“The Park” was, indeed, a most special place. Two weeks after Glenn St. Charles told me about it, I was able to get over to Nason Creek for another weekend of hunting. The first light of Saturday morning found me leaving the Chiwaukum Lake trail and heading straight uphill at the two-mile marker. By the time I had managed to work up a thoroughly good sweat, I noticed that the steep terrain above me was about to “gentle out” rather abruptly into the first of the big benches Glenn had described.
The earlier snows of autumn were temporarily in remission, and as my serious climbing came to an end, the underbrush thinned out dramatically beneath the canopy of the scattered ponderosa giants. The big trees were awesome in their silent stateliness, and the carpet at their feet was woven of pine needles, intertwined with the type of grassy forbs that mule deer love to munch on. No wonder Glenn had assured me I would find deer here!
After catching my breath for a bit, I put an arrow on the string and began to still-hunt—just a step or two at a time. I had scarcely started up again when suddenly I noticed the back end of a deer sticking out from behind a large ponderosa, some 30 yards away. Quickly I came to full draw and then eased ever so slowly to the side, so my arrow could clear the bark of the tree. He was, of course, looking straight at me—poised for flight. His smallish 3×3 rack wasn’t very impressive, but I wanted him badly, and, as far as I was concerned, any deer would contribute greatly to cutting down on my meat bill.
The shift to greater self-sufficiency, however, was not about to commence on that particular day. As the buck started to turn his flank to me in order to flee, I launched the arrow, and the resulting blur of motion somehow failed to produce any collision between the two. In a trice, he was out of sight, and I once again began to ponder what lessons there were to be learned from the encounter. At least I was now starting to have encounters! That was the important thing. I don’t think I even got back there again that fall of 1962, but I do remember one thrilling encounter which occurred the following season.
It was mid-November, 1963. I had again climbed up into The Park at daybreak under a snow-threatening sky. Several inches of snow lay on the ground already, and I positioned myself for a morning stand just above a well-used deer trail on the lower edge of one bench, at precisely the point where a subsidiary ridge came up from the valley below. From that vantage point, I could look far down both swales and spot anything
moving up into what I was starting to think of as my private sanctuary. I had yet to see another human being in The Park.
I had not been “on stand” more than 20 minutes when I spotted motion below, and my binoculars swiftly revealed a real dandy of a buck slowly feeding his way uphill in my direction. His antlers were spectacular! A 4×5, plus brows. “High, wide, and handsome,” as the saying goes. “At least 28-29 inches wide,” I remember thinking.
As the buck fed up the swale to my right, I realized I had no cover except for the big bushes right behind me that broke up my silhouette against the snowy backdrop. There was nothing to do but wait and see if he would pass by me within shooting range. There are, of course, different ways of defining “shooting range,” but suffice it to say for now that, as a novitiate bowhunter back in the 1960s, I was pretty much operating on the philosophy that, “If nothing flies, nothing dies!” Young, green, and too much of a romantic idealist, I still had much to learn about the hunting ethics of shot selection.
As this particular drama unfolded, I had a good 10 minutes to study the magnificent creature that seemed almost certain to offer me a shot eventually. I tried not to look at his antlers much, so as not to pour extra fuel on the fires of my rising excitement, but my self-discipline in those early years left a lot to be desired. Every time I did sneak another peek at his rack, the binoculars made it look ungodly humongous! Binos and spotting scopes have a way of doing that. At anything under a hundred yards, they tend to turn average animals into trophy animals, and trophy animals into possible world records.
The moment of truth was suddenly at hand. The buck had reached my same elevation on the gentle sidehill in front of me. He had stopped directly broadside to me, head down, and was pawing through the snow for some choice tufts of grass. I knew he wasn’t likely to come any closer. Certain my quarry was still oblivious to my presence, and figuring I had a few seconds to work with, I drew and took plenty of time to aim. Then the arrow was away. The buck heard the sound, but my arrow reached him before he had time to sort out what his senses were telling him.
Unfortunately, I missed him cleanly—this time on the low side. The arrow passed just behind his forelegs, and just barely below his brisket. Perhaps I had “parted hairs” once again. Only God knew for sure how close was “close,” but I found no evidence of hair or blood on the snow near his explosive, departing tracks. The arrow shaft was completely clean. I had guesstimated the distance at between 55-60 yards. When I paced off the distance, it was 64.
There’s an old hunter’s adage that, “A miss is as good as a mile.” True in one sense, but not always in bowhunting. An archer usually has the pleasure of being able to follow the arrow in flight. Sometimes a near miss, as in the case above, will give you almost as big a thrill as the dead-center hit you were hoping for.
Even to this day, the buck described above is the most exceptional mule deer I’ve ever run into in the field. My near miss was an incredible thrill because I really thought I had him dead to rights—until I suddenly knew I didn’t.
Grudgingly, success finally decided to land in my lap one year later. It was about time! I had heard from the gang at Northwest Archery that the Nason Creek migration was in full swing, so I headed across Stevens Pass on a Friday evening and prepared to visit The Park the next morning. Snow was again on the ground, and I headed for the same ambush spot that had worked so well for me one year earlier. I took up my old stand with a heart full of hope, a noggin full of fanciful visions, and a mind determined to remain in that one spot all day, if necessary. The deer trail in the snow just 15 yards below me was looking very well traveled. Somehow, I just knew today was going to be my day.
It all happened very suddenly around 10 a.m.: sounds of muted thunder, as hooves came racing toward me from out of nowhere off to my left. I turned my head to see two does running right down “my” trail, and I knew I had precious little time in which to bring my 50-pound recurve to full draw if I wanted to get a shot off before it was too late. Pure instinct took over, as it usually does in those situations, and—as the lead doe zipped past me—I let fly with a wing and a prayer. I don’t recall now if I consciously led her by a foot or so, or if I simply took a bead on her rib cage with my bow arm moving. Perhaps it was a combination of the two. I heard a loud thwack and saw the feathered end of the arrow go running off with her, embedded securely in the front shoulder.
It had all happened in the blink of an eye. My heart was in my throat. I held the strong impression that my arrow had caught the top of the lungs, and then stopped in the far shoulder. Although I remember feeling cautiously optimistic about my chances of recovery, I know I was far from feeling sanguine about it.
Everything I’d read on the subject said you had to wait at least half-an-hour before starting to trail your animal. An hour was recommended. After waiting for the longest half-hour of my life to pass, I struck out on the tracks of the doe that I knew had run off with my arrow. Within 60 yards, my deer had turned downhill—which I took to be a good sign. She then had slowed to a walk, and the red stains on the surface of the snow became considerably more abundant.
Suddenly, and much to my surprise, a human voice rang out from down the slope below me. I strained to pinpoint the source of the voice (which sounded vaguely familiar), and then my eyes picked out a human form, topped by a face I recognized as belonging to a friend of mine named Sam Baker.
“Is that you up there, Dennis? And did you just arrow a deer?” Sam shouted, not waiting for a response to his first question.
“Yes, it is, and I did!” was my prompt reply.
“Well, I’ve got Neal Bell with me down here, and we just came across a pretty good blood trail. We’ll help you track him down if you like.”
By then, I had closed the distance some, and I could see Neal, another high-school acquaintance, standing behind Sam, studying the snow at his feet. The three of us joined up and proceeded to follow the ample sign straight downhill. Within 50 yards or less, we came across the dead deer. She had traveled maybe 225 yards from where I had made my shot. Handshakes all around were the order of the day, and then the two were on their way. They had parked a second car on the northern edge of the unit and had many miles yet to hike if they were going to reach it by dark.
Once total stillness had returned around me, the enormity of the job still ahead struck my brain with considerable impact. Yes, I felt great exhilaration at finally “breaking the ice” by taking my first big-game animal, but getting the 160-pound, dead-weight carcass back to my car was not going to be easy. Since the slope I was on was so well-inclined (to be helpful), sliding my prize in the snow down to the valley floor below would be the easy part. What I really began to dread, the more I thought about it, were the long, nearly-flat two miles back to the trailhead parking lot.
I waited to field-dress my “trophy”* until I reached the main trail. That process of field-dressing proved uneventful enough, but because it was a first time for me, the full hour it took was longer than it needed to be. I had put a length of rope in my rucksack, and after tying one end of it around the deer’s rear hooves, I started the arduous job of dragging my load behind me as I trudged slowly down the trail. Thanks to the forest canopy above, and an elevation much lower than that of The Park, there unfortunately wasn’t a lick of snow on the trail to “grease the skids,” so to speak. I imagine the dressed carcass still weighed 125 pounds, and it wasn’t long before I was sweating like the proverbial pig and beginning to deploy some pretty colorful lingo uncharacteristic of me.
After a half-hour of very slow and painful going, it occurred to me I should try building an Indian-style travois—a long, triangular trundle-frame sturdy enough to keep the weight of my deer off the ground. I eventually came up with something I thought might work, including a headband harness for pulling, but this tactic proved only slightly less difficult than the first one. Seeing no other options, however, I labored on, lost in thought, and ruminating about the suddenly-discovered disadvantages of hunting by one’s lonesome.
What brought my silent agony to an end was the dreamlike impression that I was hearing voices. And then I realized I was. Turning around, I saw a huge hulk of a man and his two boys advancing rapidly down the trail behind me. He must have been nearly seven feet tall! They carried no weapons and were obviously not hunters themselves. They greeted me in a friendly fashion, and then the man wanted to know if I’d like him to carry it the rest of the way out to the trailhead. I was stunned! Did he mean just pick it up, put it on his shoulders, and start hiking? The idea had never occurred to me! I had serious doubts about my own capacity to do that physically, but clearly this was a Paul Bunyan who could!
Before I could even mumble something in answer to his most generous offer, he threw my trophy on his shoulders like a sack of flour and took off for the parking lot. As his long legs gobbled up the ground in front of him, with his two boys running along excitedly behind, he swung his head around and shouted, “The half-mile marker’s right here. If I reach the trailhead before you do, I’ll just put the deer on the ground next to your car.”
“Thanks a million!” I shouted back, not knowing what else to say. I stood there in virtual disbelief, catching my breath, and watched my deer disappear around a corner down the trail. There was no question as to who would reach the little parking lot first! I was suddenly feeling enormously tired, and I confess that, for a fleeting moment, the thought flashed through my mind that I just might never see my fresh, winter’s meat supply again!
Happily, my Paul Bunyan did, indeed, prove to be a Good Samaritan as well. When I finally reached my car, it and Sam Baker’s were the only vehicles left in the lot. And, lo there—lying on the gravel beneath my rear bumper—was my first-ever big game harvest. On the long drive home that evening, all I could think about was how very blessed I had been that day, and how very good that venison was going to taste throughout the coming winter and spring!
*For a bowhunter, I define “trophy” as a “first” of any kind, or a harvest bigger than the best one taken-to-date—of that same species.
Editor’s note: This article is the third 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 second Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson