Nov 28, 2016

The Drive

By: Ron Weber

     I first made the drive at the age of seventeen on the final day of the 1981 gun deer season with my older brothers, Gary and Jim.  We had seen precious few deer that season and were in real danger of going home with no venison for the next year. Deer numbers in the Chequamagon National Forest in Bayfield County were fairly low at that time, especially when compared to the population of deer we would encounter by the late 80’s through the early 2000’s.

     The plan attested to our desperation.  Jim and I would push through roughly a half-mile of thick alder and cedar creek bottom towards Gary who would be on stand on the edge of more open hardwoods.  I was always hopeful and happy to try such things, but in reality it was a long shot at best.

     As we headed through the cover, I kept an eye on my compass to make sure I continued in an easterly direction towards Gary.  I had never been in these woods before and was not really sure where I was headed but I knew that Jim was beside me and Gary was waiting on the other side so I felt somewhat safe.

     After almost an hour of pushing myself through the thick cover, I was starting to doubt if I was going in the right direction.  Just as panic was beginning to set in, a shot rang out straight in front of me and it sounded close.  Now I felt good, not only because I was sure it was Jim or Gary who shot, but because I wasn’t lost.  A little further ahead I saw orange off to my right.  It was Jim, and as we met up he said it must have been Gary who shot.  The cover was thinning now and soon we could see Gary on a hardwood ridge looking over the creek.

     Gary started down the ridge as we approached.  “Did you get one?” Jim asked.  “Ya, I got one.” Gary answered, his voice void of any excitement.  As we gathered around the deer, a buck fawn, even though Gary didn’t seem pleased, I was happy that after a long season in which we had hunted very hard we had at least this deer to show for it.  Gary attached his antlerless tag, one of only about 200 given out in that deer management unit that year.  It was a small success, but a success nonetheless. 

     Over the next thirty years we would continue to make this drive, which we would simply refer to as the creek drive.  We modified it and tried doing it different ways, but it was always the creek drive.   As the deer population increased, and we came to know the lay of the land and the most likely escape routes deer would use, this drive became one of our favorite and most productive drives.  I was almost always one of the two drivers, often with Jim, and came to know every square inch of the cover I once was afraid of getting lost in as a teen.  I would boast to the members of our deer camp that I could probably go through there blindfolded.  It wasn’t an empty boast because I really think I could have.

     As the last one to get to deer camp in November of 2011, right away I noticed I wasn’t greeted by the sight of Jim sitting with the others at the table.  He was lying on the couch, not feeling well.  I had not seen Jim since late summer and when I had talked to him on the phone through the fall he said he had a virus that was hanging on.  It only took one coughing spell from the couch to tell me that it was no virus.  Instantly in the pit of my stomach I knew that the bill had come due on forty plus years of smoking. 

     Jim did not make it out of the cabin the entire week.  The last Saturday I knew I had to get him out to hunt one more time.  There was no doubt where we would go.  Jim could not get very far back in the woods so we did the creek drive much different than usual.  As I finished the drive and came up on Jim, he struggled to stand up and slowly made his way out of the woods.  As I walked behind him, it broke my heart to realize that gone was the hard charging, never quit hunting hero I had known all my life.  It was the last hunt he ever went on.  Chemotherapy and radiation gave him one more year and he passed away just after Christmas in 2012.

     In the summer of 2013, a tornado passed through the creek area reducing it to a twisted mass of downed trees.  It was as if nature was reminding me that change is inevitable and that death is a very necessary part of life.  Early in the fall, I looked the area over during grouse season and found it almost impassable.  I never figured to make the creek drive again.  I was wrong.

     Just before deer season that year I received news that Gary, also a life long smoker, had been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor on a major blood vessel in his lung.  Gary came to deer camp as always, but unlike every year I had ever hunted, he would not be there the whole season.  He had to go back on Monday for a treatment. 

     On the Friday before opening day, he walked into the area he planned to hunt.  That tired him out so much he was not able to go out on opening day.  Sunday was his last day to hunt and he really didn’t want to go out then either.  I came back to camp around noon and as the other guys from camp went to watch the Packer game, I talked Gary into going out with me to make a drive.  I had to. 

     Of course we went to the creek.  Gary took a stand in almost the same spot Jim had two years earlier.  I made my way through the twisted mess.  Up, over, around and through seemingly countless blow downs.  There was deer sign in the area so the deer had seemed to accept the changes.  Nothing looked the same.  It was a cloudy day and there were times I wasn’t sure where I was going.  As I made my way towards Gary, in a very real way I felt Jim by my side.

     It would be nice to say that Gary got his buck but he didn’t.  Fairy tale endings don’t happen very often in life.   Gary went home on Monday for treatment.  Two weeks later his blood vessel ruptured and he was gone.  My other lifetime hunting hero had left me much too soon.

     With the heart and soul gone, other members of our deer camp stopped coming for the annual pilgrimage to the small cabin on Lake Namakagon.  I still go, hunting the big woods by myself now but I am never alone.  There is too much history there, too many memories for that to be.

     I have never smoked and enjoy good health so God willing I have many more years to hunt.  I still have the drive to finish, obstacles to go around, trials to get through and sorrows to get over.  Like that long ago November day, I am sometimes scared and not sure where I am headed, but again, I feel safe knowing that Jim is always beside me and Gary is waiting on the other side.