Woodlots Soon Reclaim the Marks of Bucks and Men
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Fifteen years have passed since my daughter Leah was last a regular hunter at our cousins’ 200-acre farm in Richland County.
I thought about her missing years while edging along the spine of a limestone ridge Dec. 9 during Wisconsin’s four-day antlerless-only season. It was nice to have Leah around again, if only for opening day, after her 14-year Navy hitch.
As I neared the ridgeline’s southern point — a small knob where oak-studded hillsides plunge to the east, south and west — I spotted the skeleton of a yearling 4-point buck. The buck’s head was upright, its spindly rack pointed skyward. For whatever reason, the woodlots’ squirrels and chipmunks hadn’t gnawed these skull-attached antlers the way they do sheds.
By all appearances, the buck had been dead a year. All that remained of its hide and hair was a tousled, snow-flecked skullcap between its antlers. Rodents had eaten away the buck’s nose and its sternum, chewing its rib bones into gnarly unattached stumps. A rear leg rested perpendicular to the spine, probably yanked into that position by scavenging coyotes.
I’ll never know what killed this young buck. Still, I ask myself: Was it coyotes? Could it have been chronic wasting disease? Or was it wounded during a 2020 hunting season and died on this point after realizing it lacked the strength and balance to descend the steep hillsides? Or maybe it just caught some common ailment, bedded here as it would on any other autumn or winter morning, and suddenly found itself too weak to stand.
Such storylines are fun to ponder but futile to prove.
And so I sank onto a nearby log to eat lunch and ponder more important matters. For one, I hadn’t sat on this knob since late afternoon of the 2006 deer season opener. I remembered those hours because they brought a melancholy I’ll never forget.
I recalled starting the 2006 season in a treestand that Leah and I first shared in 1991. And that memory made me remember looking her way 30 years ago, and seeing her eyes closed and head slumped an hour after dawn. She was somehow snoozing through wet, wind-driven snowflakes splattering her little face.
She was then 6. She awoke a bit later. We shared a hot chocolate as I explained that deer hunting is mostly patience and woods-watching. Deer feel no obligation to reveal themselves, and even less to die for our benefit.
Leah stuck with me through the cold wetness. Around 9 a.m., she spotted three deer: a doe and two fawns. If they had stayed on their northward course they would have had no worries from us. But whitetails are seldom straight-line runners, and this group suddenly veered westward into my line of fire. I shot the doe when it paused in the chopped corn 150 yards away.
Leah and I climbed down to tag and dress the doe, and then Leah headed for the farmhouse to warm up and tell our story to my aunt and uncle, Terry and Ramona Durkin. That memory reminded me that Uncle Terry has been gone since 2013 and Aunt Mona since 2015, and that they first invited me to hunt their farm in 1983.
Leah and I shared that double-box stand throughout the 1990s, including the 1997 and 1998 openers when she carried a rifle but wasn’t ready to hunt alone. She first hunted from her own stand in 1999, about the time she felt comfortable crossing a distant wooded gully and large hill alone in darkness.
As I again sat alone in my half of our aging treestand for the 2006 opener, I thought about deer hunts I had shared with Leah the previous years. Meanwhile, she hunted out of sight, up and over that big hill 700 yards away.
I thought, too, that day of deer seasons to come, wondering if Leah would be home for some of them. Within six months, May 2007, she would be a Navy officer. Would she have enough leave and seniority to visit during Thanksgiving? What about the year after? Would she still be stationed in the States or deployed somewhere I hated to contemplate?
No. I’m thankful she never deployed to war zones in the years that followed, and she returned home to hunt three of the next 14 deer-season openers: 2009, 2011 and 2013.
As I watched the woods on many gray November days in Leah’s absence, I also thought about friends hunting deer around Wisconsin. I wondered how their openers were going in Adams, Ashland, Buffalo, Marquette, Marinette and Eau Claire counties. I thought, too, of friends whose ghosts still watch from atop an oak ridge in Columbia County, a popple ridge in Vilas County, a high bluff above the Mississippi, and an old maple not far from Leah’s vacant tripod stand.
I wondered if one of those spirits, Leon Heinze of Portage, would somehow honor the favor that Tom Heberlein asked at his deathbed in 2006: “Send a big buck my way, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Given Leon’s integrity and sense of obligation, he has tried. But Heberlein — more an observer of people and grouse than of deer — likely faced the wrong way whenever Leon’s buck passed by.
Memories make me smile. Anticipations once did more certainly. As that 2006 opener started winding down, I did something I’ve never done since: I left my stand. I crossed the road and climbed to the ridgeline point where that forkhorn died years later. I wanted to be a few hundred yards closer to Leah for the day’s final 90 minutes, and escort her back to the truck after dark.
An hour later, as the sun burned distant ridgelines orange, I heard leaves rustling nearby. My ears assured me it wasn’t a deer. An opossum waddled into view 50 yards away, its white face pointing northeast, its rattail southwest.
Moments later Leah’ rifle blast startled me. I turned on my walky-talky. (We were still three years away from iPhones back then.) Moments later I heard her excited voice on our shared channel. She had shot a doe. It was dead 30 yards from her stand.
I hurried her way. Leah climbed down as I approached, and we exchanged a congratulatory hug before walking over to tag her doe, take photos, and field dress the sleek creature.
Our tasks completed, I knelt to gather and repack my gear. The woods were dark by then. My headlamp illuminated a forearm-sized aspen 10 feet away. Its bark was scarred; its cambium and sapwood bare. The tree had been rubbed hard by a buck’s antlers.
My headlamp revealed several other nearby aspens whose creamy bark bore dark scars from previous years’ buck rubs. These scars, however, were nearly healed, covering the wood beneath. Their message seemed clear:
We all leave our marks, but time and nature’s work is never done. The marks of bucks and men soon disappear, reclaimed by a woods we once thought was ours forever.
Leah, left, and Patrick Durkin pose in 2006 with a doe she shot on opening day of the Wisconsin deer season in Richland County. — Patrick Durkin photos
These remains of a long-dead 4-point buck rest at the point of a limestone ridge in early December.
The sun sets on another day of deer hunting in southwestern Wisconsin.