On shooting a deer

Michael Petrou on his biggest worry going into his first hunt

London looks/Flickr

This began long before I was born. More than fifty years ago my father, 20 years old, attended a job fair for teachers in Toronto. The lines for local school boards were long, so my father applied for a job in a community on the north shore of Lake Superior called Pass Lake. It was farther from home than he had ever been. The recruiters said it was mostly inhabited by Danes. “Danes are good people,” my grandfather told my father when he got home. My grandfather had immigrated to Canada from northern Greece a few decades earlier. I don’t know where he had encountered Danes before.

My dad spent three years in Pass Lake, and another elsewhere in the north. It made a tremendous impression on him. Everyone hunted and fished up there, so my dad did, too. He’s told me about fish caught and deer shot so often that I can recite the stories as if I had been there. There was the huge pickerel that unexpectedly hit a Canadian Wiggler on a scorching summer day; the steelhead that was hauled out of the pool beneath Portage Falls and then fell back into the water when a poorly tied knot unraveled; my dad’s first deer, of which he was immensely proud, until a local man, blind and gruff, gripped its leg and pronounced it the size of a dog.

My dad stopped hunting when he left the north. But I grew up fishing with him, mostly for speckled trout, and still mimic his habit of fingering the line with my free hand to better feel a tentative nibble. The rifles and shotgun stayed packed away, cleaned and oiled every few years but never used—until I was about 10 and my dad took me to the shooting range. He reasoned I would be less likely to secretly handle them if they weren’t treated like something forbidden and mysterious. We shot at paper targets for an hour or so and went home. I didn’t touch the guns again until a couple of years ago, when I decided I might like to hunt one day and my dad gave them to me.

I had mixed feelings about hunting from the start. I like the outdoors and being alone in the bush. A summer job tree planting near White River was enjoyable as much for its solitude as anything else. I liked the idea of taking up one of my father’s pastimes. I believe anyone who eats meat should probably confront the fact that an animal is killed so they can do so. And I know most hunted animals have a better life and death than commercially raised and slaughtered livestock. I also like eating venison.

But I don’t like killing. I catch myself speaking softly to a trout while trying to remove a swallowed hook. My stomach turns with regret if, after removing the hook and releasing the fish, I see it roll belly-up downstream before disappearing in rapids. Fish I intend to eat I kill immediately. There’s no string of half-dead trout lolling beside my canoe. They’re brought out of the water and smashed violently over the head seconds later. A few years ago I caught my first steelhead, long and silver and bigger than any trout I had caught before. It lay among dead grass and the first green shoots of spring beside a snow-swollen creek near Georgian Bay while I looked around for something to break its neck. Seeing nothing, and rather than leaving it, gills-heaving, while I trudged into the woods for a heavy branch, I took the net hanging from belt—one of those wooden, beautifully designed ones—and beat the trout until it was dead and the net was splintered.

And so when I thought I might hunt, my primary concern was learning to shoot well enough to kill a deer quickly. I went to a public range near Ottawa—it was a more welcoming and less intimidating place than I had imagined, despite the jarring cacophony of noise—and began to practice. My dad’s old .308 calibre rifle feels like a cannon when fired. After two-dozen rounds, my cheek is sore from holding it tight against the stock, and there is deep purple bruise on my shoulder. Without a scope, I can consistently hit a 30-centimetre target at 100 metres. There is pleasure in this, almost like playing snooker. But I was most motivated by the fear of shooting a deer somewhere other than its heart and lungs and watching it run from me, wounded, doomed, and unrecoverable—like a belly-up speckled trout floating away but infinitely worse.

I have a friend, Pat, whom I have known since we were ten or eleven. Lately we’ve canoed together with a couple of other friends every summer in Algonquin Park. His parents, Hugh and Carol, recently moved to a log home near Bancroft that has an expanse of field and hardwood forest behind it. We decided to meet there for a weekend during hunting season this fall, he driving up from Toronto, me from Ottawa. My preparation consisted of more target practice and watching instructional videos about field dressing deer on YouTube. Hugh and Carol had tracked the daily migrations deer make every dusk and dawn, from the shelter of the bush, across an open field to more woods, and back. They dumped rotten apples and vegetable scraps where the deer often emerged from the forest to encourage them to linger there.

I arrived and concealed myself in a stand of trees about 70 metres away from where the deer usually left the woods. An hour passed, then two. It snowed a bit, and the cloud cover dropped. It was nearing dusk and the air was cold. Two shadows appeared to detach themselves from the forest. I squinted to be sure. They were does: no antlers, slight and graceful bodies. I felt almost relieved. The tag in my pack was for a buck, meaning I couldn’t shoot a doe even if I had wanted to. I shifted on the ground, rustling leaves. One of the does looked in my direction, her large round ears rotating toward me. I didn’t move but neither did the deer relax again. They bounded lightly away along the tree line, white tails raised.

Worried that I was too far away from the bush to shoot with confidence, I shouldered my pack and moved to another clump of trees and boulders closer to the edge of the woods. I broke off some branches in front of me that blocked where I expected to be shooting and settled on the ground. It was now almost dark. When another deer emerged from the woods there was no question about its gender. He was enormous, visibly muscled and carrying a rack of antlers. I pushed the safety off my rifle. I tried to hold the iron sight at the tip of its barrel steady behind the buck’s front shoulder. I squeezed the trigger.

Nothing indicated I hit him. There was the explosive crack of the rifle being fired, the jerk of its recoil against my shoulder, and in the fraction of a second it took my eyes to refocus, the buck had turned 180 degrees and was leaping—forelegs curled beneath his chest, back legs extended, his whole body airborne, sleek and beautiful—back into the woods. He seemed frozen for a moment like that, a picture of pure power, and then was gone. I didn’t hear or see anything more.

I felt sick. There was no way I could have missed, not from so close. I was sure what I had feared most had come to pass. The deer was wounded and suffering and would run for miles before slowly dying. I walked to where it had stood. There was a spot of red on the ground, but pushing into the woods I couldn’t find a blood trail. Maybe I really had missed. Maybe the red spot on the ground had been something else: a fleck of apple peel, a crushed berry. My mind groped. I went back to where the deer had stood and picked up a tiny glob staining a leaf. It was blood or tissue, thick and viscous when rubbed between my thumb and finger, and more pink than red. I looked in the woods again and found the buck about 30 metres away, slightly concealed by a rise in the ground. He was dead, shot cleanly through the chest.

My father, when I told him I planned to hunt this fall, was pleased. I think it reminded him of a special time in his own life. He also suggested I might feel some remorse. I thought I would, too. But seeing the deer, the strongest emotion was relief that it had died quickly. There was satisfaction, too, and some pride. I still had a lot of work to do.

It was night now. I unloaded my rifle and put it some distance away with fluorescent flagging tape tied to its barrel. I put on a headlamp and set up another flashlight nearby. From my knapsack I took rope, latex gloves, and my father’s old knife. Its handle is dark well-handled wood. The sharp blade is rounded and tarnished, angled slightly away from the handle. I rolled the deer onto its back. It was heavy and this was difficult. I tied two of its legs to nearby trees so that its belly was exposed. I cut this open, rolled the deer onto its side again, and pulled out its stomach and intestines. I reached up into its blood-filled chest and took out its heart, lungs, and other organs. Its body was still warm and smelled a little like raw lamb.

By now Hugh, who had heard the shot from his house, had brought his truck close and was calling to me from the nearby field. We dragged the deer through the woods, put it into the back of his truck, and drove it back to the farm, hanging the carcass from one of the outbuildings. I was covered in blood and showered. Hugh and Carol raise chickens. He had been cooking two of them in garlic, wine and saffron all afternoon. They were ready. Pat called. He was about 40 minutes away. We poured a beer and waited.

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