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Sam Cook column: Under sullen November skies, the hunt unfolds

Sam Cook

The buck lay on the bed of a white pickup last Saturday, opening day of Minnesota's firearms deer season. It was a nice six-pointer, long in the tines. I knew that at least one of Minnesota's half-million deer hunters was happy.

He or she had killed a buck.

The buck's antlers were dark and dusky, and you could imagine him picking his way through the timber a few hours earlier. Maybe his head was held high, so any doe receptive to breeding would be sure to notice his classy rack. Or maybe his nose would have been to the ground, the better to pick up the scent of a doe that had passed the same way.

That evening, I started seeing Facebook bucks in posts by other successful hunters. Blaze orange hunters knelt alongside bucks in repose, their eyes vacant and impassive. They were magnificent creatures even in death.

At the barber shop on Monday of deer season, someone asked my barber how his hunt had gone.

"Got one at 4:30 Saturday," he replied.

"Buck?" the visitor asked.

"Yep."

"Any size?"

"Medium," my barber said.

It is hard to exaggerate the significance of this season, played out against the heavy November skies by nearly half a million hunters. For many in the blaze-orange — or blaze-pink — movement, opening day has been circled on the calendar nearly all year. Hunters have downloaded hundreds of ghostly images from trail cameras for months. They spent the year hoping that no niece or nephew would be getting married on the first Saturday in November.

Only the fishing opener rivals the deer opener in its allure. But as eager as Minnesotans are to get on the water in mid-May, the deer opener is charged with even more urgency. An angler has all summer to fish, but the typical firearms deer hunter might have only three or four days off to find a buck. It's all or nothing, and the weather will have much to say about the hunter's chance of success.

So many times, over the years, I've been fortunate to be a guest in classic Minnesota deer camps — old school buses parked forever among the aspen, humble cabins tucked among the pines, canvas tents pitched taut against November rains.

I can still hear the raucous laughter from within these simple walls. I can see the yellow square of light from a window and blaze-orange figures moving about inside. Wait — I just got a whiff of woodsmoke wafting through balsams.

Step inside, and the night-before-opener anticipation is palpable — the laughter and chiding, the pheasant hotdish, the seasoned hunters and the tentative teenagers. The settling-in happens first. The handshakes and hugs. Then the big meal and eventually the cribbage game.

That other world — the world of cities and jobs and deadlines — is far away now. On the eve of the opener, it is all about wind direction and stand selection and bold predictions.

Something else is happening here, and there's no sense denying it. It's a kind of love. The young guys won't admit it, but the old-timers know. It's a love of place. Love of tradition. Love of old guns and old wool shirts and old friends. Love of silence and anticipation and hope.

In the dark of morning, they trundle forth in too many layers and climb a ladder to wait and listen and watch.

From nowhere, it seems, a six-point buck has materialized, has appeared where there was only forest or clearing before. The buck keeps coming, and now stops.

Maybe you saw him, too, on the tailgate back in town, late on opening day.

Sam Cook is a freelance columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com, or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCook.