Today is the sacred day, the quiet Friday before the opening of Wisconsin gun deer season. It's one of my favorite days of the year.
Today is all about preparation and the gathering of friends. We'll start the morning with some duck hunting, but then the afternoon is for walking up to my stand, clearing shooting lanes, making sure there's a chair in there, and just generally getting the lay of the land one more time.
I hunt at the farm of a friend in Richland County. It's beautiful rolling land with farms interspersed with woods, perfect deer habitat. The stand I usually go to is on the top of a steep hill, as far away from the farmhouse as you can get and still be on the property. I walk up there in the dark on opening morning, so visiting it the day before helps reestablish my bearings.
This careful preparation plays another important role. It increases the chances that if I do shoot at a deer, I will kill it swiftly, ideally with one well-placed shot. I'm proud of the fact that I have never had to track a deer. I only take shots that I am fairly certain will do the job instantly.
On Saturday, we get up early and head for our stands in the cold and dark, and wait for sunup and the legal shooting period to begin. Right at that moment you always hear crackling around you as hunters take their first deer of the nine-day season. Then those of us who haven't been watching a deer since before sunrise sit quietly all morning waiting for a deer to walk by. It's unlike anything else I do all year. I don't have the discipline for meditation, but this is the closest I get to it. It's lots of quiet, solitary time, and perfect for reflection on the year gone by and the year to come.
Lunch is always pheasant casserole provided by the Fontana boys, followed by a short nap in the big chairs on the porch. Then it's back out for the afternoon to sit in a different stand, preferably one with a good view of the sunset. Those who might mistake my closed eyes during the afternoon for another nap don't understand deer hunting. I'm listening intently.
At the end of the day, we gather back at the farmhouse and tell stories about our days in the woods while cocktails and snacks are served. (This year I'm in charge of cocktail hour. I'm planning good Wisconsin cheese, crackers, venison sausage and marinated venison strips. Some in the camp are talking about vegetables, but I'm resisting. Healthy eating certainly has its place, but that place is not in deer camp.) Dinner on Saturday is traditionally venison steaks, baked potatoes and salad. OK, so it's heavy on the red meat, but venison is actually very lean.
Then, after we clean up (deer camp is surprisingly neat and well organized), we play a little Sheepshead, the complicated German card game that is a staple of deer camps throughout Wisconsin. Our camp has three generations of hunters, and suddenly I've become a member of the oldest. I'm looking forward to teaching the youngest kids Sheepshead, as it's a game best learned when you're young, since the rules frustrate adults who look at things too logically.
Most years I don't shoot a deer. Many years I never even pull the trigger. The killing of deer is the least of it.
For hundreds of thousands of hunters, deer season is a chance to renew old friendships, to tell tall stories, and to sit quietly in the woods for hours on end alone with our thoughts, which -- if you're capable of that -- is a good measure of your peace of mind. If you can sit for hours in the cold with only your thoughts as company and be content, it tells you something good about how you've lived your life in the year that has passed since you were there last.