By Emily Schuh Berriochoa
*Dwight’s voice speaks from his article notes, hunting log, and letter to Emily. Thanks to my sister, Margie, for investing her heart and soul in the words of this story and making it better than I ever could have.
“Hey, Dad, are you going to write a story about this hunt?” I asked hopefully as we trudged up the trail.
His voice was weary. “That’s my plan,” Dad said. “I was thinking about calling it ‘The Last Stand.’ What do you think?”
“That’s perfect!” I said. “I can’t wait to read it.”
Little did I know I’d have to write it.
When Dad finally drew this mule deer tag in Utah’s Book Cliffs, he was eight years into a multiple myeloma diagnosis and fighting for every hunt — a scenario he couldn’t have dreamed would happen when he started applying for the draw 18 years prior.
Nonetheless, Dad began planning the hunt. “Any day out — even with chronic pain and fatigue — sure beats lying in a hospital bed!” he said more than once.
His physical limitations made the odds of being able to hunt at all seem slim, but as the summer of 2018 progressed, his condition stabilized enough for him to continue with his plan. His close hunting buddy, Shay Mann, would join him for a couple days at the start, but otherwise, Dad would be solo.
I fully understood that “getting out there” was not a choice for him. It’s in the Schuh DNA. He had to go, and so did I. I didn’t think twice about enabling a cancer patient to hunt the remote desert. I simply compiled emergency contacts and mapped the route to the nearest hospital. I told my corporate job and family that I’d be out, with no definite return date. And, I told Dad he was stuck with me.
Dad hated the notion that I might be ducking my own responsibilities for a “helpless old man.” However, his passion to pursue the hunt was stronger than his pride, so he acquiesced to my plan. Because I am not an experienced hunter, the bar for my involvement was low.
Emily was along with me to be my caregiver. I expected her to help out around camp and make sure I had no major health disasters.
I would keep him safe and do the heavy lifting. But I had standards. I’d do whatever he wanted...except cook and wash dishes. He’d have to hunt with Larry D. Jones for that!
In a past Bowhunter column, Dad explained the evolution of his hunting style: I still love to stalk deer, but with age and experience, my views and techniques have evolved...a better way to kill deer is to find ways to get closer, easier shots.
Dealing with cracked bones, chronic exhaustion, pain, and chemo-fogged thinking made getting closer, easier shots even more critical. Because Utah hadn’t seen rain in months, Dad’s strategy was to set up on a few waterholes and let the bone-dry desert drive bucks to him in droves.
With that plan in hand, we left Idaho on Wednesday, August 15, and set up camp in the Book Cliffs well after dark.
We had two days to scout before opening day. The first morning, we drove within 50 yards of a dozen bucks. I was starry-eyed — this seemed like it should be easy. I knew nothing.
Frustratingly, every single waterhole we found had a trail camera on it. Regardless, Shay set up a treestand above a large spring filled with cattle, elk, and deer sign.
Makeda Trujillo Hanson, a habitat manager for the Utah DWR, arrived later that day with her family. Makeda had provided us with a wealth of information that included the location of a waterhole in premier deer country about 90 minutes from Shay’s Cow Stand.
The trail-cam photos from the Trujillo-Hanson waterhole were underwhelming, but Dad was optimistic. We spent hours meticulously installing a ground blind above the aspen spring. Dad was nothing if not particular.
With Shay’s Cow Stand and the Trujillo-Hanson Aspen Blind in place, we were ready.
Early on opening day, the floodgates of heaven opened. Every single divot in the arid desert filled with rainwater, rendering spring-fed waterholes worthless for hunting.
One day shot.
After a clear night, Dad left camp before dawn to sit the Cow Stand. The day’s action was uninspiring: four elk, a stream of cows, and one disgusted hunter. Hoping for better, we moved camp 30 miles to a stark clearing near the Aspen Blind.
I thought the desert was still too wet for springs to prove useful, but Dad wanted to give it a shot. He both started and ended the day in the Aspen Blind. Although he saw nothing, he liked the spot enough to try again the next day.
The next day, however, things went from marginal to bad.
Thunderstorms rolled through all night, culminating in an epic lightning and hailstorm that dented the camper and buried our clearing in hail and ice water.When the storm broke late in the day, we drove out onto a nearby airstrip to glass. We didn’t see much, so we decided to search the next day for a 3x4 buck Dad had seen.
My original plan for this trip was to hammer out some work in Dad’s camper while he sat on waterholes. But all of this water was ruining our strategy, so I stowed my computer and got serious about hunting.
The 3x4 wasn’t around at first light, so we returned to the airstrip — and found bucks. What ensued was four days of early morning thunderstorms followed by stalk after stalk.
First, we’d spot some bucks and devise a plan involving facepaint, stalking socks, and a snack. Then I’d drop Dad off on the road nearest the buck, and he’d set off. I’d circle back to a vantage point and get him as close as possible with hand signals. But invariably the wind would shift, the buck would vanish, Dad would jump an unseen deer, a barking dog would spook every living thing, or other hunters would unwittingly stalk into us.
I’ve never had so much fun. Dad was giving it all he had. Stalking was a physically herculean effort, so he spent an eternity assessing each scenario like he was studying for the bar exam before deciding if he wanted to engage. The man would not be rushed. I watched — and learned.
One afternoon, Dad just had to go climb a lone fir we’d noticed during our stalks. I had been looking at the Lone Tree as a great observation stand. On closer inspection, we found a dug-out hole that looked like a mineral lick in front of the tree. It was also surrounded by tracks. This only enhanced my view of this tree for a stand.
With nothing to lose, we placed a stand in Lone Tree early Saturday morning. I slunk away in the dark, leaving Dad to manage as long as possible. A handful of deer fed through all morning. Although nothing presented a shot, this was encouraging.
Dad returned to Lone Tree before dawn. Again, a few bucks came through first thing, but that was it. On the hike out, Dad glassed six bucks in the canyon to the southeast.I accompanied him back to Lone Tree that afternoon. In spite of the earlier deer sightings, he was convinced no deer would be bedded along our approach. Seeing no reason deer wouldn’t be there, I sneaked along. Meanwhile, Dad forged ahead — straight into the bucks he’d glassed earlier.
The brush exploded with hooves and antlers. Dad was disgusted. Despite the blown opportunity, I insisted we remain on alert.
As we approached Lone Tree, she continued to creep and look when it made no sense. I thought she was nuts. How could there be any deer left? But as we approached the tree, Em said, “Dad, I see antlers.” Good grief.
“You’ve gotta go after him, Dad. It’s worth a shot!” Thankfully, the relentless wind masked our kerfuffle as Dad hurriedly donned stalking socks and crept stiffly into the thicket on a game trail.
A small eternity later, Dad returned. He had drawn on the buck at 20 yards, hoping it would take one...more...step. It never did, and eventually he couldn’t hold the bowstring any longer.
The next day, Monday, would be our last. After nine days of dawn-to-dusk hunting, Dad was reaching his limit.
Dad took his Last Stand.
With the background from yesterday, I vowed to endure the stand until 2 p.m. I didn’t need to wait that long.Just after 7 a.m., two bucks and a doe showed up. Inexplicably, the two bucks kept working my way. The smaller of the two stopped 30 yards south of my tree, but the bigger buck kept coming, almost as if God was directing his path.
I gripped my bow, waiting until the buck was almost past me, and then raised it into drawing position. When he stopped, I started to draw. I reached half draw...and that was it. I could not get it back. I let down slowly, regrouped, and drew again. Still no go. I was sure he was going to see me. But he stayed put. I was afraid to look at his eyes for fear he was looking at me.
On the third try, I told myself, “You have to get this thing back!” At half draw, I seemed unable to go any farther. That was simply not an option; I summoned every ounce of strength possible, and I managed to break over the hump. What a relief!
The buck was still just standing there, not looking up at me. I deliberately lined up the pin on his side. The arrow went cleanly through the buck’s chest and lay on the ground where he had stood. He disappeared instantly.
I texted Em — Just shot buck; will come get you! — and climbed down.
I was just leaving camp to pack up the Aspen Blind when the text came in. I immediately headed for Lone Tree instead. No way was I going to wait for him.
I found Dad having a snack at the Tree. Together, we followed the blood trail to the north along a sidehill. Suddenly, the buck exploded out of the brush and bolted straight downhill.
We decided I should circle around the perpendicular ridge and glass back onto the slope where we had last seen the buck. I picked the hillside apart with a sinking feeling that he had likely raced far down into the draw below.
But then I heard crashing only 150 yards below Lone Tree. I watched intently and saw the buck careen from the dense brush and go still against a downed tree.
Dad was ecstatic. It wasn’t the monster he’d once dreamed of, but this Last Stand buck taken in the 11th hour of the hunt — and of life — thrilled Dad as much as any animal he’d ever taken. I’ll vouch for that.
As we packed out the treestand, gear, and deer meat, it crossed my mind several times that it was a pinnacle experience to pack out a buck for Dwight Schuh.
I packed his buck, and now I’m telling his story. A Dwight Schuh article would stick to a theme and neatly tie the end back to the beginning. But this story is not neat. It is full of failures, frustration, fatigue, and foiled plans. So, I’m going to end it my way.
Dad was a skilled and experienced hunter, and no one was more determined or dedicated to the process than he was. He was a writer and mentor who inspired a whole generation to pursue hardcore backcountry bowhunting. He lived and led by example.
But on that last morning, he wasn’t a hero or a legend. He was just an old guy with cancer doing the thing he couldn’t not do. He climbed up to the Last Stand in that inexplicable Lone Tree and struggled three times to draw his bow on a deer that just stood there. That was not strategy or skill. That was a dang miracle.
After the hunt, Dad wrote me a letter:
Your involvement became so much greater [than caretaking]. You demonstrated excellent woodsmanship skills, but maybe even more, you showed excellent hunting skills in terms of spotting, patience, and stalking. You became the foundation for a successful hunt.
It was a wonderful experience for me. Thank you for making it possible. Now, if you would just concede to cook and wash dishes, you’d be perfect… I love you, Dad.
Over the next three months, Dad and I formed a strong bond hunting elk and late-season deer in Idaho. Neither of us harvested animals, so the Book Cliffs buck really was Dad’s Last Stand.
Hey, Dad, we miss you. We couldn’t foresee when you would reach your trail’s end, because you never said die. You planned your next adventure to the very end. I’ll do the same, and if I ever start to doubt myself, I’ll remember what you used to tell me: “Just get out there — it’s always worth it.”