My life has changed a lot lately:
While having a second has been a wonderful learning experience, it also has put a bit of a cramp in my outdoors game. After a very superstitious, but unproductive, deer hunt last year Curry and I reapplied for the very same hunt, certain we would do better this time. We got the tags, but there was simply no way I was going to be able to leave Angie alone with a toddler and a newborn for more than a couple of days. So, Curry and I settled on a compromise: 36 hours, light and fast, covering every inch of ground we possibly could before we were exhausted. 4 AM Friday morning, our hunt began with hot coffee and a long drive in the Mighty Forester.
Arizona’s unit 24b is a backcountry hunter’s paradise. Made up almost entirely of the Superstition Wilderness, the area is nearly roadless, littered with deep canyons and every habitat type from low desert to pines. Many of the trails that are falling apart, covered with cat’s claw, and blessedly devoid of riff-raff. Over 5 days of spike hunting last year we saw exactly one other group of hunters.
We started out by glassing the hill that was most productive last year:
But found no deer. We kept at this for a couple of hours or so until something disheartening creeped into view: other hunters. Time to move on.
At camp Curry and I dumped our food, extra water, and sleeping gear. We worked out way over one small set of switchbacks before descending into “Deer Valley.” A dense and nasty woodland with no sightlines, Deer Valley holds a great many deer, none of which you can actually see. After half a mile or so Curry and I split up, with him still hunting the valley floor while I climbed up the absurd ridgeline trail. It was steeper than I remembered and in my haste I managed to spoke a couple of does. It was worth it though, because at the top you have vision for miles.
Unfortunately it was the middle of the day and the deer weren’t moving. After a few hours I descended to the valley floor, pushing a nice set of three healthy does down to Curry who was waiting for me at the trail intersection. He reported that he had seen another set of does as well, and we felt confident that we were on the deer. After a quick lunch we took up an evening of unproductive still hunting, before returning to
a bottle of scotch an early night’s sleep at camp.
In the morning we replayed the game plan from the day before: I returned to my old haunt and Curry worked the valley floor.
I quickly spotted a great many does between 500 and 1000 yards away, before I heard some footsteps coming up the hill. I knew our friend Downtown had considered joining us this morning, but I was surprised to see an infuriated Curry coming towards me instead. “What’s up man?” I asked.
“You know the
REDACTED spot? Where we saw all the deer last year?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Some *CHOICE WORDS* son of a *OTHER CHOICE WORD* built a *STILL OTHER CHOICE WORDS* giant fire right across the creek.”
“Was he hunting?”
This, of course, is a mortal sin. Not only did this guy ruin our plan of not camping right on top of the deer, but he had light a fire big enough to alert every deer in the entire valley to our presence. Unforgivable.
After glassing for an hour or so Curry decided to return to what he does best, still hunting, and I stayed up on the ridge. Two more does crossed the saddle about 75 feet from where I was sitting, before the hunters we had seen glassing yesterday came up the trail. They were nice enough guys, and after a brief conversation they let me know that they had helped their friends pack four bucks out of this valley on the early hunt this year. That explained a lot. With the sun at it’s peak and out of time, I decided to call it: this would be another deerless deer hunt.
Luckily at the base of the ridge trail, I ran into my favorite desert friends, a huge group of coatis. I slowly creeped my way into the middle of the group, before they scattered. Regardless, it was exactly the pick me up I needed.
Back at camp, Curry and I packed up and hiked our way back to the car,
And almost exactly 36 hours after leaving, I walked in the door.
On this very trip last year I herniated two discs in my back, beginning a long, terrible, and occasionally pretty funny recovery process. A year in I’m still haven’t recovered, but I am getting better at getting better. I think that is something to be proud of.
However, the hardest part of this entire process has been trusting myself to get really deep into the backcountry while knowing that one wrong twist could leave me writhing on the side of the trail, stuck there until someone found me. It would have been easy to avoid this hunt entirely, after all with a newborn at home I had all the excuses in the world, but at some point you just have to give yourself the chance to fail and get back in the saddle. After all, what is the alternative? To never backpack again?
The goal of any deer hunt is to bag a deer. In this way, you will always feel disappointed walking out with a light pack. That being said, after nearly losing the outdoors completely I finally managed to get back.
And that’s enough for now.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.