I’ll never forget my son’s exclamation when we left our duty station in Germany and landed in Montana in the spring of 2009. We were driving north on Highway 87 between Great Falls and Havre when he looked out the window and said, “Look, Mom! Gazelles!”
Grazing in a wheat field near the highway was a huge herd of American pronghorn antelope. I grinned and told him they did look like gazelles, but they were actually called “antelope” in America. He flushed with embarrassment and said, “Don’t tell anyone I said that.” I responded by assuring him I would share it with pride in my son.
By the time we got settled in our new home, all of the hunter education programs in Havre were over. So we drove to Lewistown and stayed overnight to get Ben into a weekend program to obtain his big game hunting privileges.
We started hunting together the summer of that year. It began with a rabbit. Ben got it on the run with a .22 rifle. We cleaned it and skinned it together. Then we made rabbit stew. It was delicious and we were excited to add wild meat to our menu.
To prepare for the upcoming big game season, I had spent time scouting the Little Belts in hopes of harvesting an elk on opening day. With much anticipation of success, Ben and I drove our 1995 Toyota Landcruiser onto public land, excited to hunt the next morning. When we went to bed in our sleeping bags in the back of the Cruiser, it had been a perfectly beautiful fall evening. However, when my watch alarm went off the next morning, it was dark. Very, very dark. We opened our vehicle doors to a foot of fresh-fallen snow. And plenty more was coming down.
Undaunted, we put on headlamps and started for the path through an open field to make our way to the hiding spot we had scouted the day before. The snow was flying so thick it became a sheet of white in front of us as the light on our foreheads reflected off the falling flakes.
Somehow, we found our way to the ambush spot and hunkered down to wait for the dawn. Before sunlight could warm the earth, the snow stopped, the clouds cleared away, the stars twinkled in the dark sky, and the temperature dropped.
We sat patiently, silently, as our body heat began to ebb away, leaving us shivering as gray light spread across the horizon in the east.
The much-anticipated elk never approached the place we were hiding. Instead, as there was just enough light to fire legally, we heard a barrage of gunfire in the valley below us. Ben’s shivering gave way to excitement. He jumped up to join the shootout. I told him we were not moving an inch toward the sound of that gunfire. I assured him that if elk came our way out of the fray, we would surely harvest one. As the firing became less frequent, I began to realize this was not our day to get one of the elk from the herd being thinned-out by the sound of the blasting below us.
However, we still waited.
And we waited.
And nothing came our way. The cold around us began to seep into our bones.
Finally, my 12-year-old companion said, “Mom, I’m cold.” Yep. So was I. We got up and decided to take a hike to warm up. We headed uphill from our position to put some effort into it. The exercise did us good.
Before long, our disappointment gave way to enjoyment of the beautiful morning as the rising sun began to warm the crystal clear blue skies and we just relaxed and visited as we walked, the fresh-fallen snow twinkling in the sunlight. We were just walking and talking as loud as we wished. We figured all the game must have been scared off by the gunshots anyway.
That’s when we ran into the biggest heard of mule deer I’ve ever seen, before or since. We were just as surprised as they were. We fumbled with our rifles while they hightailed it to the other side of the meadow. We took standing shots, to no avail, as the last does were leaving. One stopped and broadsided. I quickly swung the pack from off of my back and used it as a support to shoot from the prone. The last doe left standing in the meadow dropped. We celebrated as if we’d taken a trophy.
It was also the first field dressing we had ever attempted. I was taking my time getting ready. Unfortunately, as we were contemplating how to begin, a hunter and his teenage daughter crossed the field and came over to check out what we had taken. When the dad discovered it was my first kill, he volunteered (over my protests) to field dress it so we could learn how to do it from him. I was doubtful, but he was insistent and went to work with enthusiasm. It was only when he slashed open the gut sack that his daughter exclaimed, “Dad!” We all knew he had messed up. He worked feverishly to clean out the abdomen with snow once his messy gutting job was completed. Finally, he left us to go figure out how to recover his trophy-sized bull elk. We set about hauling the doe carcass to our vehicle.
This was the part of hunting I didn’t have a very good plan for. I had a pulling harness, but she was much heavier than I expected. And we were a couple of miles from our vehicle over rough terrain. Ben took the backpack and I tugged and pulled the doe’s body, very much surprised at the effort it took. I was drenched with sweat by the time we emerged from the woods. Fortunately, the local game warden had spotted our vehicle and saw us at the edge of the pine grove. I was mighty grateful when he drove his truck over to us to help us out.
I didn’t know a thing about aging meat in those early days. So I butchered as soon as we got back home while she was still in rigor mortis. It tuned out to be some of the toughest, gamiest meat we ever harvested. But we ate every last bit of it, even down to almost swallowing the bullet which revealed itself in a burrito one morning. Ben spat out the slug and finished the burrito, too.
As we continued hunting together, Ben became my spotting mentor. He has the best long-distance vision of anyone I know. He also made our hunting adventures an opportunity for camaraderie over competition. On days we got skunked, he would simply grin and say, “Wow, didn’t we have a nice day together in the beautiful outdoors?” His positive attitude and tolerance for my craziness made hunting much more fun and fulfilling.
Ben even opted for getting out in the woods over playing football during his high school years, as this sport took place during prime hunting season. The football coach even called to talk to me about this, but feeding our family was a priority and venison was our primary protein source, which Ben was as partial to as the rest of us.
It was difficult losing him to the Army. We had to decide which family holiday, if any, he could come home and visit. We opted for Christmas over Thanksgiving, which meant he was never home during hunting season from 2015-2018. There was even one year during which he had to stay in North Carolina during Christmas. So I flew there to celebrate the holiday with him. We were able to stay at a little Air Bed and Breakfast cabin in the woods near the Appalachian Trail. We spent our time in the deep South that holiday by hiking to all the waterfalls we could find.
This year, we finally had the opportunity to hunt together again when Ben exited active military service and came home to Montana in October. After four years as an Airborne Infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division on Fort Bragg, my son was home. Opening day was his welcome-home hunting party and we bagged three animals the first day and two the next. It was a fantastic start to our season.
We are meat hunters. We don’t hunt for trophies. We always try to harvest the best shot that simply fills a tag. We also pray before each hunt and gratefully pray over each harvest in thanks for the food for our table.
With this in mind, it was the second Saturday of the 2019 season we had our best hunt ever, together. The weather was cold and overcast with a stiff wind making it feel even colder. There was no game visible in the open. We were hiking a coulee when a singular doe jumped out of the brush and headed for the high ground over the closest ridge.
We both had a legal tag to harvest her, so with a knowing nod to each other, we sprinted up to the top of the coulee. There she was, standing broadside about 250 yards away. We both dropped instinctively into the prone and took aim.
We had pulled our triggers at almost the same exact second – actually, less than a second apart. The doe dropped immediately. I looked at Ben, he looked at me.
“You got her!” we said, simultaneously.
Ben came over to fist-bump me. He was certain we had hit the heart for her to drop so quickly. I wasn’t so sure. I told him to wait until the autopsy before we celebrated such luck.
During the field dressing, Ben pointed out the unusually large entry wound and I had to conclude his initial assessment had been correct. We hit her in the same spot at the same time! It was a perfect kill. It was an amazing shot and we had done it together. It felt like our years of hunting had just culminated in the best hunt we ever had! It was a wonderful day!