Heavy load, Heavy Mind

By Ross Crandall

On the evening of November 10, 2017 my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world. After a night of constantly interrupted sleep (which we now consider the norm), I held the pudgy, blotchy, blind, pointy-headed and seemingly starving critter near the window of our hospital room, which overlooked the National Elk Refuge. As we peered out our window, a small band of elk not more than 100 yards away were making their way from the safe confines of the Refuge to the steep, unforgiving, hunter-filled Bridger-Teton National Forest to the east. The single-file line of elk slid out of sight and I teared up reveling in the fact that not only was I holding my gorgeous new baby, but that she was this close to elk on the first day of her life. I did my best to let her know what I was seeing and that someday she would be tagging along on hunts in the mountains of western Wyoming.

As August 2018 rolled in, hunting season came with it. Things started easy. I was able to tag a wonderful pronghorn buck followed by my daughter’s first hunt, which ended when her mother placed a 120 grain Barnes TTSX in the heart of a yearling doe pronghorn. As September approached, it was clear things were going to get more interesting.

"All through the summer I had declared my selfish intentions of one week off during archery season...I had planned greatness, but reality was painting a different picture."

All through the summer I had declared my selfish intentions of one week off during archery season, weekends when possible, and an extended weekend deer hunt with a good friend the final weekend of September. I had planned greatness, but reality was painting a different picture. During opening weekend of archery elk, my daughter got sick for the first time. I learned through an InReach GPS message that my wife had experienced “the worst night yet.” That is a message a father never wants to receive, especially in the backcountry during opening weekend of archery season. I planned on calling it early, but I was told to stick it out so I did. The next weekend, I was sick. Too sick to hunt - so really sick. I was starting to think it was a cursed season but I couldn’t help wonder, is this the way it’s going to be from now on?

The archery elk season came and went and despite not making it out as much as I had envisioned, I drew on 2 separate bulls ultimately sending an arrow cleanly under one, the result of inaccurately estimating the length of elk-sized paces while at full draw. The only thing left on my September list was the backpack deer hunt the final weekend of September. This hunt was special because it was with my good friend Craig. It was hatched the year prior while looking for elk and only seeing mule deer the day after deer season closed. We’d thought and talked about it all year. The week we set aside for the hunt, my wife and I received bad news pertaining to the health of my father-in-law. I called Craig and cancelled, but my wife again insisted that we go...so we did.

The hike into our hunting area started with a series of switchbacks that were as long as they were steep. Go in light and come out heavy is a great thought, but in my experience isn’t reality for a backpack deer hunt. It’s late September in the mountains so you have to be prepared for 75-degree days and 15-degree nights. In addition to standard backpacking gear, you need your hunting gear. It all adds up. After a long, hot, trudge up the mountain, we bumped into a group of does. A good sign.

"As I drifted off to sleep that night, the images in my head were of my daughter and wife, not our intended quarry."

After another hour or so on the trail, we found camp and got to setting up the Seek Outside and loading up water for dinner and tomorrow’s hunt. As we ate dinner that night, I checked my InReach to make sure there were no messages that would require my presence back at home. I turned the device off after dinner, confident all was well. That night, I ran through photos of my daughter on my phone. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to be home, wake up with her and my wife in the morning, make breakfast, coffee, and watch her discover the world, which is something I can’t do during the work week. But, here I was, up in the mountains doing the activity that I love most and which motivates me in almost all aspects of life. It’s a precious and important time to be with her, but it’s also important to do what you love - at least I think so. It’s only for a few weekends a year, I thought. You’re there the rest of the time, I assured myself. But damn, being away from home and my family was way harder than it used to be. I missed them badly. As I drifted off to sleep that night, the images in my head were of my daughter and wife, not our intended quarry.

The alarms went off early the next morning. But, eager for the hunt, we rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, rehydrated our eggs and heated water for coffee. Our plan the first day was to cover ground and glass from strategic vantage points. We turned up plenty of deer but no mature bucks. After we returned to camp that night, I powered on the InReach and looked for messages from home. Just like the day before, still nothing so I assumed all was well.

The next morning, we set our alarms a bit later than the day prior and decided to have breakfast close to camp while we glassed nearby ridges. Thinking the older deer were possibly hanging tight in cover, we changed tactics a bit and glassed forested areas interspersed with smaller meadows. Midway through our breakfast ritual we caught movement on the hillside. It was a deer, no doubt about it, and it was moving downhill and, in our direction, fast. When I see a deer moving fast in timber during hunting season, the Wisconsin boy in me takes over. With the agility and grace of a frat boy at 3:00AM on a Sunday morning, I grabbed my rifle, chambered a round and threw the rifle on my pack expecting to get a shot at the deer, which I assumed must be the buck of a lifetime for no other reason than it was stotting in my direction. As I settled behind the rifle and began to acquire my target, I heard my friend, who was still sitting calmly behind his binoculars, declare “doe...a couple of them actually.” It was at that point that I realized that I had spilled my entire coffee and my rehydrated eggs were now in the dirt. I shook my head in embarrassment but also made clear, “if it was a nice buck, I would have got him.” Just sayin'.

After making another cup of coffee, we continued with our plan of hunting areas with more cover. As we made our way to a glassing knob, I looked over and noticed a buck that clearly exceeded the legal minimum requirement (3 points on one side) about 80 yards through the trees. We stopped just in time to watch the buck turn and disappear. Well alright, now we’re getting somewhere. We still-hunted our way to our vantage point, bumping into a few more deer, and set up shop just in time for a nice-sized storm to move in. As we sized up the storm and considered our options, we decided to head back to the tent and sit it out in comfort.

"It was one of those moments where, for me the hunter, everything came together."

A couple of hours later, as the storm started to wane, we hatched a plan to get eyes on the buck we had seen earlier - one person behind glass on an open hillside and the other still hunting through the area where we thought the deer had disappeared. If the still hunter didn’t get a shot, perhaps the glasser would. I volunteered for the latter. When I was approximately 100 yards from the ridge top, I found a well-used deer trail that was perfectly positioned to carry me through the timbered hillside without making too much noise. In addition to the deer trail, a nearby creek with rushing water helped hide the sound of my movement. After a few short minutes, I rounded a shallow curve on the deer trail. I glanced up and noticed a beautiful mature mule deer buck standing broadside at 65 yards. Instead of looking right at me, he was looking back from where I had just been. Clearly, he had heard something that alerted him to the presence of another being, but he was unable to locate the source of the potential threat. It was one of those moments where, for me the hunter, everything came together. The wind was in my favor, the deer trail and creek helped mask my approach, and the shallow bend in the draw was just large enough to hide me from the deer until we met at near point-blank range. After easing the rifle to my shoulder, I confirmed 5 points on the right side of the buck’s antlers and placed the crosshairs on his chest. As I squeezed the trigger, the rifle barked and I saw the buck tumble through the crosshairs. I chambered another round and waited. After a few minutes, I removed the live round from the chamber and headed to meet my hunting companion.

As I hiked, I was overcome with emotions that all hunters feel after a successful hunt. But, this one was a bit different. I pictured butchering the deer as my daughter looked on in wonder. I would certainly be telling her what I was doing, what the cuts were and how we might prepare the venison although I knew she was too young to store this information for future use. I imagined the photo of me holding her and the European mount of the skull and how some day, that photo would look as ancient as the photos I remember seeing when I was young, of deer strapped to the hood of an old Ford. I was excited, not only because I had a successful hunt with a good friend, but also because I would get to share some of the success with my daughter.

As I approached Craig, he gave me the old thumbs up/thumbs down, universal sign language for “did you get him?” I replied with a thumbs up and filled him in on the details. As we gnawed on energy bars, we nodded our heads in the joy of a plan coming together, a nice buck on the ground, and damn fine venison heading to the freezer. We spent the rest of the day quartering and deboning the buck, packing up camp and then heading back to our vehicle.

"I think I need to accept the fact that hunting as a father is harder not only logistically, but also because I love and miss my daughter so damn much when I’m gone."

As we arrived at the truck right around sunset, backs aching after coming out very (very) heavy, I got a text from my wife saying we had beer and pizza waiting for us - my absolute favorite way to end a long pack out. She knows me well!

Pulling into the driveway, I knew my daughter would already be asleep. But after we parked I went into the house, past the pizza and beer, and peered in at her little body sleeping soundly in the bedroom. All was well! We recounted the adventure to my wife, showed her the buck and ate that pizza and drank that beer. The following morning, I showed my daughter the buck’s beautiful antlers and she gazed in wonderment, I assume trying to figure out what the hell they were. The next few nights, I processed the deer on the counter as she looked on eating vegetables mushed up into an applesauce-like consistency and served in plastic bags. I assured her that food gets better. She watched on as I made brats, summer sausage, chorizo and vacuum-sealed backstraps for summer parties. Sure, she wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but I think she kind of did.

Sitting here today, Wyoming’s application season is upon us. I again have big dreams and I’m hopeful for many days afield. Will I get them this year? I have no idea. Will I get them next year or the year after? I have no idea. I have no idea what to expect from hunting, or parenthood for that matter from this point forward. But I do know that I’m a father now and that is one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given. No matter how many days I get to hunt elk with my bow or chase deer in the high country, my daughter will be waiting at home eager for daddy to read her books, play guitar, or toss her into the air. I think I need to accept the fact that hunting as a father is harder not only logistically, but also because I love and miss my daughter so damn much when I’m gone.

And you know what? I’m okay with that.