Back home in Washington, I began to think about the fall of 1956 (by which time I’d have my own driver’s license), and about the mule deer that lived in the more open country on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. I was always hearing stories about Nason Creek, east of Stevens Pass, where an archer could hunt mule deer virtually all fall without any competition from rifle hunters.
Thanks to the early pioneers of bowhunting in Washington—men like Irl Stamps and Glenn St. Charles—Nason Creek was the first game management unit in the state to be set aside in the game regulations strictly for hunting with a bow and arrow. In my mind, that was the magical land of big bucks and the place I constantly dreamed of hunting until I was finally able to take myself there in the autumn of my 16th year.
I chuckle today whenever I think back on my first few deer hunts. I was such a neophyte! I had introduced my next-door neighbor, Tom Forbes, to archery a year or so earlier, and—when it finally came time to plan our first deer hunt at Nason Creek—he seemed nearly as excited as I was about the prospect of trying to sneak up on a deer, Indian-style. I couldn’t wait for school to get out on our chosen Friday so we could head for the mountains and our first big game adventure together with a bow in hand and a quiver on our backs.
Though it seemed like an eternity, the weekend finally arrived. After driving over Stevens Pass and around to the south end of the Nason Creek unit, we reached by nightfall the little “parking lot” at the Chiwaukum Lake trailhead, where we prepared to spend the night on the ground next to our car in eager anticipation of a predawn start for the “high country.” So intense was my excitement that I scarcely slept. Morning could not come soon enough, as far as I was concerned. Tom’s excitement level was evidently a notch or two below mine, however, because when 5 a.m. rolled around I had a hard time waking him up. After a quick cold breakfast, we shouldered our packs for the weekend adventure and headed up the trail.
I guess the only reason I even remember this weekend from half-a-century ago is that it turned out to be such a total bust—such a huge disappointment! Not only did we not see a single deer during the first day of hiking, but our borrowed tent didn’t happen to come with a rain-fly, so when a heavy storm came in that Saturday evening, we nearly drowned in our tent by the time daybreak finally arrived. It had been—for me—another largely sleepless night.
Around 2 a.m., the steady rain had turned to wet snow. Soaking-wet sleeping bags have a way of dampening one’s natural enthusiasm for almost anything, and like two drowned rats we packed up in a hurry at first light and scurried back down the trail toward the car. We were chilled to the bone, no doubt fighting hypothermia, and so utterly miserable that I don’t think either of us even bothered to look for deer on the way out.
That first disastrous trip was enough to convince my friend that hunting was not for him, and I don’t believe Tom ever went “deer hunting” again. I vaguely remember going back to Nason Creek later that same autumn when there was considerable snow on the ground, and being amazed at how many deer tracks there seemed to be almost everywhere, despite my frustrating inability to spot any of the flesh-and-blood critters that had made the tracks.
The next hunting season (1957) was the last one before I headed off to college. I think I was able to get back to Nason Creek a couple more times, but I never seemed to be able to find many deer, and I don’t believe I ever took another shot until after I had finished my schooling and returned to the Northwest for good. Then—for whatever reasons—my bowhunting fortunes began to change.
It was probably the last week of October, 1962. College graduation was now a few months behind me, and I was trudging up a snowy ridge-trail all by myself in Nason Creek, marveling at all the fresh deer tracks in evidence, when I lifted my head to see through the lightly falling snowflakes a dark figure walking down the trail toward me. Little did I realize that I was finally about to meet my “mentor.”
He was carrying a bow and had a back-quiver full of wooden arrows fletched with bar-wing turkey feathers. Much to my surprise, he was wearing a pair of heavy, dark wool pants identical to the ones I had on, but his jacket was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, except in movies. It appeared to be a medium-brown buckskin, complete with fringe dangling off the sleeves and all around the bottom edges.
“Howdy,” he said, I thought a bit gruffly. “What are you doing here?” was his immediate follow-up. I was starting to feel as if somehow he considered me an unwanted stranger trespassing on his private property.
“Well,” I replied, feeling a bit intimidated, “I was hoping I might find a deer up here that I could launch an arrow at.”
“There’s plenty of ’em travel this ridge morning or evening, all right—or simply cross over it from the basin behind you to the one over yonder, but if you’re not already up here by first light, your chances of spotting a nice buck out in the open go way down. Unless, of course, you spend the last hour of daylight staking out this game trail, and then hike out in the dark.”
The man’s tone was friendlier now, so I decided I probably had nothing to lose by introducing myself. “My name’s Dennis Dunn—from Seattle,” I said.
“Glenn St. Charles,” came the reply.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “I know you! At least I sure know who you are! Every bowhunter in this state knows who you are.” I was stunned by the serendipity of the unexpected encounter. This man was already something of a legend. How had I been lucky enough to stumble upon him in the heart of prime mule deer country?
It occurred to me I didn’t dare miss the opportunity to get some tips from him on just where (and how) I ought to be spending my time hunting the area. Of course, he might not want to share much with me, but I just had to make the effort to learn as much as I could.
“There’s probably no more than an hour-and-a-half of daylight remaining,” I ventured. “Could I hike out with you tonight?”
“Oh, no,” he answered. “I’m not headed out till tomorrow night.”
Since St. Charles was carrying only a very small daypack, that thought hadn’t even entered my head.
“Well, I guess you must have a tent nearby,” I said, feeling quite disappointed that our chance meeting seemed about to come to an end.
“Not really,” I heard him say. “Something a bit better. Some years ago, several friends and I built ourselves a little cabin up here. It’s pretty rustic, but it gives us a place to sleep and to cook, and take refuge when the weather turns nasty. We call it the Chalet. We have a lock on the door and keep it maintained just for our own use. Would you like to see it? It’s only about 15 minutes from here.”
“I sure would!” I stammered, thrilled that I was evidently going to have the opportunity to get to know this remarkable man better.
To this day, I still have visions in my head of what that old “Chalet” looked like. It was, indeed, very rustic; all the materials had been hauled up there by mule or on horseback. Yet it was well hidden, and at least it had provided St. Charles and his friends with a well-positioned, comfortable “base-camp,” and saved them countless hours of having to climb up and down the several steep miles that separated their “hidey-hole” from the nearest road on the valley floor.
We hadn’t been at the Chalet very long when I noticed it was snowing harder and the sky was becoming distinctly darker. I knew it was time for me to head down the mountain, but as I reached out my hand to say good-bye to my new friend, he took my shirtsleeve and offered me a slice of most welcome advice.
“Listen!” he said. “Whenever you have to limit yourself to just a one-day hunt, I suggest you spend your time in what we call ‘The Park.’ ”
“Where’s that?” I asked eagerly.
“You know where the Chiwaukum Lake trail comes into the unit from the east?”
“Yeah, I do. I’ve come in that way several times.”
“Well, The Park sits astride Thompson Ridge,” continued St. Charles. “If you turn 90 degrees right, at exactly the two-mile trail-marker and head straight up the steep sidehill, a 30-minute climb will take you up into The Park. It’s a really special place, consisting of several rather open benches dotted with a number of huge ponderosa pines. The deer seem to love that area and do a lot of feeding in there, as they head down out of the high country toward their wintering grounds.”
Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled to have this unlooked-for piece of knowledge dropped in my lap. And, as the reader will well understand, from that day forward, Glenn St. Charles’s Northwest Archery shop in Burien, Washington, became the place I visited frequently for all my real (or imagined) archery and bowhunting needs. Over the decades that followed, Glenn and I became friends, and—in the mid-1980s—I was even privileged to share one hunting camp with him on a Quebec hunt for caribou.
With the snow coming down even harder now, I thanked him profusely for his time and advice, then started following our tracks back to the main trail where we had met. Indeed, my luck had begun to change already! Taking a shortcut Glenn had advised, I suddenly noticed through the falling whiteness some motion in front of me. First a leg appeared, then an antler, then the whole body of a magnificent 4×4 buck, who was still quite unaware of my presence. He was walking slowly broadside to me, about 40 yards out. Instantly my heart started pounding in my ears. I slowly brought my recurve bow to full draw, and, when he entered a clear shooting lane, I let the arrow fly.
Had I had more hunting experience under my belt at the time, I probably would have let out some sort of “mew” or “grunt” to arrest the buck’s motion just before my release. The downside to that tactic (which occasionally backfires) is that once your quarry snaps his head around and spots you, he may “jump the string” and no longer be a stationary target by the time your arrow arrives. At 10 or 15 yards, it makes little or no difference, since the arrow will arrive so quickly. At 50 yards or more, it seldom makes any difference because that far out the animal tends to feel more curious than threatened. In my opinion, it’s those in-between distances of 20 to 40 yards where you really have to weigh carefully the pros and cons of alerting the game to your presence.
In this instance, my shaft passed just over the buck’s back. Too much adrenaline, too little experience, and perhaps too much to hope for—for a greenhorn bowhunter who had yet to take his first doe. The experience would come—and with it, eventual success.
Editor’s note: This article is the second of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from expert hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the first Chronicle here.