He studied his hunter training manual with great enthusiasm and was overjoyed when he received a passing grade. His certificate is proudly displayed in his bedroom, right beside a framed photograph of his dog Lucky and below his Lord of the Rings poster. It was a proud moment when the certificate went up. He was officially a hunter, “just like dad,” he had said to mom.
The gun, complete with scope, rings, sling, case and 40 rounds set me back about $600.00—a reasonable cost for a youth model 243. The camo jacket and pants, capable of withstanding November hunting temperatures with a few layers beneath, boots, gloves, handwarmers and a padded cushion for sitting, one general white-tailed deer tag and a Supplemental doe tag, pushed the total near a not-so reasonable $1000.00. But it was worth it, and I looked forward to hunting with my little buddy.
Some trying times shooting the gun that—unlike the 22 he had fired so often—suddenly had a kick, concerned me for a while, until we figured out the loads were too hot for the little short-barrelled gun he was so proud of. With another 40 rounds of new ammunition and some adjustments to his mechanics, six of his last seven shots were right in the money and I was confident he knew what to do. He was ready and had already picked out a spot on the wall where his first deer would hang, right beside dads. November was fast approaching and he couldn’t wait. I was excited too.
|As a father, one of my proudest moments.
I called him my “little team of horses” because that is what followed me through the forest as we examined any deer sign we happened on. The steady swish, swish, swish of his pant legs let me know he was always close behind, regardless of the size of the hill, and the never-ending questions... but it was all good, I was hunting with my boy.
And we were both learning.
One day we decided to run up to what is known as the Bundaberg Lodge, a wall tent hunting camp that my hunting partners Ken Colwill, Ken Marlatt, Eric Haug and I normally occupy in October. But work had changed things and the tent went up in November. I couldn’t make the date but managed to spend a day with my son hunting with the guys. He figured the camp was pretty cool and wished we could spend the night in the tent, but homework and other commitments gave us just that day. Our plan was to return a few days later and hunt with the guys again.
That afternoon the two of us sat on the edge of a small ridge just off a cutline. We were watching a well-used deer trail we had discovered that ran along the bottom of the ridge. The weather was pleasant and we were enjoying ourselves listening to the sounds of the forest. His ears must be better than mine because he heard the telltale sound of hooves on dry leaves before I did.
And then, a young buck stepped out, broadside.
I had the deer in full view with my binocular, up close—he was less than 30-yards away.
“I can see it perfect dad,” he said in an excited voice.
“Take him then if you want,” I responded, just as excited.
The report of his rifle and the puff of hair that suddenly appeared behind the deer’s front shoulder told me the deer had been hit. We watched as the young buck slowly bounded off and disappeared into the trees.
“I hit him dad!” came the voice of excitement.
A quick look confirmed he was indeed excited—his knees were shaking. He was experiencing the thrill of his first deer kill.
I hugged my boy and shook his hand. I was very proud. And then, everything that was so perfect, suddenly took a turn for the worse.
We couldn’t find the deer.
We searched hard, walking back to our starting point several times and beginning again. Dark spruce trees, no snow or blood made our search difficult. I was confused though, I had seen this scenario many times before and the deer had always been found.
It was starting to get dark and we had to return home soon. I decided to head back to camp and get the rest of the guys to help us search. They would be back from hunting soon.
After hearing our story, the guys congratulated Dakota, lifting his spirits. They also assured him we would find his deer. In short order we made a plan and were searching again, but it was not to be. The deer couldn’t be found.
|Dakota and his short-barelled gun.
I’m not exactly sure how my son felt. I know he was definitely upset and I felt for him. In fact, if he felt half as bad as I did, I knew he would be hurting.
We explained to him that sometimes that happens; hunting isn’t always perfect. The guys promised him they would look for his deer again in the morning.
We drove home that night in silence, he with his headphones on and me in my thoughts.
A couple days later the phone rang.
It was Ken Marlatt.
“We found Dakota’s deer,” Ken said. “It wasn’t 30-yards from where he shot it. It’s right under a big spruce tree. There’s not much left of it though, but I took a couple of pictures.”
The birds and coyotes had done their job well.
I relayed the message to Dakota.
“I want to tag the deer dad,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “If you take the antlers you have to use your tag.”
“It’s my deer, I don’t care how big it is,” he said. “Ask Ken if he can get them for me.”
I explained that Ken couldn’t. That if he had the antlers in his possession he might get in trouble. I assured him the antlers would still be there when we returned. He would have something to show for his first deer after all.
For the next two days that was all he talked about; finally getting his buck.
We arrived back at the Bundaberg Lodge and met with the guys again. Soon he had Ken Colwill and I on the trail of his deer. I was excited too; I knew how much this meant to him. And then, for the second time, everything went wrong.
We couldn’t find the deer. It was gone; something had dragged it off.
Now he couldn’t believe his bad luck.
“I have nothing to show for it dad,” he said. “No meat, no antlers... nothing.”
On our way back to camp he asked me what he was supposed to do with his tag.
The question surprised me.
“You don’t have to do anything with it,” I said. “There isn’t anything you can tag.”
I explained that he was still able to use his buck tag even though he had already killed a deer. There was no law that said he had to throw away his tag.
It didn’t quite sit well with him though. He felt he should at least use one of his tags. I suggested that if he felt that strongly then he could burn one in the fire. I also explained that if he burned his buck tag he wouldn’t be able to hunt a buck.
We returned to camp with a very dejected Dakota in tow. All he had now was a photo on Ken’s camera that had yet to be seen.
Ken pulled out the camera.
The buck in the photo wasn’t a monster by any stretch of the imagination, but in the eyes of a 12-year-old, he was indeed a prize, even in its current state.
|The Ghost Deer.
Dakota stared at his deer in the viewfinder.
“I would tag that,” he said to everybody.
He was genuinely hurt; I could see it in his eyes as he kicked at the leaves on the frozen ground. My heart had been stung too, as I watched my young hunter do his best to be a man in a hunting camp full of men. He fought his emotions as best he could and when he was afraid he would fail, he kicked his way over to the meatpole where a doe hung. He didn’t return for quite some time—he had to be alone. He had been heartbroken now, twice over the same deer.
When he returned to the campfire he asked what tag he should burn. We suggested that he burn a doe tag. Looking back, he probably would have burned his buck tag had we not convinced him otherwise.
I struggled with my emotions over the next few days. I was proud of my son for what he had accomplished and what he had done. I think he even taught me and the guys at the Bundaberg Lodge a bit of a lesson, without ever realizing he had.
I wanted to tell his story, I thought it might do some good in light of all the bad that takes place, but I wasn’t sure what people would think.
I told the story to Darcy Boucher, a fish and wildlife officer in Athabasca, the WMU where the deer had been shot. I had met Darcy before and knew he would give me the straight goods.
“In your son’s case, there wasn’t anything to recover,” Darcy said. “Burning one of his tags was a very honourable thing to do. Few would.”
We had a couple other chances later that season to get him a deer. I rattled one in one day but he came in fast and busted us. Actually, I should say me; it was my head doing all the moving trying to explain the situation to my young hunter while watching the deer come in.
We were both learning.
And we had another chance at a real good buck another day but he was on a mission, and it happened too fast for the short-barrelled gun that had never seen that before. We never got close enough to a doe.
Luck was hard to come by for us, our first year hunting together. But that will change; he has many years of hunting in front of him yet. And you can bet I’ll be there when he closes that first tag.
The lost deer, well, he’s okay with it now. In fact, we called the deer the “Ghost Deer” for a little while. Now we hardly mention it at all.
He’s got big plans for next season and is already talking about getting our draws in. Dad has Camp Wainwright yet and he wishes he could come, but he knows his draw priority is too low. But when he goes... boy, look out! It’s going to make all my deer look small.
We can hardly wait until next season. ■
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