BY GRANT REED
Copyright is held by the author.
Despite his heavy load, Gary felt the weight of the world loosen its grip from his shoulders as he took a long overdue step into the long grasses lining the rutted skidder trail. The yellowed blades were wet and lined with frost. This bothered him not at all, and he sighed with contentment. He’d brave this cold and damp walk any day, over the crowded jaunt to work he would normally walk this time of morning.
Off to his left, the woodpecker’s warning sounded throughout the forest, echoing off the rock-lined hill. The dull thuds were hesitant at first, but soon increased in pace, almost as if in panic. Gary smiled and rolled the butt of the twig over his tongue. Biting into the fibres he released another bitter mouthful of cover scent. “That’s right you little buggar, tell them all I’m here. If it’s a game we play, then I’ll have no one say I didn’t follow the rules.”
Carefully he made his way along the water lined ruts of the track, the woodpecker’s song covering his light footfalls. Breathing in the cool autumn air, he closed his eyes, his entire being embraced in intuitive bliss. The world felt right this morning, and his soul was free. He stopped in his tracks and forced himself to think about his work back in the city. Chained to a desk by a telephone cord, his days were filled with the incessant complaints from one caller to the next. Never able to escape their harsh cries, he was forced to endure their demands from one call to the next. It was a modern day form of torture, and one he couldn’t avoid if he wanted to pay his bills.
A beep in his ear would signal an incoming call, and with nothing but a smile in his voice, he would be left defenceless to try and deflect the anger of the most recent caller. How come my bill is so high? What do you mean you never received my payment? Why can’t you guys ever get anything right? Beep, beep, beep — every day following the same pattern, each beep in his ear like another drop of water slamming into his forehead. And like a drowning man, he surfaced for air during his breaks, knowing full well he would have to strap himself in for more suffering, so he might as well dull the pain with another coffee. Weekends were almost enough to keep him going, but it was the promise of hunting season that filled his spirit with a sense of justice. It would be two glorious weeks of nothing but the bush.
And here it was, deer season. He pushed the thoughts of work from his mind and felt a thrill of excitement tickle his soul as the tap-tapping of the woodpecker replaced the painful dripping of the water in his head. You could never truly enjoy the sun’s warmth if you had never suffered through a cold rain.
Following a small stream as it gurgled to the bottom of the gorge, he climbed higher up the ravine. The walls of the valley were gentle at first, the basin filled with interspersed birch. Seventy yards on either side of him, the walls rose into sheer rock faces, their tops lined with dense spruce. Beside his boot, an upturned leaf was devoid of frost. It boasted a small spray of black earth, and was nestled beside the fresh print of a buck. Twenty yards in front of him, he could see a fresh scrape on the ground where the deer had turned up the leaves for acorns. The hunter’s eyes scanned the misty tree line for signs of movement. Somewhere up here was his prey. They could even be watching him now. Purposefully he strolled into the funnel of the valley, knowing the deer trail would lead him to the evergreens above, even if he couldn’t see their run from here.
The sun was cresting the far hills and creeping into the gorge as Gary reached the top of the flat. He turned to allow its rays to warm his face. He sat on a moss covered boulder, taking in the beauty of the valley below. The sun caressed him and he sighed again. At his back, the hemlock flats remained draped in cool shadows.
Was it a sound that tipped him off or the absence of it? Without knowing the answer, he turned his head ever so slowly. His breath mimicked the steam coming from his sun-warmed boots as his eyes pierced the depths of the forest behind him. Now he heard a scrape and the hollow bump of what might have been a step. He sat motionless waiting, his hand not daring to move to his waist, even though his fingers flexed in anticipation. It might have been a squirrel.
In a heartbeat, anticipation turned to reality. Head down and muscled shoulders flexing, a young buck strode from under the hemlocks. Snuffling among leaves and mossy rocks, it was oblivious to the nearby threat. Gary caught sight of antlers as the deer angled away from him, but he could not say how large the rack was. Without even realizing it, his fingers were unhooking the straps at his waist. He watched the deer take two steps in the opposite direction and then swing back to him. The lens cap was off now, and his Sony A99 half raised when the deer looked up into his eyes.
Breath exhaled from them both as the button on the camera was depressed with the assuredness gained from 25 years of shooting wildlife. And for every beep from that phone that had sucked the life from his soul, every click of the shutter now filled him with a joy 10 times more prevailing.
With a startled grunt, the deer was gone in the flash of a white tail and the pounding of hooves that mirrored the lonely drumming from the woodpecker below. Gary lowered his camera, the adrenaline still coursing through him. Spitting the twig from his mouth, he rose shakily and said a prayer of thanks for the beautiful encounter. Grinning to himself, he pushed on into the shadows of the forest.
How many great shots would he discover in here? It didn’t matter. Already he was reveling in the joy of the hunt, and today was only opening day.