Deer Spotting

My Maine

Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams

A longtime sportsman faces down illness — and heads out into the field one last time.

By Mitch Sturgeon
We are so well practiced at the predawn launching procedure that conversation is unnecessary and unwelcome. I hold the 20-foot aluminum canoe steady while my father wobbles down its length, turns, and sits. He nods, and I heave the canoe into Passadumkeag Stream and hop aboard. I am 16 years old.

The November air cuts through our wool clothing as the 6-horsepower Johnson outboard inches us upstream. I pull my knit hat down as far as I can. When the canoe’s wake reaches shore, it shatters both the skim of ice and the morning quiet. Sunlight leaks over the horizon and paints the water deep blue, the tall grasses green and yellow, the autumn leaves burnt orange.

The natives take exception to our trespass. A pair of wood ducks explodes in a flurry of wings and water as they take flight. A beaver slaps his broad tail on the surface and then withdraws, presumably to the safety of his lodge.

As we round the first bend, Ayer Brook Meadow pushes the forest back from the stream until the tree line is a mile from us. I rise to my feet at the bow of the canoe and survey the open landscape for deer, using my naked eyes and the scope on my rifle. Despite the imprudence of standing up in a canoe, I linger — more enchanted by the beauty than committed to the hunt.

After we pass Oak Point, the meadows disappear from view, and I take my seat. A gaggle of Canada geese honks overhead, laboring together in a perfect V-formation, compelled by the innate urge to migrate thousands of miles. My father maneuvers our canoe by Scalp Rock and navigates Rocky Rips with only a couple of scrapes against submerged boulders. We pull ashore near Big Island and tie the canoe to a tree. Silently, separately, my father and I fade into the woods to execute the hunting strategy we mapped out over breakfast. We too are compelled by innate urges.

Late in the afternoon, I meet my father back at the canoe and we motor downstream to the boat ramp. On this day, we don’t harvest a deer — but find satisfaction in the effort.

Every fall, deer hunting brings together my two older brothers, my father, and me. The consummate sportsman, Dad runs the show when we are young. As we become adults, however, my brothers and I take over operation of the 6-horsepower Johnson, and we shoot the deer. Dad continues to draw up the strategies. Sometimes we follow them. Over the years, Dad goes up the stream less and less but always waits for us at the hunting camp. We enjoy giving him the details of the hunt, successful or not, and he devours our stories.

Dad often follows up with one of his own tales. Although he stores away a considerable number, repeat performances are inevitable. His consistent and enthusiastic delivery leaves my brothers and me wondering whether he doesn’t remember having told us the stories before, or if he doesn’t care that he did.

As more years pass, the deer population up the stream dwindles, although Dad argues this point. We spend more time hunting in other parts of the state. My brothers and I, and our growing families, all migrate away from northern Maine. We sell the hunting camp near Passadumkeag Stream. I rely on the telephone to keep Dad informed of my hunts. We both cherish these conversations. Nobody will ever care about anything I do more than Dad cares about my hunting.

In my mid-40s, an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis puts an end to my walks in the meadows and woods. As a disabled person in Maine, I qualify for a special permit to shoot from a parked vehicle, an otherwise illegal activity. On a brilliant November afternoon in southern Maine, I position my wheelchair-accessible van so I can aim my Browning .30-06 at a spot in the corner of a field where I hope a deer might show up. I can’t hold a rifle properly, so I rest it on a stand.

I stare at the same group of trees for hours, waiting for a deer to materialize. That’s what they so often do — appear out of nowhere. In the waning autumn daylight, I close my eyes for just a second, then scold myself. Come on, Mitch. Stay alert. This is the best part of the day.

I rely on the telephone to keep Dad informed of my hunts. We both cherish these conversations. Nobody will ever care about anything I do more than Dad cares about my hunting.

With only ten minutes of good light remaining, I finally notice a doe standing in the middle of an opening. I have no idea how long she has been there. A surge of adrenaline wipes away my grogginess, as if someone had doused me with ice water.

I try to get the deer into my scope but can’t swing my gun far enough to the left because the shooting stand restricts me. I summon all my strength, toss the stand aside, get the deer in my crosshairs, and pull the trigger. She bounds into the trees where the nighttime darkness has already taken hold.

I call my brother and his son and ask them to come search for the deer. I can’t help them, so I dial my cell phone again.

“Dad, it’s Mitchell, and I just shot at a deer.”

“Is that so? Did you hit it?”

“Hard to say. Tom and Brad are on their way to look for her.” I give Dad the details. He always insists on details.

Before hanging up, he says, “Well, even if you missed the deer, I’m so happy you were able to have a genuine hunting experience.”

“Me too, Dad. I’ll call back either way.”

A team of searchers arrives with my brother. Everyone loves a feel-good story. Six flashlight beams bounce around the field and woods where I last saw the deer. Well after dark, Brad yells, “We found her, Mitch!” They bring the deer close for me to see. I pause for a moment to take it all in, then reach for my phone.

“Dad, it’s a nice, big doe.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. Congratulations.” Then nothing.

“Are you still there?” I ask.

“Yes.” His voice cracks. “I can’t tell you how happy I am. I know I’ve shot my last deer. I was afraid you had too.”

Through the silence on the other end, I know my father is crying.

By the following November, my MS progresses to where I can’t drive my van, but others volunteer. I experience more difficulty loading and aiming the rifle but still manage. After a couple of hunts, however, I feel my interest wane. Although the difficulties brought on by MS bother me, there is something more.

Dad is no longer there to answer the phone and hear my stories. He passed away over the summer. Midway through the season, without ceremony or regret, I place my gun in the cabinet, for good I think. That’s enough hunting.

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Mitch Sturgeon

Mitch Sturgeon formerly worked as a chemical engineer. He lives in South Portland and blogs about his experience with MS at enjoyingtheride.com