Some things just go together, like country-rap songs or chocolate chip cookies and Michigan IPA. Well, maybe that’s just me, but with fresh snow on the ground, a few days left of bow season and some time off work for the holidays, I couldn’t resist strapping on snowshoes and a backpack full of backcountry camping gear, grabbing my bow and heading out to the Pigeon River Country, never mind the sub-freezing temperature.
Snowshoeing can be a challenging workout on its own, especially off-trail, and winter camping requires its own set of considerations. Combining these activities with a serious bow hunt wouldn’t be easy, but I knew it would be fun. I planned a two-day hunt over the last weekend of the season, just before New Year’s Eve. I didn’t start hunting until later in the afternoon because I went snowshoeing earlier in the day with my dad, but that was time well spent.
I decided to seek a coniferous area of the forest since a storm had just blown through which would provide downed limbs for deer to nibble on. I scout often in the summer and early fall when I’m backpacking and fishing, and I thought of an area I’d hiked through near a small lake surrounded by hemlock and some small hills which would provide food, cover and water. A few summers ago I saw a magnificent bull elk on the other side of the lake, which had been the coolest thing I’d seen in the Pigeon River Country until four of them came within twenty yards of me while still-hunting during rifle season two years ago.
The two-track running to the lake was unplowed, so I parked my vehicle and snow-shoed down the trail. I saw some tire tracks, but I didn’t want to risk getting my crossover SUV stuck and, besides, hoofing it was part of the adventure! A few miles down the two-track, the lake appeared on the right surrounded by the most beautiful snow-covered hemlock you can imagine. It looked like a postcard for what the north woods is all about and a reminder of why it’s important to protect places like the Pigeon River Country.
I hiked down to the shore, set down my bow, took off my pack and removed my water bottles from the side pockets. I planned to get my water from the lake, so I didn’t pack much in. However, upon breaking the ice with my hatchet, the water was muddy and mucky from the shallow marsh rimming the lake. The ice wasn’t thick enough to walk on, so rather than drinking mud, I went to Plan B and decided to get my water by melting snow. But that would wait until I set up camp. I snatched some ice cycles off low-hanging branches and let them melt in my mouth for a water fix.
The prevailing wind was supposed to come from the north the first day and the south-west the second day. I decided to scout northward of the lake on the first day and find a place to pitch camp, and still-hunt to the south on the second day, making sure I was always moving against the prevailing wind. West of the lake, going north, I discovered a highway of deer tracks, with entrance ramps coming in from the hills to the west. Deer used the trail to skirt the lake, so I scouted ambush locations for the next morning’s hunt.
I should add the caveat here that I’m anything but a prolific deerslayer. This was my second season bowhunting and I have yet to kill a deer with a bow, but I’ve been able to get closer to deer in the past two bow seasons than I ever did while hunting with a rifle, even when I was successful. I prefer to still-hunt and don’t even own a treestand. I suppose I’m after more of a complete wilderness experience than solely a successful hunt, but I take the hunting very seriously. This trip would be no exception.
By the time I rounded the lake, the winter’s short day was coming to a close. I wanted to find a campsite away uphill and northeast of where I planned to hunt, so that neither the shifting winds nor the morning thermals would carry my scent into it. I found a level spot at the edge of a hill where the hemlocks met some hardwoods. There were tracks here, too, but not as many as there were closer to the lake. I pitched my tent south of small stump mound between which I would build my fire.
If you’ve ever tried to start a campfire in the winter, you probably know it’s not as easy as it looks on survival TV shows. I gathered tinder, kindling and fuel from down branches by the light of my headlamp as it grew dark and tried to use the fluffy insides of the decaying stump as tinder. However, it was frozen through and wouldn’t take a spark. I reluctantly sacrificed the back chapters of a well-worn Louis L’Amour paperback that I’ve carried with me to read on every winter camping trip I’ve taken, but I consoled myself that Louis would have approved (the book is about an American aviator escaping through Siberia by surviving in the wild). Unfortunately, though, the pages burned up before they could catch the tinder.
The temperature was below twenty degrees – I didn’t know exactly how far below – but I knew it would be a long, cold night without a fire. Finally, I decided to forget starting it the traditional way and pointed my Pocket Rocket backpacker’s stove toward my tinder and tepee of twigs until they caught fire. I added more kindling and was on my way. The wind had shifted to a southwest wind by the time I was able to get the fire going, so it carried the sparks and smoke away from my tent.
I spent most of the night gathering dead wood and cutting it with my hatchet, thankful that I thought to bring the kneepads I bought for retiling my bathroom at home. I find myself kneeling so often while camping and still-hunting that I doubt I’ll ever again do either without bringing my kneepads, especially in wet and snowy conditions. While still-hunting, the key word is “still” and the kneepads help me stay still longer and more comfortably while kneeling behind a deadfall or young pines. At camp, they make kneeling to chop firewood or blow oxygen into the fire much more comfortable, especially in the snow.
For dinner, I ate some freeze-dried beef stew rehydrated with boiling water and some Finnish biscuit made by my great-aunt that my mom gave me for the trip. I melted snow into water by skimming fresh powder into the pot with the lid, continuously adding snow powder as it melted (it takes a lot of snow to make a little water). I also made tea by boiling water with hemlock needles, which warmed me with a pleasant piney aroma and taste.
The night woods are spooky in a good way; there’s simply no other feeling like it. The moon was almost full, lighting up the snow-covered ground though snow-covered branches. The contrast of midnight sky, moonlight glow, pine boughs and campfire created an aesthetic effect unrivaled by city lights. Orion showed up through a gap in the trees for good effect, as well Otava, Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper depending on your frame of reference, both good omens. Coyotes yipped in the distance: a welcome sound. Another one yipped a little closer to camp, which was a little less welcome. I threw a pine bough on the fire and let the wind carry the smoke in its direction.
I put some firewood next to the tent and lay inside, leaving the fireside open and unzipped. I crawled into my mummy bag and covered with a surplus wool blanket for good measure. Despite the extra weight and bulk of having to tie to the exterior of my pack, it was worth it. I drifted to sleep, waking frequently to stoke the fire with my hatchet and add fuel, which I could do from my tent with the fire an arm’s reach away, which I only did with a steady wind carrying sparks away from the tent, except for one which gave my new tent a small hole. Despite the temperature, though, I was never uncomfortably cold as the heat from the fire warmed the inside of the tent. I awoke around 3am to find the fire down to an ember and did my best Les Stroudt impression bringing it back to life.
The advantage of sleeping in the woods is the ability to wake and hunt, as well as knowing when it snowed during the night to more accurately age tracks. So I woke, tied on my boots, grabbed my bow and started hunting. I skipped the snowshoes for hunting because they’re louder than boots, but I was acutely aware of the sound my boots made compacting the snow under them. I altered the cadence of my walk to attempt sound like a deer, but decided it was just too loud for pure still-hunting.
I moved to my first ambush location, a well-build ground blind made from natural materials that I suppose some rifle hunter made at an earlier time. It was within my effective bow range from the deer highway, and soon enough two mature does walked out from the south. They didn’t walk along the highway, though, but walked closer to the marsh behind the lake about ten yards further, which was out of my range (My New Year’s Resolution is to extend my range!). They rounded the corner and moseyed away. I didn’t risk going after them, sure that the sound of crunching snow would spook them.
Two more deer emerged from the south, a mature doe and a small one that I assume had been her fawn this year. The mature doe took the same path as the previous two, while the young one nibbled on branches and meandered my way. It came within fifteen yards, an easy shot, but while I was willing to take a doe I didn’t want to take such a young one. As the older one disappeared into the cover behind the marsh, the young one trotted off after it when it realized it was alone.
After they were gone, I moved behind two trees that hid me from any deer approaching from the same direction as the others, but within range of the trail they had taken. After a couple hours with no further activity, I moved slowly south and found a clump of four hardwoods in which I could stand with cover and shooting lanes in three directions. Not long after, a small doe emerged from the hill above to the west, walking right toward me. There was no cover in between us, just a tree trunk from the clump behind me to hide my silhouette. Despite looking right at the clump, though, she gave no sign that she knew there was a human standing there. I stood still as a statue as she nibbled on branches brought down by the recent storm until she was within five yards of me. By this time, I’d realized that she was also likely one of this year’s fawns, and I struggled with whether to change my selection criteria – after all, I could use the venison. I decided against a shot, though, hoping a bigger doe or a buck would come along and she could grow into a bigger doe next year. She circled around the clump, until she was standing on the footprints I left on my way to it. She must have scented me then, or caught my eyes following her (with a bandana over my nose and mouth, they were the only human part of me visible).
She focused her attention on me then, finally realizing I was not part of the clump. She snorted and stomped her foot, demanding to know what I was and what I was doing there. With no response, she huffed and ran off about twenty yards, then turned to me again. I still had not moved, and eventually she started feigning to feed while keeping an eye on me. She meandered north, then west, presenting me with a twenty-five yard quartering away shot if I reconsidered. I didn’t, and she walked back up into the woods from where she came.
I didn’t see any more deer the rest of the day, so I packed up my camp and snow-shoed out of the woods. As a hunting trip, I came home empty-handed. As a wilderness experience, though, it was unrivaled. I can almost taste the tender venison that I let walk away, but I keep faith that my benevolence will be rewarded by the small gods of the woods who keep track of such things, preferably a reward with many tines and a little more meat on the hoof.