By Talmage Ekanger, JD
“Snap!” My senses suddenly attune to my surroundings.
Minutes have passed since the sun first shot beams through my breath, clearly visible in the cold November morning. The brilliance of the sunrise forces my eyelids shut several times. Only seconds ago I fought sleep, until the frigid peace was broken with a tree branch snap somewhere behind me. I’m awake … and I’m not alone.
Behind me, it’s there. But what? How close? Does it know I’m here? My heart quickens and the excitement draws strength with each breath. My mind swirls with options, decisions, and indecision. Turn around? Wait? Spin quickly? Slowly? If only I knew whether my visitor was aware of me. But the excitement is why I’m here … this is what I love.
I love Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means it’s hunting season again, and it’s time to return home to South Dakota. It’s a time to be with family, and especially with my father, because he and I will be deer hunting.
There are things I can count on in life, and deer hunting Thanksgiving morning is one. At 5:30 a.m. I wake to Dad’s voice: “It’s time to get up.” I finally drag out of bed when I hear the coffee grinder and descend to the kitchen for a hot bowl of cream of wheat. I then climb into my coveralls, boots, and blaze orange vest, grab my thermos, rifle, and binoculars, and we’re ready to go. In twenty-two years, the only change to the tradition is that now I kiss the foreheads of my sleeping wife and kids before I leave.
We drive to our hunting spot peering through slits we scraped into the heavy frost on the windshield. When we’re three miles away, Dad asks, “Where do you want to go?” and as though it were the second line in some ancient hymn, I say, “I don’t know … Where do you want to go?” Other than that little conversation, the drive is almost silent as two night owls struggle through the dark morning hours.
We haven’t actually sat together hunting since I was fourteen years old. There’s no plan, no organization or teamwork. Our morning routine is almost more like a carpool than a father and son hunting together. But sometime midmorning we’ll arrive back at the pickup, at about the same time. Not because we planned to, but just because we do. Then we will no doubt drive to a ridge where we can see the several square miles where we hunt, and we’ll grab our binoculars and sit spotting all the deer we never saw all morning.
Over a cup of coffee, the conversation will be far livelier. I’ll tell Dad about the young buck that passed five feet from me and never knew I was there. Dad will mention the cold little spider he found walking across the snow. I’ll describe the silly looking coyote I watched bouncing repeatedly into the air, and Dad will explain, “They do that when they’re hunting mice.” I’ll complain about a noisy nuthatch or squirrel that kept making me think a deer approached, and we’ll agree that they are the noisiest critters on the planet. Dad will tell stories about Grandpa, and how he loved to hunt. We’ll sit for an hour, glassing the countryside, swapping stories, and being thankful that we’re deer hunting together.
When we get home, like clockwork, I’ll open the door and Mom will ask if we got one. I’ll say no, but explain that I don’t care because I still have three days to hunt and I don’t want to finish too quickly. Mom and my wife will prepare for company to arrive. My brother will carry folding chairs up from the basement and set the table for dinner. Once we’re cleaned up, Dad will mash potatoes, and I’ll bring in the food prepared the day before that was set out in the garage to stay cold. Then I’ll keep the kids out of the way until dinner, while trying to explain to my three-year-old son why I didn’t get a deer yet. That might be the toughest job of them all.
But maybe this morning will be different … something is behind me. Moments pass as slowly as years, as I strain for another sound. Then it comes … the telltale foot stamp of a buck—a big buck—determined to tell the world he reigns supreme. There is little likelihood now that he’s not aware of me. Either my profile or scent has tipped him off. The stamping is no doubt a challenge … one I can no longer tolerate.
With a single motion, I spin and raise my rifle as a trophy buck statue launches to a dead run. With only seconds to decide, aim, and fire before my quarry disappears into the tree grove, I place the cross hairs carefully in front, take a quick look at the background to assure that if I should miss, my bullet will be safe, and gently squeeze the trigger until the sudden recoil slams into my shoulder at the last possible second.
The radio squawks in my ear. “Was that you?” Dad asks.
“Yeah, better bring the truck,” I reply. “It’ll be dinner time soon.”
Talmage Ekanger is a husband, father of three, writer, and attorney-turned-information-technology-supervisor. A native South Dakotan, he’s grateful for the chance to raise his family in the land of the free and the home of the brave.