The rocky, moss-covered logging road is covered with yellow needles released from Western larch as the forest prepares for a long, snowy winter. Green trees that camouflage as pines during the warmth of summer change rapidly during short autumn days. Needles lose color; turn light green, then flaxen, before slowly dropping to the ground like golden snowflakes.
I step softly, heel first, attempting to hide my sound from the silent forest. The needles are soft and make no sound as I continue this journey to my destination. Chickadees lead the way, announcing calmly that I should follow. “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-chick-a-dee” each bird calls as it flits 20 feet down the road followed by another bird landing 5 feet in front of the last. I follow.
This dance continues for miles as the little black and gray birds guide my hike with a chirp, call, then intermittent flight into the woods while always returning to lead my travel. I giggle, chuckle, then talk to the birds as one lands a few feet in front of me, ensuring I know where to go.
“OK, I’m coming,” I say out loud as the bird lit again down the road.
Today, I carry a heavy load; on my back. A pack filled with knives, matches, bullets, survival gear, and everything necessary to field-dress a deer, elk or bear. On my hip, a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver — which makes suspenders necessary to hold up my wool pants from the weight of this heavy gun. On my shoulder, I carry a 7mm magnum long-rifle. This late autumn morning I hunt in the North Idaho mountains.
Each step requires special attention to balance my weight, level my load, walk quietly and listen. I listen to hear brush break, buck snort, elk bugle or an unexpected rustle in the woods. Every noise requires attention.
Is the sound of two trees rubbing against each other a possible elk moaning, or is it just the wind? Is the squirrel screaming chitter-chatter, warning me of an approaching bear? I pay attention, I listen, and I predict, then estimate and calculate each noise with the knowledge of past experiences in the woods.
I hear a distant crack. I stop, lift the binoculars from my chest and gaze at the open clear-cut in front of me. Two does search for green grass 200 yards in the burnt forest below where I stand. I sit and remain quiet, then continue to watch the deer. They are beautiful!
I watch for 30 minutes as the deer eat, look around, startle, run 30 yards, then eat again. I am offered a gift; a thanksgiving. In this very moment I am thankful to be alive, to be outdoors, to have the ability to walk the 5 miles required to have this experience; and thank God for putting me in this place, at this time, to have this experience.
Today I am not a hunter, I’m an outdoorsman. Today I have no desire to kill an animal to fill my freezer and my belly. Today I am satisfied feeling at peace with the Earth. The squirrels, chickadees, deer and larch needles remind me why I’m alive.
On the way back to my truck, I am hyper-aware of my surroundings. I look at every tree, every rock and every mountain peak as if it might be the last time I see such beauty. On this walk, I think of family, tradition and Christmas.
I think of hunting with my dad, who loves the hunt, but never finds success. I think of my granddaughter who will have her first hunt next year, and hope her passion, love for the outdoors and skill as a marksman will guide her to be a great hunter; and I hope I will experience many more days like today. This is my Thanksgiving.
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