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The Woods

Here is an excerpt from one of my upcoming books. The winter weather with its snow and cold helped me create this chapter.

The Woods, the snow and Da

“Where are we now?”

Da had stopped walking. We stood at the edge of a large clearing filled with cattails and waist high grasses blanketed in snow. Normally he would reach into his coat pocket and bring out his pipe and start packing it, but instead he hitched his backpack up higher on his shoulders staring out across the fen. There was no smoking allowed when we were in the woods.

I hitched my smaller backpack up and slung the .22 rifle I’d been carrying over my shoulder and scanned the surroundings. Behind us and to both sides the deep forest wood spread up and away from us until the undergrowth and bracken obscured the distance. The boles of the trees, black against the background of the white snow, created a three-dimensional view that spoke of vast depth and distance—unbroken calm. The forest was asleep, content to wait for the warmer sun still months away.

This was one of my father’s favorite games. On a a Friday night after he arrived home from work we would pack the car and he would drive into the night for hours until we were far into northern Wisconsin or the western-most parts of the Michigan Upper Peninsula. I would sleep during the ride, waking fitfully when he stopped for fuel, or at a tavern for something to drink. If Kate or Andy were with, we would all sleep on in the car piled on top of each other until he returned and would once again resume the drive. In the morning we would enter the unbroken forests, driving down long curving lanes, called ‘fire lanes. These dirt and grass lanes were cut deep into the heart of the wild woods, cleared to allow fire-fighting equipment into the deep recess of the forest should there be a forest fire. Driving the lanes until they ended in wide turn-arounds and marked the beginning of the trackless wild. Once there we would load up with our backpacks, bagged lunches and a small rifle for me and a shotgun or large bore rifle for him.

With each season there was a different reason to be there, grouse or snowshoe rabbit hunting in the fall, blackberry picking in the summer, and sometimes there was no reason at all. For the next few hours we would hike into the woods. The trees grew thick and tall, cathedral like above us, we skirted marshes and peat bogs filled with multitudes of ducks, geese, and mosquitoes and deadly deerflies in summer. When the sun was at its highest point we would pause and sit on ancient tree stumps cut during the great lumber days of old, the stumps fully five or six feet in diameter and a testament to the greed that washed over these gentle rolling hills at the turn of the century. There we would eat our lunch respectful to not break the silence of the trees with the trite conversations of humans. Hours would often pass without a spoken word.

After a suitable period during our stroll he would stop and ask his question, this time it was “Where are we?”, although it could be, “Which way back to the car?”, or “How many yards to the dead tree at the far side of the clearing?”

Obviously, there was only one right answer to these questions, his answer. The wrong answer would draw a snort and another hour of silent walking. The right answer would earn a nod and another question. This passed for conversation with him and right answers guaranteed an extended one. Today I knew the answer to question number one.

“We just passed Bell’s Mound on our left. Twenty minutes’ walk straight ahead of us will get us to Seamus’ deer stand, the big stump at the foot of Mable’s Ridge.”

I got a nod for that one.

“So, the car is which direction?”

I pointed to my left. With a snort he flicked his thumb back over his right shoulder.

“Close.”

He immediately struck off, heading toward Seamus’ stand. These were his woods; he knew them like the back of his hand and he could never be lost here amidst the silence of the trees. When he was in these woods, the constant hunch of his shoulders would disappear and he often displayed a rare smile, or a flash of humor as he pointed out landmarks, or watched mother doe’s nurse their spring fawns, careful not to disturb them.

Now it is winter, deep winter and the snow; deep; undisturbed. We are snowshoeing across it, staying under the tall trees when we can to avoid the deepest of it. We’re not sightseeing today, we’re here on family business, here to retrieve something left behind when my father and brothers left their deer camp. A treasure hunt of sorts, twenty minutes ahead of us, a long slog through the snow already and a longer one going the other way. Already the unfamiliar but necessary gait of the snowshoes are making the front of my thighs ache, but I would never think of complaining about it. Instead I fix my gaze on the back of his ‘shoes’ and focus on keeping up. I already weigh more than my father and so I sink deeper into the snow than he does. For his part, he seems to glide along without any noticeable effort, as comfortable on snowshoes as he would be in his boots.

I’m twelve years old now. This is the first time I’ve been invited on this trip. It’s exciting to me—a manhood thing. I get to carry a gun, and I will to do ‘man’s work’ before the end of this day. I often have fantasized this adventure as I’ve watched the men of my family in their red plaid hunting clothes disappeared into the trackless wilderness of the Northwoods, reappearing a week later beards scruffy, smelling of wood-smoked flannel, whiskey, and pine resin, their deer carcasses strapped to the fenders of their cars, the car trunks filled with rabbits, grouse and the occasional porcupine.

Each deer carcass was then hung heads up from the crossbeams of Thomas Quinn’s shed at the back of his yard in rows until the space was crowded by their population. Each deer a tale in itself shared with the younger Quinn’s and Casey’s and embellished to a point beyond belief. We were satisfied only to imagine the heroics necessary to accomplish such intrepid adventure, and never questioned the veracity of the account. It filled our minds with pictures of vast snowfields and deep dark woods, populated with clever and elusive deer, wolves and peril. The survival of the men always in peril, the dangers ever-present. We thrilled with the very thought of it and counted the years until we could go with them and learn the closely guarded secrets of the wild.

Today was that day for me, my first adventure, accompanying the stalwart hero figure that was my father. Striding through the deep snow, skirting the marshes and staying within the cover of the deeper forest where the underbrush was thinner and the snow less deep, we made our way through the watchful silence of the trees, accompanied only by the scolding chick-a-dee’s. As the exuberance of the event waned with the accumulation of sweat inside my clothes, I focused only on the snowshoes breaking trail ahead of me, and keeping up. I was resolved not to disappoint him and to justify my presence.

Twenty minutes later we skirt the base of what the men call Mabel’s Ridge and approach the edge of a vast peat bog. The open expanse of treacherous swamp is dotted here and there with scrub jack pine and volunteer juniper but otherwise empty in every direction. At the edge of which sits a lone white pine stump that has been sawed at two levels, one side higher than the other resembling a large chair. It is the perfect place to sit if you have to sit for hours, which is what you need to do if you are hunting. This ‘chair’ is where my Uncle Seamus takes his stand during the long hours of deer season, and it is a good spot.

Farther on we catch a flash of bright red against the stark white of the snow and deep green of the pines. Another fifty yards ahead along the edge of the clearing two red rags, twenty feet apart are tied to low hanging branches of the pine trees that encroach upon the bog. They move in the breeze that blows across the open space. My father does not pause at the stump but continues on until we approach to two red markers.

Arriving, we shun our backpacks and stand our rifles against a nearby tree. Immediately, my father begins to sidestep back and forth in the snow in front of the closest rag, packing the snow down. Over and over back and forth he deftly dances at the edge of the tree. With a wave and a point, he directs me to the second flag, and points at my snowshoes. I get the message and wade to the next marker and mimic his dance, pushing the fluffy powder down with each step until it crunches as it begins to pack down. I watch as my father loosens and kicks off his snowshoes, able to stand on top of the now solidly packed snow and I do the same. Without hesitation he uses one of the snowshoes as a shovel and begins to dig into the drifted snow at the base of the hanging branches. I do the same.

Slowly, it begins to appear, a deer carcass frozen solid and buried deep in the snow. A buck, his antlers the first thing I see as I continue to excavate the rest of its body. As the rest begins to appear it is encased in a solid layer of ice, testament to being covered while it still retained some of its own body heat. The body is wound with several revolutions of baling twine, binding its front legs tight against its body and the hind legs are stretched out directly behind its rump, done so that it can be dragged without the legs catching on passing brush or low hanging branches. We are here to retrieve them. Today, we are poachers.

Finished with his own deer, Da, his snowshoes back on his feet, approaches my deer, hacksaw in hand. Kneeling he begins to saw off the buck’s antlers just above the brow tines. While he works, I open my pack and pull out a looped bundle of sturdy rope. Making a noose at one end, Da drapes it over the shortened horns and secures it stretching the remaining length out eight or ten feet. Then he makes three large loops and ties it off to the extended length.

Once I have my snowshoes on and backpack shouldered, Da drapes the rope ends across one of my shoulders and I pass my other arm through the loop. Nodding to me, he returns to his deer and does the same with his. Once he is ready he looks at me and nods once more, this time he breaks the silence.

“We’ll stop and rest as soon as we make the hardwood, use your whistle if you need to stop before that.”

I reach in my pocket to make sure I still have it. Squeezing it in my gloved hand I’m reassured. It’s not really a whistle, it’s a spent rifle cartridge, a 30/40 to be exact. The men, deeply respectful of the peace of the forest only communicate with each other with coded whistles by blowing across the open end of the cartridge. The high-pitched sound it produces travels a surprising distance in the otherwise silent woods. I hope I won’t need to use it.

Without another word Da turns back into the track we created when we arrived and steps off, breaking the deer carcass from its frozen crypt and starting our trek back to the distant car. It starts to snow and almost immediately the snow is thick, visibility drops masking the distance and the shoulders of the man in front of me whiten. The blinding snow hisses as it falls, accompanying the soft crunch and shuffle of our snowshoes. I silently give thanks that there is no wind accompanying it.

The deer carcass, even after being field dressed, still weighs almost one hundred and fifty pounds of solid frozen dead weight. The car is more than a mile distant, closer to two. I am winded within a hundred yards of the start. I start to lag behind.

With each deer hunting license, the Department of Natural Resources issues a corresponding ‘deer tag’. Each deer taken during the hunt must be inspected and registered with a duly designated representative. It is illegal to take a deer without a license. The Quinn/Casey clans rely on deer season for a major portion of their meat supply for the upcoming year and even with as many hunters as they field, there are not enough deer taken. The Casey’s have hunted these woods long before deer licenses were required, and regard the rules as for everyone else but them.

Additional deer if shot illegally must be retrieved when no one is watching. Hence, someone must re-enter the woods a week or two after the season closes and the forest is empty. They must locate and retrieve the illegal ones. The trip must be timed so as to arrive back at their vehicle after darkness has fallen in order to further avoid observance. Therefore, the last half mile will be in total darkness. I pat my coat pocket to make sure I still have my whistle.

It is a hard slog. Because of the weight behind me, my snowshoes sink into the snow much more deeply and with each step I must be on my toes to keep them from sliding backward. I pray to God that the bindings to not break. Soon, I stop looking at Da in front of me. Instead I concentrate on my breathing and watch the toes of my snowshoes, panting hard as I focus only on the next step. The rope digs into my rib cage complicating my already labored breathing. I’m committed to being up to the task as the walk takes on an endless quality and the light begins to fade.

In the ensuing darkness I can only tell when I step out of the broken trail by how far I sink into the soft powder. I am walking by feel and not sight. Da has disappeared into the darkness ahead, occasionally the sound of a broken branch, or a rustle as he scrapes through some of the brush tells me how far ahead of me he is, and that he is still there. Otherwise, I am alone, encased in a shroud of darkness, my vision not extending beyond the length of my arm, the only sound the shoosh of the snowshoes and the scrape of the deer that follows relentlessly behind me.

I can’t tell how long I’ve been walking, time doesn’t mean anything because only the end of the walk is important. It seems like forever already though. Suddenly I step down a slow incline and directly onto bare ground. A couple more step confirm it, the canopy above me prevents the snow from falling here. I’ve reached what my Da calls the hardwood. I stop and listen, there is no sound. Neither the hiss of the falling snow nor any sound ahead of me where I’d hoped to hear my father. No sound at all as I realize that I’ve not heard anything of him for some time, long after I was unable to see him in the falling snow. I had no reckoning of how long he’d been separated from me. In the oppressive silence I was suddenly aware of how isolated I was, in the forest, in the dark, unaware in any way of which direction I had been walking or which one I needed to go to get out.

As I waited for some sound the fear of my situation pressed down on me. The longer and harder I listened the more I imagined hearing things that weren’t there. Perhaps the sound of creatures, some real and some the subject of a nightmare. Wolves perhaps, hunting me now after first following the scent of the deer carcass, hidden behind the blanket of snow and darkness. I remembered my whistle. Should I use it, was I over-reacting? I didn’t want to be weak and considered a child, too young for such an important task. I didn’t want to be eaten by ravening wolves either. I pondered, each second ticking by as the hungry creatures crept closer.

Pulling off my glove, I reached out the bullet casing and licked cracked lips, not sure that I’d be able to make it work. I’d practiced before, there were plenty of spent shells, and it had taken me a bit to get the angle of the opening just right, but I’d gotten it, producing a very satisfying man-sized shriek. I blew across the opening. The accompanying piercing whistle insulting the darkness.

“Holy mother-of-god, Jesus Christ! My dad didn’t even try to muffle his voice. “That scared the living shit out of me!”

I was practically standing on top of his deer. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet in front of me, but I couldn’t see him. With a flush of warmth that had nothing to do with the soaking sweat of my inside clothes, I took a shuddering breath. The wolves wouldn’t get me after all.