Sep 9, 2017
By Ron Weber
It was a route I had walked a thousand times but now nothing seemed the same. Time had erased the pictures hanging in the corners of my mind and replaced them with new scenes. A small pond that looked familiar finally convinced me that I was on the right path. I was on my way to visit with a couple of old friends and now worried how they would look after 25 years.
The trail passed through a stand of aspen and red maple that were no more than teens the last time I had seem them. Once so numerous that it made for tough shooting at flushing grouse, many of them had succumbed to the fierce competition for light and what remained was a more open forest with a healthy understory of hazel. A few hundred yards from here, hopefully, I would find my friends waiting on the edge of the swamp.
Pushing through the hazel I suddenly got a shock when the forest before me abruptly ended in a sea of ten-foot tall aspens, products of a clearcut in the not so distant past. I prepared myself for what I might find on the other side of the cut. Picking my way through the dog hair thick aspens I thought back to when I first passed this way.
I was thirteen when my older brother, Gary, had asked me to go up north with him to hunt the last weekend of the early bow season. I was excited, as this would be my first deer hunt with Gary. He picked me up at around 1:00 am to begin the three and a half hour drive from southeast Wisconsin to the Mead Wildlife Area near Marshfield. Much too excited to sleep, I kept him company as we talked baseball, football and, of course, bowhunting. As the roads became smaller, bumpier and less frequented by houses I knew we must be getting close. A turn down a graveled road confirmed that. The car slowed and we pulled over and stopped on the side of the road. We were there!
Gary said we were early and had about 45 minutes before we had to leave for the woods so he was going to take a quick nap. I spent the time imagining my first bow hunt, far from the woodlots I had hunted back home. Finally, it was time to go and we climbed into camo clothes, slung portable treestands over our shoulders, grabbed our bows and set off into the woods.
I followed closely behind Gary as he picked his way through the dark woods, sometimes using his flashlight in areas where it was really thick. We crossed a couple of small creeks, followed a field edge for a short time and then back into the woods. I was just beginning to wonder if we would ever get to where we were headed when Gary stopped and said this would be the spot where I hunted. He guided me to a 16-inch thick cottonwood, which stood about eight feet away from an almost exact replica of itself. He helped me secure my climbing treestand around the tree’s slightly furrowed trunk. After I had safely reached the height I was going to hunt from and pulled up my bow, Gary was off again to his stand further back in the woods. I would come to learn that it was about a forty minute walk from the road back in to where we were hunting. I do believe my lifelong affair with hunting far from roads began right then.
By the time the dark relinquished its hold on the forest, I could hardly contain my excitement. My senses were working in overdrive as I swiveled my head to every leaf rustle and stick breaking only to see nothing or, at best, a mouse or squirrel. Around 7:30 I heard leaves crunching and this time I knew it was definitely something big walking toward me. As the deer materialized out of the swamp, my whole body was shaking. Though the two does did not come within my twenty yard range and slipped quietly away without ever realizing my presence, I knew from that moment on that Gary would always have a partner to go up north hunting with.
As I continued on, the swamp edge was now becoming apparent through the saplings. Then, almost magically, there they were. Twin cottonwoods stood like sentinels on the edge of a vast cattail and alder swamp. I was not only elated to find them, but to find them so seemingly well.
Like everything else I had remembered about this place, they had changed. They had added a great deal of girth and were much too large now for my treestand. I ran my hand over the deeply furrowed bark looking for the spot were I had carved my initials one glorious October day during my college years but found nothing. Remnants of orange paint hinted that perhaps the forester who had set up the clearcut also realized the special character of these two and decided to mark them as leave trees. I’d like to think that anyhow.
As I contemplated the changes these two had seen to the landscape over the past quarter century, the questions suddenly popped into my mind, “Why was I here? What was I hoping to find?” Maybe I was just trying to recapture or revisit my past. Or maybe I was hoping to find that some things in life don’t have to change. Both of those were plausible, but after reflecting for a while longer the real reason for my visit became clear.
I was there to visit some old friends. It was as simple as that. There are many that might say, “Come on now they are just trees.” To me, however, they could never be “just trees.” How could they?
These two had witnessed and shared so much of my life. Their stout trunks had cradled me and protected me from icy north winds and driving snow. They had watched hundreds of sunrises and sunsets with me. They had listened to my thoughts and even helped affirm many decisions I had made in my life. They had been there as I grew from a gangly novice to an accomplished hunter. The day before my wedding it was they who I had spent the morning with dreaming about what lay ahead of me. I am not sure what the definition is, but in my book that is a friend.
Deciding it was time to start heading back, I pulled out my knife intent on leaving a mark on their trunk like I had done so long ago. Before I could do it though, I realized there was no need. What we shared was much deeper than any mark I could make. Like Gary who had since passed away, they were my hunting partners. They were old now for cottonwoods and I knew full well that age or wind could easily make this the last time we gathered here. That realization comes at some point for all old friends and hunting partners.
As I turned to walk away, I thought of Gary and wished he could have been there with us. I like to think he was. In a moment of whimsy I hoped that whatever heaven was, that there be trees there. If so, I knew of twin cottonwoods that would be waiting for me.