginning to worry we might not find this deer, it pleased me to realize that everything I had told her, this fine last-day morning, was new information to her. It made me feel useful. Only coming upon the miracle of the buck could make the morning feel finer.

After 40 yards we came to an ice-bed where he had lain briefly, waiting quietly, while we in turn had been waiting quietly on the other side of the hill. There was very little blood, and I felt less assured than ever.

It’s all a puzzle, all an assemblage of pieces, always. Had the buck run those 30 or 40 yards, knelt down, then leapt up at our approach? Or had he only lain there for mere seconds before jumping up and staggering on now, thrashing his way toward that final place that in his animal mind was surely only just a little farther on?

I stopped, trying to slow time—trying to fully remember being in the woods on the last day of the season with my oldest daughter on our first hunt—and saw the buck piled up in more lodgepole not 15 yards away. Mary Katherine was still staring glumly at the vacant ice-bed.

“Follow his tracks,” I said. “Keep following his tracks.” I was tempted to say just a little farther.

And carefully, cautiously, she led the way, head down, moving from track to track—more blood now, a lot of blood, and broken logs and branches indicating a heavy passage—and I understood that all this had transpired in mere seconds following her shot, that only our cautious waiting seemed to attenuate the journey.

She was seven or eight yards away when she looked up and saw his long body lying over the fallen lodgepole, stretched out as if in midleap, the antlers still held aloft.

We approached him quietly, respectfully. I looked around at the day and said, “Thank you woods, thank you valley, thank you deer, thank you Mary Katherine, thank you everything,” and then we examined the animal and remembered the hunt a little more. I took some pictures of her with the deer—her deer, I suppose it could be called now, though I resist the possessive in such matters—and then we set about cleaning it. As we did so I pointed out the organs, a biology lab writ large.

Afterwards, we wiped our hands in the snow and then began dragging the deer out. What a delight to help sled that deer through the woods and over the fallen logs and down the mountain. What a delight, with my aging body, to feel so acutely my own mortality.

A task once insignificant was now ponderous and significant. I stumbled and tripped, as had the deer in his final run. I, too, stopped often to rest, to gather my breath and keep going.

The ravens saw us and began to call and follow, and I imagined how timeless and normal it must have seemed from their perspective: just two more hunters fortunate enough to find a deer. They called to one another, wheeling and backtracking our path to that point where we had cleaned the deer.

Did they know anything, I wondered, of the extra fire and joy in my heart, the pride and strange peace? Or were they calling only for another meal?

I wanted them to know differently. I wanted them to know this one was different. I wanted the whole world to know, but it was just me and Mary Katherine, moving quietly through the snowy forest, with everything around and in us ancient and new. n

Rick Bass is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had and, most recently, a memoir, Why I Came West. He lives with his family in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley, where he remains active in a longstanding wilderness campaign. His books are available from
Tag it: