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I KNOW I’M NOT supposed to play favorites, but I can’t help but be especially fond of one story in this issue: “To Build a Campfire,” by David E. Petzal. I’ve read the piece nearly a dozen times now, and what I continue to enjoy most—aside from the enviable prose—is the warmth and chill I feel from one line to the next.
When Petzal describes the fire he and a hunting buddy sparked on a Montana mountainside—not so much for heated comfort as for survival in the murderously cold air—I was reminded of the harshest winter conditions I’ve ever experienced. This took place the week after Thanksgiving, years ago, when I traveled to Saskatchewan for a whitetail hunt. Heeding the warnings of the extreme lows in the forecast, I must’ve crammed 50 pounds of wool into my luggage—and I wound up needing every ounce.
All week, the temps never climbed higher than 15 degrees; factor in the windchill, and it was often below zero. I’d hunted and fished in freezing climes before (and since) that trip—but in those situations, if I ever got too cold, all I had to do was keep moving. In Saskatchewan, however, I was stuck in a rickey box blind with a ceiling so low I couldn’t even stand up. The only ways to get through those 10-hour hunts were by punching my tag or sitting on my rump.
I wasn’t the only one who struggled on that trip. The chill got the best of one South Carolina–based hunter right away. “I started counting the minutes as soon as I got in the blind,” he said—which explained why he shot the first buck he saw on the first day to avoid having to count, and suffer through, one more of those frigid minutes. A few other hunters followed his lead on the second day. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider doing the same. After all, hunting from a blind can be mind-numbing to begin with; when that boredom is worsened by disorientingly cold conditions, it verges on torture.
Day by day, though—as other hunters in camp saved themselves from another long, cold sit by filling their tags—I managed to find ways to outlast the chill (and hold out for a true Saskatchewan shooter). A few examples: I stuffed my watch into the bottom of my backpack to temper the temptation of checking it so often. I swapped the coffee in my thermos for more nourishing, but just as warm, chicken soup. And packing a pad and pencil (ink, I came to learn, freezes) to jot notes throughout the hunt helped me stay alert.
While these tactics didn’t exactly make the time fly, they went a long way toward making it pass more pleasantly—right up to the moment, later in the week, when I stepped out of my blind, walked 85 yards, and knelt beside what is still the biggest buck I’ve ever taken.
Going back to Petzal’s story in this issue: There is a scene in which he describes a group of hunters enjoying stories told around the blaze of a roaring fire, which also reminded me of my trip to Saskatchewan. On the last night, after dinner, all the hunters wandered over to the work shed where the guides were caping the last of the week’s bucks. This scene of ours lacked the hypnotic magic of Petzal’s bonfire, but we did have a fully stoked wood stove. And those contained flames were powerful enough to keep us warm, and to fuel our storytelling deep into the night.
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