A suite of lifetime outdoor experiences forms our relationship to the natural world and its animal occupants. Have those experiences made us afraid of bears or fascinated by them? Are we inclined to snatch up a black-colored snake to see if the scales are keeled, indicating a black rat snake, or smooth, suggesting a black racer? Does a long nighttime hike from your treestand to the truck give you the heebie-jeebies?
Experiences teach us lessons and dot the tapestry of our minds in deep, psychological ways that give us our outdoor personalities. As an example, in his book Meateater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, Steve Rinella describes his childhood struggle with being afraid of deer while he was bowhunting. His fear stemmed from a story told to him by his father about being attached by a wounded deer. Judging from his hunting success, I think it’s safe to assume that Steve overcame his fear of the dreaded Odocoileus.
I recently received in the mail a Bear Super Kodiak bow from RMS Gear. The giddiness associated with opening the box, which felt like a gift, reminded me of a childhood experience that has stuck with me for nearly 40 years. For Christmas in 1978, at the age of 12, I received a brand-new Jennings Lightning compound bow. Christmas in Pennsylvania fell just after the primary hunting seasons and right before the late archery season. Hunting was on my family’s mind, so gifts of guns, bows, knives, and other outdoor gear were anticipated and exciting!
I relived that excitement as I popped open the long box and freed the bubble-wrapped Super Kodiak from its confines. Fighting my over-eagerness, I struggled to remove the blasted tape and, after a few choice words and burst bubbles, she was finally free and resting in my palm, ready for my Newfoundland moose hunt.
As was our custom, following Christmas Day we headed to our cabin in Pennsylvania’s Sproul State Forest. That year we had cold temperatures and repeated snow throughout the week. By the end of our week-long hunt, a thick blanket of powdery, glistening flakes clung to the trees and layered the ground, hushing the forest like a goose-down quilt. The Sproul is nearly 300,000 acres of mountainous forest where the hunting choices are many, but so too are the places for deer to move and hide. The experiential, ecological, and economical value of our public lands can’t be overstated, and our responsibility as hunters to protect them is paramount to all life, humans included. It’s no accident that many public lands are mountainous, out-of-the-way places that afford a view of the valley and waters below.
The Super Kodiak felt good in my hand. Even with a sweat-stained leather bow saddle from the previous owner layering the grip, it still felt more sleek and comfortable than the beefy handle of my 1966 Kodiak. I gave the bow a once-over and was immediately smitten. It needed some polish, and the bow saddle had to go, but there was no doubt she would be worthy of a moose hunt.
New bows are special. I remember well the cold metal handle of my new Jennings Lighting as I set out alone from the cabin on the last morning of our late-season archery hunt in the Sproul. I shuffled through the snow toward a wooded swamp that I planned to explore. I was just 12 years old and proud to be out on my own. Little did I know how badly my confidence was about to be shaken.
The morning was uneventful until I cut a set of deer tracks heading into the swamp. Thinking the tracks likely led to a bedding area, I decided to sit for a while and found a fallen log amid a tangle of snow-draped rhododendron. I positioned myself with my back to the swamp so I could watch for deer coming to bed in the late morning. Huddling against the cold, I peered forward with the intensity of a deer-hunting-obsessed kid.
To this day I can’t recall if I heard or just sensed something behind me. I had poise enough to turn slowly and was shocked to see a perfect, basket-racked six point standing not 25 feet from me. He looked huge against the white backdrop, and gentle tendrils of breath swirled above his nose before disappearing into the dry air.
I’m a patient person, but the polishing and leather saddle removal would need to be delayed until I had a chance to release a few arrows from the Super Kodiak. Down in my archery shop, I put a Dacron string on the bow, set the brace height to eight inches, and installed a brass string nock. My first three shots with Easton XX75 2018s at the bag target ten yards away fell into a coffee-mug-sized group. Not bad for right out of the box, but I detected a very slight fishtail in arrow flight, so some additional tuning would be necessary. That process, however, would have to wait for the arrival of some new strings I had ordered. In the meantime I could get started with removing the bow saddle and adding a new rest and strike plate.
The old rest and strike plate peeled off easily but left behind hardened glue reside. I used denatured alcohol on a rag to soften the glue and then gently removed it with some pressure from my thumb. I used my small fly-tying scissors to cut a new rest and strike plate from a sheet of industrial-grade Velcro—quality Velcro is quiet with any type of arrow material, resists water, and is durable.
Now on to that nasty bow saddle. I knew it was going to be a pain the second I began peeling it away. The leather pulled away from the backing, leaving a hard layer of synthetic material and glue behind.
For years I’ve used acetone to tackle such jobs, but as I get older I don’t like dealing with harsh chemicals, and I’ve recently had some bad experiences where acetone damaged the finish of a bow. Instead I decided to use Goo Gone. I sprayed the handle and allowed it sit for 30 minutes, then scraped away as much residue as I could. After repeating this three times, I was down to the original finish. All looked great, except the area that had been covered by the saddle aged differently than the rest of the riser, leaving it a bit darker. No worries; to me, this is just a reminder of the bow’s interesting history. All that remained was some arrow tuning before I could set off into the woods like I’d done with my new Jennings Lightning so many years ago.
I’d never been that close to a deer, and my young heart was unprepared for the adrenaline rush. My chest tightened; my ears filled with the rhythmic flush of warm blood. The buck knew something wasn’t right, but it seemed more curious than afraid. I was inexperienced and thought that I might spin around, draw, and shoot in one motion, but the buck had other ideas. He lowered his head and walked straight toward me. With each step, a new detail emerged—the tuft of black hair on the point of the brisket, the coarse hairs like broom bristles protruding from the muzzle, and the wet, purple, almost iridescent nose.
At ten feet my fight-or-flight response began kicking in, but fear seemed to have me anchored to the log. By age 12 I’d already spent a lot of time in the woods, but I had experienced nothing like this. The buck continued forward, only stopping feet from my crouched position.
To be honest, I can’t remember what was going through my adrenaline-addled mind at this point, but I do vividly recall what happened next: The six point stretched his neck forward, placing his nose only inches from mine, and pushed his tongue out to taste the air. The result was a violent churning of snow, hooves, hide, bow, and boy that left me facedown in the snow and a little less confident about my solo hunting excursions. I dusted myself off and returned to camp.
I tried to tell my dad and uncle about the incident, but for some reason my 12-year-old self felt embarrassed, and I cut the story short. I was supposed to be growing into a competent hunter, not some greenhorn kid who got knocked off a log by a buck. With little experience deer hunting, I didn’t realize what a unique encounter I had. In fact, until today, I have never told anyone this story. Yet I know that it has shaped my relationship to the outdoors.
The childhood part of my brain is still spooked by the experience, but the naturalist-hunter in me wants it to happen again every time I take to the woods . . . well, maybe not with a moose! In the end, hunting is about the experiences we accumulate, not the animals we bring home.
I’d love to hear the stories that shaped your relationship to the natural world and hunting. What keeps you coming back to the woods? Use the comment box and tell us about a memorable experience in the outdoors.
Ron Rohrbaugh, Jr. is the man behind “The Classic Year,” a special endeavor to hunt with only traditional archery for a whole year, preferably bows built between the 1950s and ’70s. Be sure to visit his website, traditionalspiritoutdoors.com; pick up a copy of his book, A Traditional Bowhunter’s Path: Lessons and Adventures at Full Draw; and stay tuned to Sporting Classics Daily for more of his articles.