I can still recall the countless hours sitting in the hardwoods. The same type of forest I had spent much of my youth in. Mountain biking, snowshoeing, hiking. Fort building, xc skiing, wrestling my brothers through the leaves in the fall.
But those hours of sitting patiently, and waiting, were different. I wasn’t just passing through. I was really taking it in. I was hunting.
Hunting was unique from my other outdoor activities. It filled a void that I never knew existed. It spoke to me in a way I couldn’t articulate or define. It changed my life.
That first hunt, over a decade ago now, is fresh in my mind like it was yesterday. As I write this, my nose wrinkles at the memory of the decaying leaves and cold, stagnant water of the nearby swamp. My eldest maternal uncle, my mentor, had chosen a spot for my vigil where a cedar swamp met the hardwoods.
“Sit here and don’t go anywhere, I will be back for you in a few hours.” he told me, quietly, in the pre-dawn darkness. And so I sat. On an upside-down five-gallon pail, with a piece of foam on top for a seat.
I remember, as clear as the stream babbling through the cedars, the world waking up around me. The birds announced sunrise, their chirping, warbling song carried through the trees. Listening to those same old trees groan and creak in the wind. The golden morning light casting rays through their branches. A snowy owl, silent as though it existed in a vacuum, wove its way through the cedar boughs to take rest on one lazily draped over the creek.
I didn’t see any deer that day. Not even the flicker of an ear through the branches — a glimpse one often catches in those thick forests. And there were many more days that would follow in similar fashion, void of the visual presence of deer. Regardless, the hooks had been set, and deep. I felt drawn to hunting in an inexplicable way.
As the years passed, I gained experience and tried my hand at hunting species other than deer, as they continued to elude me. My mind began to revolve around the seasons. Winters were spent chasing snowshoe hare in the pines, spring meant hunting wild turkeys. Summer was a time to prepare stands or blinds for the fall. Repair old tattered fiberglass canoes, and patch holes in my waders.
Fall, however, was a special time held in the highest reverence. When the flocks of mallards and Canadian geese left their summer breeding grounds in Hudson Bay to make the long migration south to the Gulf of Mexico for winter. When the deer began their ritual mating dance, flitting through the hardwoods and cedars like tawny coloured ghosts.
During this period in my early 20’s, I was able to achieve a reasonable level of success in hunting ducks and geese. Sharing that success was one of the many joys of hunting. Though he was never a hunter, my father and I spent many a late Saturday morning attempting variations of wild game brunch. He was a lover of food and sort of rogue-chef in his own right. We found that duck hearts braised in duck fat with sautéed onions and garlic was a hard combination to beat. I cherished these moments with my father. In fact, it was hunting that opened up the world of cooking to me.
Sure, I knew how to cook prior to hunting. Though admittedly it was rather simple and void of any deep consideration. Up until I began to hunt, meat was something that you bought — cut, cleaned, wrapped up in plastic — ready for your consumption. Of course, I was aware of its origins, as one of my uncles had a farm, and I grew up on the outskirts of a large rural zone in Southern Ontario. Even so, the majority of us are raised in a world where it is far too easy to consume meat without any connection to its origins.
I enjoyed the entirety of the process. The preparation before hunting season, the act of hunting itself. The cleaning and processing of the ducks, geese, and rabbits I came home with. And finally, the meals that those animals became.
I began to expand on my cooking abilities, and with that came an added sense of satisfaction. I can assure you that something entirely different takes place in you when you serve wild game to friends and family at the dinner table. I became comfortable plucking, gutting, cleaning and cooking wildfowl in a variety of different ways. But, I had yet to kill a deer.
Deer were another matter in more ways than one. It took me four years of hunting deer to be “successful”. To finally kill a deer. In part due to the lack of hunt-able public land around me and my own inability to harvest one, but for me, deer hunting became pedestalized in a sense.
Admittedly, it brought about questions. The philosophical sort, that once posed, often linger in the corners of your mind. What if, when I finally saw a deer that was “legal” to shoot, I could not pull the trigger? What would it mean if, after spending so many hours over the years dedicating myself to this craft, I could not carry out the final act?
Or perhaps, I could do it. It couldn’t be that much different than a rabbit or duck could it? But what about cleaning the deer? Could I do that? Would I be disgusted? After all, it is another mammal I would be cutting open. What about the blood? Would I be sick? My mind was intoxicated with this peculiar cocktail of curiosity, doubt, fear, and existential wonder.
I wrestled constantly with these questions before I had no choice but to face these questions tangibly. When that day came, however, my questions and doubts were quelled in a way that would impact my life moving forward.
I found out that I was not only capable of hunting, killing, cutting open, and breaking down a deer into cuts of meat recognized in grocery store aisles — but that it felt natural. Strange, yet comforting, and oh so natural. As if millions of years of knowledge had awakened. The primordial spirit within you stirs, breathing life into your being. I realized that this wasn’t a simple something that I could do, like kick a field goal or hold my breath for two minutes. It was something that I evolved to do, part of my own history and DNA.
When hunters talk about respect for the animal, respect for the wilderness, the harmony of the dichotomy is often lost on the uninitiated. They wonder, how it is possible to respect, cherish, and work to protect life, and at the same time, take it? I understand. I have questioned these things myself.
Hunting has opened my eyes to a deep understanding of the natural world. Of life cycles, growth and death, and seasonal patterns in the landscape. But perhaps more importantly, it opened my eyes to the power of food. The importance of taking responsibility for the meat we consume. Taking responsibility for the meat we waste.
There is a harmony that comes with serving a mouth-watering dish of wild game to curious friends. Friends who know nothing of hunting or the fruits of its labour. Harmony in knowing that you were responsible for the entire process — from field to table, as the now trendy saying goes. Field to table is not just a trend. It was and, for some, still is a way of life.
It reshaped the way I saw meat in the grocery store. How I valued and cherished the wild game that I had in the freezer, or served to others. When it’s your last roast or steak from an animal you personally killed and hiked out of the backcountry, every morsel is worth ten times its “market price”. That first deer was a giant shift in mindset, the ending of the preface in my story as opposed to the final chapter.
Truthfully, my uncle’s tutelage in the culture and heritage of hunting has been one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. It has enabled me the privilege of community. It has taught me the difference between persistence and perseverance, and when the application of either is appropriate. It has trained my patience and attention to detail.
Perhaps the most important gift, however, is the gift of life and the understanding that we are, in fact, a part of the natural world – and, as imperfect as it may seem, there is harmony in that participation.
About Nolan Osborne
Nolan Osborne is a hunting guide, writer, and lover of mountains. Raised in eastern Canada, and now residing in British Columbia, Nolan can be found packing horses, hiking, hunting, or ski-touring depending on the season.