The Wonderment of Not Knowing

By R.G. Bernier
 “If life is to preserve its glamour and the heart its freshness,
we must not lose our capacity to wonder.
—Archibald Rutledge

Sitting beneath a stately oak — at least I believe it was an oak tree, with branches extended like the arms of a coddling mother not quite ready to release her grip on a boy determined to enter manhood — is where I was positioned next to Dad on my first deer hunt. Excited, exuberant and with a good bit of youthful restlessness I watched the day dawn on the whitetail forest. Each noise, every interruption was met with a renewed curiosity and the constant inquiry to my father, “When are the deer coming?” My boyhood imagination had conjured up the notion that deer would arrive upon a scheduled time, at this precise location and that is why we were indeed located where we were in order to intercept them. If it were only that simple … .

As I was to find out later, deer have no schedules. They come and go as they please and waiting patiently for the unk n ow n was truly a blessing rather than the curse I thought it to be as an impetuous lad of ten. Until that initial hunt, all I had to go on were stories, tales of spellbinding intrigue betwixt hunter and this ghostly creature that so aptly lives in wooded solitude mysteriously appearing from out of nowhere when least expected.

Leaves trapped in crusted snow rustled in the distance, heralding the approach of a forest occupant. However, the noise was lost on me as I fumbled with a candy wrapper. Looking up I found my dad intently staring in the direction where he told me the deer would most likely appear. His body language suddenly changed, the whole mood now became intense; something has his attention, something that I could not see, not yet anyway. “Get your gun ready, the buck is standing head on to your left,” dad whispered. Searching with all my might I still could not see him. “He’s right there,” dad exclaimed. In a voice much louder than a whisper I asked, “Where?”

This buck was surely destined to be mine as despite my commotion, he remained standing statuesquely still intently and perhaps, curiously looking. “Do you see the big spruce tree?” “Yes,” I replied. “Look to the right of it,” my dad exasperatedly said. And then, there he was, as plain as the nose on my face, the apparition had finally taken form. My little heart began to race. It beat like a drum which was reverberating first in my throat and then relentlessly in my ears. My breath came in gasps as my limbs involuntarily quivered and shook. What a rush to think that one of nature’s children could reduce me to such a trembling mess. Somehow the shot rang true and I had the first of many bucks, but none more special. It was a spike buck with stickers, one whose antlers hang as proudly in my home as any buck I’ve taken since.

Much has changed in the whitetail world since that bygone day when I was a boy of ten, but thankfully, at least for me the same exhilarating heart pounding in my ears, sweat trickling a path down my neck still returns routinely when a buck suddenly appears. However, I fear that this may no longer be the case for a large sector of the deer hunting public. In our thirst for knowledge and our bent on technology, have we now reduced deer hunting to a mere formula?

Bill Heavey writes, “Today’s whitetail nut knows how to pinpoint a core area, unravel a rub line, make a mock scrape, set up a decoy, rattle a buck close, age the animal on the hoof, and score him to within 10 inches. He knows how to raise the pH of soil from 5.8 to 7.0. Thanks to the whitetail boom — which has focused our obsession and created an enormous market to fund research and development — our knowledge of deer behavior is unprecedented, our gear is unsurpassed, and exciting new tactics are spawned almost daily, making the game more nuanced and fun.”

But, in the process have we indeed lost something of intrinsic value? Have we lost the primitive within us? Have we lost the wonderment that only the land beyond the pavement can offer? Dave Hurteau chimes in, “Yes, we are by-and-large better deer hunters today. But does anyone know how to estimate yardage anymore? Why bother learning how to age a track when your trail-cam pics have the date and time stamped on them? Or even read sign when all you need to do is sit over your food plot? Do you know how to walk over dry, brittle leaves without spooking deer? How to slip up on a bedded buck?”

Deer hunting is not a game that can be won, it’s a game that must be played, and how you play the game will determine your ultimate satisfaction. If we shot a deer each time out, without fail much of the romance and mystery of the hunt would be erased and the activity would be reduced to merely another mundane job. How septic and tasteless that would be. We still need the mystery of the unknown in order to capture our hearts.

“Indeed,” according to the late George Mattis, “there have been many changes from the days when deer hunting meant packing off to the woods for a full season’s stay in the old hunter’s shack. The call of the North Woods was once answered only by the hardy souls to whom the ruggedness of camping in the rough was accepted as a necessary part of the hunt. Though the chase of the whitetail continues, many of the sturdy qualities of the erstwhile Nimrod are no longer with us. The practical deer hunters, and especially the newcomers, emerge to hunt the game animal where it is most plentiful, and many a bag is filled without the hunter straying a quarter of a mile from his parked car. The task of dragging in a deer killed even a mile back in from the road is becoming the exception today.”

The value of not knowing comes in ways not readily seen, only felt, and make the entire experience worth recounting each time we take up the chase. Anticipation awakens me like the touch of an icy hand. Excitement overtakes me when seeing the sign that has eluded me thus far. Attentiveness to each subtle detail along the trail provides clues that bring me closer to realizing my goal. Strategic planning of the day’s event allows me to be proactive in my quest. Being nature’s invited guest renews an appreciation for all that is most wild, and when you put it all together it becomes an adventure of the finest kind.

In his book, Hunting Big Whitetails, Bruce Nelson sums it up so well when he writes, “He wonders if this is the day. Will the trophy buck he has dreamed about suddenly appear out of the underbrush? And if it should happen, will he remember with dismay the last glimpse of that awesome rack and mighty body, or will he relive on countless occasions, the feeling of staring down in disbelief at that magnificent trophy, and the feel of the massive antlers in his hands? Every deer season, each coming day and hour, is full of unknowns. In the unknown is anticipation, and the hope that soon the scouting and hard hunting will pay off. The prize is the monster buck, and the quest goes on for as long as we hunt whitetails.” Unlike much of our daily life that is scripted, predictable and routine, hunting whitetail deer is and should continue to be anything but. We don’t need the formula, we need the inexplicable. We shouldn’t want a guarantee, only a chance. A pile of dead deer flesh doesn’t represent a hunt; it’s merely the result of the hunt itself. We must have disappointment in order to fully enjoy success; otherwise arrogance would overtake humility. Whitetails certainly have a way of humbling even the most haughty and self-confident.

Without uncertainty there would be no hope, nothing to captivate our imagination or fuel our desire. Where would be the magic, mystique and charm? The value of the unknown unleashes our fascination, curiosity and respect for the deer we pursue.

Wildlife photographer, Mike Biggs captures this concept brilliantly expressing the following, “Who knows what the future will bring? … Will technology eventually create such an artificiality that it could destroy the mystique which brought us here in the first place? In extreme cases that might be possible. Certainly we don’t want to see whitetails come to share the same status as livestock. Nobody wants to hunt a Hereford.

For most of us, the real frontier of whitetail enlightenment lies in the accurate perception of their lives and times—the true understanding of how whitetails live, develop, behave and age under natural circumstances. We want the knowledge. We need the mystery.”

Like the childhood fantasies of a ten-year-old boy, may we never lose our capacity to wonder and continue to embrace the unknown in all our future deer hunts.