Why the Deer Woods Is Where I Need to Be
A late-season deer hunt pulls the author from the abyss after he receives devastating news
It was the coldest afternoon in weeks, and I was in an elevated blind with a crossbow, overlooking a cut corn field with enough waste grain in it to feed a small army of carb-starved deer. Yet the trio of mature does and their gaggle of fawns that filed from the timber ignored the corn in front of me and bee-lined to a strip of alfalfa, then dug in like they hadn’t eaten in days. Backlit by the setting December sun, the deer pawed through half a foot of snow, the crystalline powder they kicked up wafting on the breeze toward me. At least I had the wind right, but that was small consolation with the deer 150 yards away.
I was out of the game for the moment, but I still couldn’t help but smile. I love the late season. I love the solitude and the starkness of the landscape. I even like the irony that the cold you have to endure you also must welcome because it puts the biggest bucks on their feet in daylight to feed. Since most hunters have hung it up for the year, I have the woods largely to myself and access to some farms I can’t hunt any other time. In a normal year, I would spend every free, frigid hour targeting one of several mature bucks I always have on camera this time of year. But this was not a normal year.
“You’ve got trouble,” the doctor told me, flat out.
In November, during the peak of the rut no less, I’d visited Urgent Care to deal with a nagging pain in my lower abdomen. It hurt like hell whenever I bent over to tie my shoes, and with a Kansas bowhunt scheduled in a couple weeks, I wanted to get a clean bill of health before heading west. I didn’t want to be dealing with kidney stones or gall bladder issues 900 miles from home in an area with few people and almost none of them doctors.
But after two hours of bloodwork and other testing, the doctor was mystified. “You can go home and see if it goes away, or I can run a CT scan and see if something turns up.” I opted for the scan, and 40 minutes later the doc knocked on the door, pulled up a chair in front of me, and broke the news.
The “trouble” was a cantaloupe-size tumor in my abdomen, and one in the sarcoma family—a unique brand of cancer that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy and radiation. And since it had spread to the lining of my abdomen, it was inoperable. The prognosis was sobering; I’d be living with a tumor inside me for the rest of my life. The best hope was that immunotherapy drugs would keep the thing from growing larger and hopefully shrink it enough not to interfere with other organs.
I don’t know how other cancer patients react to their diagnosis, but I felt a numbness that only grew as the days passed. I cancelled my Kansas hunt and even lost interest in the bucks close to home. A week earlier, I’d been chasing a gorgeous 10-point buck, and I had big plans for him when I got back, knowing that my best chance would be in the late season. Suddenly, hunting the Big Ten, or any other buck, didn’t seem important. Instead, I found myself spiraling down a dark hole where nothing much mattered—where even the things I loved most held no joy or excitement. Before I knew it, I could count the days left in the archery season on my fingers, and I didn’t much care.
Just before Christmas, I told my counselor the same thing I was prepared to tell everyone else over the holidays—that I was doing fine and that there were plenty of people who had it worse than me. She wasn’t buying it. “It doesn’t sound to me like you’re doing fine,” she said. “If you were handling this well, you’d still be doing the things you love to do, and that’s not happening.” Then, as therapists often do, she issued a directive framed as a question. “Don’t you think it’s time to start?”
It took some serious self-coaching, but I managed to talk myself back into the woods and up into the elevated blind for the last day of archery season. The Big Ten wasn’t even on my mind. What motivation I could find centered on the most fundamental aspects of hunting—a need to be outdoors and seeking meat. The deer feeding well out of crossbow range in the alfalfa, however, had me kicking myself for not choosing a better stand for the night.
With 10 minutes left of legal light, and of the archery season, a spindly 6-point lifted his head from the hay, stared at the cornstalks in front of me, and suddenly trotted my way. I had no intention of killing the buck, but I knew that late-season whitetails can have a competitive bent when it comes to feeding. One deer finds a new snack, and FOMO kicks in with the others.
It started with a pair of fawns that watched the buck trot my way, then flicked their tails in near-unison and followed after him. The mature does looked up, and when one started in my direction, the parade was on. I blew on my fingers to warm them, slid a window of the blind open, and shouldered the crossbow.
I’m usually calm when shooting a doe for meat, but this time was different. I felt my legs twitching like they do when I see a big buck, and I had to remind myself to breathe and relax. Fighting to settle the crosshairs on a spot behind the shoulder of the lead doe, I flicked off the safety. When I squeezed the trigger, the doe kicked and leapt, then made run for the wood line, collapsing in a shower of snow as the other deer sprinted into the timber.
I could see the doe lying in the white field. There was no need to wait for the recovery, and archery hunters often do. But I wasn’t going anywhere for a while. The adrenaline dump had my legs hopping uncontrollably, and I could feel a tear forming in the corner of my eye that would probably freeze if I didn’t wipe it off. Before I knew it, I was laughing through sobs, as the sadness I’d tamped down for weeks competed with the elation of a successful hunt.
In a few minutes, I would climb down and kneel by the doe. But the stuff happening to an aging whitetail hunter facing mortality in a winter deer blind needed to play out. I could field dress the doe and face the challenges of cancer later. Right now, I was exactly where I needed to be.