by Mike Lein
I pause on the slippery ice, feeling the cold bite of the wind sweeping across the barren expanse of the lake. The dim glow of a December sunrise is struggling to cut through the 5-below air. Muffled by my icicle-crusted mustache and itchy wool facemask, I quietly offer advice to my son Andy: "Head up over the ridge at the birch clump, then sneak into the pines by the beaver pond. I'll walk down the bay and come in from the south."
Suddenly the ice booms and ripples beneath us, shocking us with a brief, primeval moment of fear and panic. We recover and grin sheepishly at each other, both of us slightly unnerved. The lake's groaning, shifting, and rumbling had caught us off guard with a Minnesota-style earthquake.
Andy checks his gun one last time and heads up the steep bank into the forest, his hunter-orange coat glowing in the morning murk. Behind him to the west, last night's full moon is hovering above the trees and fading away with the dawn. I linger to take in the scene and wait for just a bit more light.
Andy and I are using our cabin on the edge of Paul Bunyan State Forest, or the Bunyan, as it's locally known, as a home base for the late muzzleloader deer season. The frozen lake makes a convenient winter expressway into remote parts of the forest. The ice beneath me, despite its disconcerting groans, is a solid 8 inches thick. In a normal year, it would be covered with boot-deep snow. This year there's just a thin, white ring of snow clinging to the rim of the lake and a light frosting in the forest. Only a straight-walking fox and a hip-hopping squirrel have disturbed the pristine whiteness with their footprints.
I hike down the bay and leave the open ice for the welcoming shelter of the forest. Andy is somewhere north of me, probably half a mile away, quietly moving through the woods. He's a veteran of 19 November firearms deer seasons, but this is the first year he has tried the late muzzleloader season with me. Like the vast majority of contemporary muzzleloader hunters, he's carrying a high-tech, plastic-stocked rifle. The blued-steel barrel is topped with bright fiber-optic sights and loaded with plastic-coated bullets and a modern powder much different from the black powder of the early pioneers. Although the barrel is loaded one shot at a time with a ramrod, there's no doubt that his muzzleloader is a modern-day weapon.
I've chosen to give the deer a little more of an advantage. The gun in my hands could be a well-preserved antique, one that Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, or some less-famous mountain man carried more than 150 years ago. Unlike Andy's generic store-bought gun, mine was built from a kit. I sanded the walnut stock smooth, layered on multiple coats of traditional oil finish, and used an acid solution to rust the barrel and other metal to a rich, dark brown. As a final personal touch, I inlaid ovals of German silver into the stock. It's a solid, functional replica of a piece of American history.
I'm hoping one of the wary deer that survived last month's regular hunting season will make a mistake and let me get close, preferably real close. The heavy .54 caliber rifle is loaded with historically correct materials, straight from the early 1800s—coarse grains of loose black powder, a cast-lead bullet lubricated with natural mink oil, and a tiny copper percussion cap.
If I do find a deer, if it is within 50 yards, and if it is standing still, I'll have to cock the hammer, focus my 50-something eyes over unlit sights, and pull the trigger to make the hammer smack the percussion cap. If I have faithfully followed the loading ritual I've practiced for more than 25 years, a spark from the percussion cap will ignite the powder with a roar and a thick cloud of reeking sulfurous smoke. If I miss, there will be no second chance.
Without snow, the leaves covering the old logging road are brittle and crunchy. I tiptoe down the trail, doing my best imitation of a deer with dainty, pointy hoofs. I wonder what those old leather- and fur-clad mountain men would think of me. The gun wouldn't draw a second glance. But I'm pretty sure they would laugh out loud at my bright-orange and black "camouflage" coat.
If there were more snow, I'd pick a fresh set of tracks and follow them, sneaking along through pine groves and over hardwood ridges, hoping to see the deer before it sees me. Without the snow, I'm searching for brownish-gray deer in a brownish-gray forest, relying on my experience to predict where my quarry might be. With or without snow, this method of hunting is as old as these hills and one with a personal, historic connection. My grandfather and uncle hunted this way, in the Bunyan, more than 70 years ago. The antlers of a 10-point buck Grandpa took in 1939 are hanging in my cabin.
Hunting methods have changed since the passing of the old fur trappers and, more recently, my grandpa. Freely roaming the woods during the November firearm season is frowned upon by most other hunters. The early-season hunters erect tree stands, hunker down with telescope-sighted rifles, and let the deer come to them. Other hunters respect the unmarked boundaries around deer stands.
Now, all those lonely platforms, so coveted and protected only a month ago, are eerily vacant. Few other hunters seem willing to brave the cold and snowless woods this year, even with their modern muzzleloaders.
Late in the morning, I pick a sheltered ridge overlooking the lake and sit down to enjoy the north woods ambiance and a cup of hot coffee. From this vantage point, the cold, dense air carries the sound of other lakes and ponds making ice—twanging, pinging, and thumping. A fluffy-looking black-capped chickadee checks me out from a nearby branch before fluttering down for a closer look, perching on my gun barrel just inches from my hand. Next comes a hyperactive squirrel, with rusty-red fur, seemingly dyed to match the dried pine needles on the forest floor. It challenges me with feisty chatter and then tramps around, sounding exactly like a trophy buck.
Amid all these distractions, I do sometimes find deer. Or sometimes they find me. Two years ago, not far from here, I was enjoying my coffee in a grove of snow-covered pines. Suddenly, shadows flickered in front of me. Two big, horizontal shapes moved purposefully through sunlit gaps between the pines.
I had to sacrifice my coffee that morning: It spilled warmly over my lap as I brought the gun up. The lead deer stepped behind a thicket of brush barely 10 yards way. I tried to muffle the loud click of the hammer as I thumbed it back. But something gave me away. Both deer stopped and instantly seemed to disappear, so near, but so perfectly camouflaged.
Much goes through your mind in a heart-pounding situation like that, with only one shot and no margin for error. Nagging doubts about the primitive gun. Worries about a whiff of scent carried on a stray breeze. Take the closer deer, obviously a doe? Or take a chance, wait for the second deer, maybe a buck?
The tense standoff ended when the doe sidestepped from cover and froze, head down, looking directly at me. No more time to think. The big gun boomed out, completely obscuring my view with a cloud of white-gray smoke. When the air cleared and the echoes subsided, the second deer was gone. The first remained, down and unmoving in the pine needles and snow. The gun had humanely done its job, despite the inhospitable weather and its 200-year-old design.
My luck does not repeat itself this morning. I finish my coffee uninterrupted while the chickadees and squirrels entertain and the lake provides background music. The cold starts to seep through my high-tech clothes, and the comforts of my cozy cabin beckon me from nearly a mile away. The cabin will still be warm, even if the oak in the woodstove has burned down to a few glowing embers. Kaliber, the elderly Labrador retriever Andy and I left behind, will be pouting in her favorite chair, unhappy she was not invited to tag along.
I step onto the windswept ice and start the long hike back to the cabin, eager to stoke the stove, thaw my mustache, and compare notes with Andy. It's shaping up to be a difficult hunt. Zero snow, zero deer, and the temperature is even less than zero. But the ice is rumbling beneath me, my gun is balanced comfortably in my arms, and there's not another person in sight. I'm feeling very much alive and free in the Bunyan.