Old times with old friends give old bowhunters new perspective.
In August 1969, at Oregon's Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, I became a bowhunter. Discharged after three years in the U.S. Army, I was 24 years old and was just hanging out until returning to college in the fall. So when Don Hummel, a close friend since the first grade, asked if I wanted to go bowhunting at Hart Mountain, my response was, "Bowhunting?"
Don Hummel's artwork depicts Hart Mountain bucks of old. Don got me started as a bowhunter 40 years ago.
As a young Marine, Don had been critically injured in Vietnam. Recently returned to civilian life, and on the mend, he was again roaming his beloved deserts and marshes of eastern Oregon. He had bowhunted at Hart Mountain in his teen years and knew the routine. I was tagging along for something to do.
In 2009, my friend Jeff Zennie, a licensed outfitter in Oregon, drew the one outfitter tag for the early Hart Mountain archery season, August 5-13. Would I like to have the tag? At first I said no. You see, many Hart Mountain veterans had told me the mule deer herd there had dwindled dramatically. They assured me I would be disappointed.
After some thought, however, I decided to go for it. Even if I failed to kill a deer, the tag would allow me to celebrate my 40th bowhunting anniversary at its very birthplace. What a perfect milestone and venue for reflection and self-evaluation. Would I find the mountain changed? Would I find myself changed?
To make things even better, some old friends planned to join me. Jack Faulkner and I have been close friends since the age of three -- 61 years. Gary Nichols and I have hunted together for more than 30 years, and we first met at Hart Mountain. My long-time hunting pal Larry D. Jones would videotape the hunt. And Jeff Zennie, my bowhunting buddy for many years, made the whole hunt possible.
Finally, Don Hummel, now a wildlife artist, would be there. Don had lived in Alaska for 15 years, during which we had not seen each other. Now living in Nevada, he would drive up for a few days. What better way to celebrate 40 years of bowhunting than with the person who started it all?
WHAT WAS THE UPSHOT? Concerning externals, I found a mixed bag. Indeed, the mule deer hunting had declined. In my early years, we routinely saw 30-40 bucks every day, including some monsters, and I often made two or three stalks a day. In 2009, I saw 30 bucks total in nine days and made two stalks. The Hart Mountain veterans were right.
The desert beauty has not changed. The billions of stars at night, the blazing sun at midday, the unquenchable dust, the spice of sage, the whisper of fluttering aspen leaves, the clean desert lines against a deep blue sky -- in 40 years, none of this has changed.
Nor has the appeal of the mule deer. Even in their scarcity, the sagebrush bucks trigger the same excitement and anticipation in me they did 40 years ago. As I stalked a group of seven bucks, two with antlers over 25 inches wide -- the two biggest bucks I saw in 2009 -- the velvet antlers glowing in the sunlight above the sage incited the same thrill for me they always had. Unfortunately, the warning snort of a distant antelope caught the attention of those bucks and convinced them to move elsewhere -- just as in the old days.
WHAT ABOUT THE INTERNALS, the heart and gut aspects of the hunt? Two of my greatest dreads in life are 1) losing my enthusiasm for the hunt, and 2) losing the physical ability to hunt hard. After 40 years, would I still have it?
While finding bucks was harder today, my desire and drive to find them had grown. For whatever reason, I felt more motivated to roll out of the sleeping bag at 3 a.m. and to climb the mountain in anticipation of stalking a buck than ever before. Just as gratifying, I still had the physical ability to do it (for more on that, see my Editorial, "Hunting Pleasure," page 4).
With 40 years' perspective, my appreciation for the hunt has increased. As a young man, I often took "next year" for granted. Now, knowing the rodeo won't last forever, I cherish every moment in the field and strive to make the most of every one.
Above all, I strive to make the most of every moment with friends. As a young man, I often took friends, just like the "next year" of hunting, for granted. But with 40 years' perspective, I saw Don, Jack, Gary, Larry, and Jeff through new eyes. As we chatted in camp, reflecting on our juvenile pranks from the past and discussing the prospects of old age, I cherished every moment. Despite many years apart, our bonds remained strong, and our reunion was the highlight of the trip. Maybe that's what my 40th bowhunting anniversary celebration was all about in the first place.