Chest heaving, my pulse thumped in my ears as I crested the ridge. For several seconds I could do nothing but stand, hands on my thighs, breathing like a bellows. Slowly things began to focus. I stood on a great slab of weathered granite, exposed to the Sierra Nevada’s harsh elements for eons. Great fissures ran through it, cracks from a hundred thousand winters’ worth of heaving and thawing and freezing. In front of me yawned a gigantic gap between ridges, Devil’s Peak on the mountain beyond looking like a Roman nose stuck atop a forested face.
Soft rain coated the world. My breath sent out smoke signals, calling for more oxygen. The birds of course took no notice of me and continued about the business of being birds. Flocks of tiny juncos flitted about like gray butterflies. Nuthatches, high in the pines, droned on and on — yank yank yank yank. Northern flickers did their best impression of a hawk while Steller’s jays chattered in that scratchy, metallic voice they’re so known for. Beneath it all a low, constant roar — the sound of traffic on Interstate 80, which split the gap more than 1,500 feet below me. The twin white ribbons of the roadway seemed so alien up here, an intrusion on the wild world.
This was where Joe Navari and I had decided to hunt deer.
Joe and I hunt, fish and forage a lot together. Joe’s short but powerfully built — “mountain stock” has he puts it — with the vise-grip fingers of a professional deckhand, although he is an archaeologist by training. He has a shock of dark curly hair and a full beard that has a tendency to run wild across his face. In his more feral moments Joe can bear a striking resemblance to Grog from the old comic strip B.C., but mostly he looks like Dionysus, or Pan, for those more inclined to Latin. And like Pan, Joe is relentlessly amiable, so slow to anger that I’d hate to see what it would take to get him there.
Joe had hunted this spot before. In fact, he shot the biggest buck of his life just below where we were standing, a 6×4 mule deer that would be right at home on one of those horn porn shows on the outdoor networks. We were headed to Clark’s Rock, where our host, Clark Blanchard, had shot an equally impressive 4×4 muley that same year. It was Opening Day for California’s dreaded D Zone, one of the hardest places in America to kill a deer. And it was proving itself so far this day.
Habit has a way of gripping us. We succeed in a thing, and, when called upon to do that thing again, we repeat the steps that brought us success in the past. This is why we were atop a mountain in the rain and unseasonable cold, looking for the Phantoms of the Sierra. But Joe knows full well that the deer up here cannot be patterned. This is not Midwestern farm country, and these are not white-tailed deer. Food is scarce at 7,000 feet, and predators plentiful: I saw the tracks of coyotes, bobcats and bears that day. These deer, living near the crest of the Sierra Nevada, can be fewer than 10 per square mile. Compare that to the East, where deer densities of 100 per square mile are not impossible. Here, you find a deer — any legal deer — and you shoot it. Even a forked horn can be a trophy in this country.
Joe and I would have paid a fair dollar to get a chance at a forkie at this point. We’d hunted hard since dawn and here it was, close to 5 p.m. We’d seen exactly five deer so far: A tiny buck with a fork on one antler and a spike on the other that never really gave us a shot, and a group of four as we were driving out for lunch. One of those four had been a forked horn, but again it never presented a shot. Our hunting companions, Oggie and Stu, who had been still hunting at the base of the mountain all day, had had similar luck.
Now Clark, Joe and I had climbed the mountain again, to see if we might get lucky that evening. The hunt had started well. Just as we neared the top of the ridge, Joe and Clark spotted two adult deer just ahead of us; we had no idea whether they were bucks or does. The deer had heard us coming and sauntered through a grove of Jeffrey pines and down the side of the ridge, out of sight. Joe decided to track them and went off down to the next bench below us. Clark went up to his rock to see if he could spot something. I decided to creep around this mountaintop, hoping to either spot a buck before he saw me, or, more likely, bother him only enough that he’d get up and walk a few paces to see what I was.
Creeping about in the rain is a helluva lot easier than it is where I’d been hunting earlier this season, in the dry forests of California’s Coastal Range. Yet it still wasn’t a walk on pillows. Sierra winters are legendary, and we were not far from where the Donner Party ended up munching on each other back in 1847. Trees that survive grow arthritic, stunted and wind-chiseled. For many trees winter is dying time. Their skeletons litter the ground, some as wide as I am tall, others just bunches of kindling, ready to snap when an unwary foot strikes them. Someone once said that when a leaf falls in a forest the bear smells it, the eagle sees it and the deer hears it. Every time I took a wrong step and heard that crunch, I heard my chances of seeing a buck diminish.
Finally I found a spot to wait out the dusk. I sat underneath a red pine with an open view of a brush-choked draw before me. Spruces and pines dotted the area, but it was largely open. Perhaps an avalanche had cleared it some years before. We’d checked this spot earlier in the day, and saw deer trails latticed through the manzanita and buckbrush. Joe said he’d seen deer beds there the year before. Seemed like as likely a spot for a buck as any. So I sat.
Always the roar of the Interstate. Its omnipresence offered protection to us all, hunter and hunted alike. It muffled some of my missteps and certainly prevented my imperfect ears from hearing the no-doubt-many deer I’d failed to spot earlier that day. But now, sitting still and without sound, I began to hear, actually hear, for the first time. The roar faded and the birdsong returned. I could finally hear the subtle chipping of the juncos. What did they say to each other? I realized that a particular snapping sound we’d heard all day was not in fact an animal — it was the sound of a pine cone hitting the forest floor. I learned that pine squirrels make a certain set of noises that are different from the frenetic rustlings of the smaller lodgepole chipmunks.
And then I heard something else entirely. Not a pine cone. Not a rodent, not Joe or Clark or any other human being. I heard the sound of an animal walking up the draw towards me. I adjusted my grip on my Remington 700, an old Dodge Dart of a rifle that suits me just fine. If this creature should be a legal buck, and should it make a mistake and show itself, I was confident I could make this shot.
A glimpse of white. A deer? No, a fox. No. Too large, ears too long. Coyote. Then it walked into the open, ambling as carefree as you might be walking down a city street looking for an ice cream shop. He wasn’t an icy white like an Arctic fox or an albino, more ivory-silver-gray. I’d never seen a white coyote before. Shooting it was out of the question, even though it would have been legal and this coyote was well within range. It just seemed wrong.
About 50 yards away the coyote stopped. Maybe he saw my blaze orange hat. Maybe he caught my wind. Regardless, he (she?) looked right at me and cocked his head. Silently, I wondered how he was doing, where he was going. He must have wondered the same. We stood there, two fellow predators, for a long moment. Then he ambled along on his way. I watched him go.
The sun fell soon after. No deer appeared. But sitting there, absorbing the wild world for a few hours, reminded me that deer hunting is not just about putting meat in the freezer, and it’s certainly not about the size of the buck’s antlers. It’s about shedding your synthetic self long enough to see the world as the deer and the coyote and the pine squirrel and jay see it. To be accepted back into the company of your fellow animals, to take your role as one among equals. If only for a while. Killing a buck may be the goal of deer hunting, but it’s not the point.