The Woodsman Magazine

A Buck Hunter
The Adventures Of Young Jake Savage
A Buck Hunter
By John A. Hallock

"To behold and give thanks."

Young Jake Savage woke with a start and leaped from his bunk. He could see
his breath in the early morning air and the floor boards were cold even
through his thick wool socks. Confused and groggy he crossed the one room
log cabin to the silvery light streaming through the lone window and peered
outside; he couldn't stifle a shout for joy!
It was snowing! Large fluffy flakes fell through the trees and covered the
1807 forest in a blanket of brilliant white. It clung to the pines like
frosting on a cake. The excited 17 year old woodsman moved back to his bunk
to dress. He pulled heavy winter pants on over wool longjohns and put on a
thick wool shirt. There would be no hot breakfast today or fire in the large
stone fireplace. He used a metal cup to break through the thin crust of ice
on his water bucket and quenched his thirst. Then he put on his blanket
coat, stuffed his pockets with biscuits and jerky and, with 50 caliber
Hawken rifle in hand, he bolted out the door and into the wilderness. The
hunt was at hand and time was a wasting.
Jake loved deer hunting in the snow. It added to the majesty of the pines
and to the thrill of the hunt. There was something uplifting about a quiet,
snow covered forest. The sheer beauty of it reminded him of the presence of
something greater than himself. The missionaries up on the big lake called
this presence God, his brothers the Ojibwa called Him Kitchi-Manitou. Jake
wasn't sure which name to use, but at times like this morning the young
woodsman felt Him in his heart. In fact it was in the snowy woods one day
when Jake came to know, he was sure of it, the purpose of life, exactly why
he was here in this world. The wilderness was all so beautiful that day too,
a gift if there ever was one, and what do you do with a beautiful gift? The
words just came to him, "to behold, and give thanks."
It didn't take Jake long to find deer tracks in the new snow as he walked
along Otter Creek in front of his cabin.
Probably a doe and her twins, he thought as he'd seen the same trio several
times throughout summer and early fall. And if they're out and about so
might the bucks.
Jake continued along the creek trail several hundred yards until he reached
the place where the stream met with the Namekagon River. He turned, put the
river to his left and climbed a steep forest ridge that formed this
beautiful river valley. He made his way through the pines and underbrush.
Once on top he kept going, shuffling quietly along, breaking trail through
several inches of new snow. He didn't stop until he reached the oak grove a
half mile from his cabin, where he found more deer sign.
There were many tracks criss-crossing the ridge top, and large patches of
exposed forest floor, where the deer had used their hooves to clear away all
the snow and fallen leaves to find the sweet acorns hidden below. This told
Jake the deer were not only coming here, but staying for extended periods.
It was a good sign. But it was still early morning and Jake wasn't quite
ready to take a stand and wait for the deer to come back. He wanted to keep
moving. Besides, he figured the deer had probably filled their bellies the
night before and were sleeping in the nearby thicket or down in the tamarack
swamp at the foot of the ridge. As was his habit during a snow storm Jake
decided he would first try to walk up on a bedded buck. It was no easy task
but he'd done it before on other snowy hunts.
He walked slow, each step carefully placed, soundless in the snow, and
scanned the woods for movement, a moving antler, a flicking ear, or even a
blinking eye. He also made a mental note of which of the oak trees he might
sit in when he returned later in the day.
The breeze rose with the growing light and falling snow was driven into his
face. Jake checked the direction often. He realized he'd have the wind in
his favor if he went toward the swamp on the back side of the ridge. This
was vital, for a buck couldn't see very far in a snowy woods, and he
couldn't always hear steps that were muffled in deep snow and wind, but if
the breeze was in its favor, a deer could smell a hunter from a half mile
away.
The swamp wasn't large but, if hunted correctly, it would take  half day to
get all the way around it. Jake stopped to collect his thoughts before
moving down hill again to begin the stalk. It was all so tranquil, so
beautiful, and once again he was reminded there was a lot more to deer
hunting in the big woods than making the kill.
This is the way Jake was raised, to be aware of, and to respect nature.
First, by his parents, and then after they died in a forest fire 10 years
earlier, by Captain Jefferson Connors - a family friend who owned and
operated a small logging operation and trading post and who, along with the
local Ojibwa Indians, raised Jake.
They raised Jake as their own. They taught him everything from counting
timber to counting coup, this included the circle of life. They taught him
how death is just another part of life ... as is hunting deer, which
completes the circle. Completes man. They taught him the importance of
family and appreciation for nature and all of its beauty, all of its bounty.
Now, Jake began to move around the little slough. It would be a slow stalk,
step and wait, step and wait. All the while, he would watch and listen and
constantly check the wind. He had to be ready for ... then, without warning
the snow in the underbrush at the swamp edge exploded up and out. To his
surprise, a large doe jumped free just a few yards in front of him and
bounded away from the slough. The deer went up the hill with grace and
speed. Jake loved watching a deer run through the winter woods.
He threw his Hawken rifle to his shoulder and swung the barrel after the
fleeing doe, but he didn't shoot. Jake had no intention of shooting. He knew
there was a buck somewhere close, he could just feel it. When the doe
disappeared in the oaks he turned and continued his slow stalk. If the buck
jumped up he vowed he'd be ready, he'd "be shootin'."
It took Jake several hours to make it all the way around the slough. He
didn't see or hear another deer. But when he made it back to where he
started he was surprised to see deer tracks. Big tracks. Buck tracks. They
were five inches long.
The big buck had walked out of the slough where the doe had jumped. It's
tracks lay atop the hunter's moccasin tracks. Jake couldn't believe his eyes
and ducked down under the snow covered tamarack boughs to find two oval
shaped impressions in the snow, deer beds. They were close to the edge of
the swamp but impossible to see from outside. The buck had let the doe go
first and then simply waited for Jake to walk away.
"How could I have been so stupid?" Jake said out loud.
But, in his disgust, resolve was born. Jake had his quarry. Though, so far,
the buck had him.
Even at his young age, Jake had the reputation as a great deer hunter. The
lumberjacks in the Captain's camp were impressed with his skill as camp Meat
Packer and that meant they were judging with a most important ruler, their
bellies. The local Indians acknowledged Jake's great ability, too. They
called him, Ayaabe Giiwisewinini, the Buck Hunter.
Jake followed the buck's trail up the hill and over the oak flats on top.
But the buck didn't stop there and lead Jake through the woods for almost an
hour. It moved off the ridge and into a maple thicket. Jake could no longer
see the river. He needed to get his bearings.
Jake stopped and looked for landmarks he'd memorized in past hunts. That's
when he realized he was not going east anymore, no longer paralleling the
river. He had slowly, without notice, turned to the south. The buck was
making a huge circle.
The double back, it was an old trick. The buck would simply circle through
the woods and keep ahead of the hunter while it made its way back to
familiar territory. A buck works the wind, the woods, and even the hunter's
dogged determination, to its own advantage.
"Not this time," Jake said under his breath as he checked the load on his
rifle.
He turned around and followed his tracks in the snow back across the oak
ridge and to the slough. He would wait here, where it all began earlier, for
the buck to complete its circle. For a second Jake thought about waiting in
the oaks, but then figured since the buck knew there was a hunter around it
would never show itself in the open area of the oak flat to eat until well
after dark.
Jake figured if the buck was, indeed, circling back it would come  to the
oaks from the swamp side where it would wait until dark. He was counting on
the buck to wait where it felt safe the night before, and he hoped there was
enough shooting light left for him to take a bead.
This was the spot, down by the slough. Jake would make his stand. Though
there didn't seem to be any suitable sitting trees down here off the ridge
top. There were many trees all right, but all were small and spindly and
unsuitable for climbing, much less sitting. Jake turned and spotted the
place were the buck had been hiding from him earlier that morning. It gave
him an idea.
"I think it's time for the worm to turn," he said with a smile.
Jake spent the rest of the day peeking out of his snow cave in the
underbrush at the slough edge, watching the woods.
It was late in the afternoon when he began to see deer stirring in the oaks
up on the ridge top. There were does and fawns. Darkness shrouded ever
deeper through the woods but he saw no bucks. Jake began to doubt his plan,
his ability to out fox a smart old buck. That's when he heard a snort off to
his right. He peered through the snowy brambles and caught his breath. The
buck was back and standing just 20 yards out, its nose held high and
twitching in the wind. The rack was magnificent, a big, thick set of 8 tall,
perfect antler points. It was a big deer all right and Jake knew he'd have
little time to shoot. Big bucks don't stand still for very long. But now the
buck was looking right at the snowy underbrush where he was sitting. Jake
didn't dare move. He tried to hold his breath, but that only served to make
him breath faster. The frozen white vapor chugged from his mouth and nose.
He feared the deer would see it!
Now the buck was on full alert for it had scented something. Jake sat
frozen. He knew he still had the wind and the big buck couldn't possibly be
scenting him. Jake scanned the ridge top and caught his breath again.
"Wolves," Jake said under his breath.
Up on the ridge trailing those does and fawns were several wolves. They'd
come in fast and quiet. The sight sent a chill through Jake. The pack hadn't
seen or scented the buck though the buck had shifted its gaze to the pack.
This was Jake's chance. The rifle butt fit snugly against his shoulder. His
heart was racing. Snow flakes were falling hard again, the shimmering white
flakes in contrast to a dark, heavy body gave the buck a ghostly appearance.
The forest monarch stood statue still and stiff legged. Its rack all the
more radiant in the snow.
Jake closed an eye and aimed down the long, steel rifle barrel. The moment
of truth. He took a breath and squeezed back on the trigger.
Thunder filled the woods... the buck went down and the wolves scattered
across the ridge and away.
Jake bolted from his hiding place amidst an explosion of snow much the same
way the doe had earlier that day. Covered with snow he raced to where the
buck lay in the snow.
It took Jake more than a few minutes to calm down. He stepped back and took
in the entire spectacle; snowflakes glistening as they fluttered through
the fading day light, the snow covered wilderness, the silence, the buck,
the blood, and ... the circle. Jake knew he had much more than just a trophy
buck. He had survival and a life in this beautiful place.
"To behold and give thanks," he said out loud, and he always will.

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