Rangeley Ridge Runner
In the fall of 2015, having recently moved to Rangeley, I was looking forward to learning how to hunt the big woods of Maine. I grew up hunting small plots of private land and was not yet accustomed to hunting what felt like limitless boundaries. This season would mark my second year hunting among Maine’s Western Mountains.
During my first season the mountains were consistently blanketed with fresh snow. This allowed me to try my hand at tracking. One afternoon I cut a fresh buck track. He lead me up a mountain past fresh scrapes, rubs and a few does feeding in an old cut. I never did catch up to that buck. Instead I spent the next twelve months imagining what he might have looked like. I longed for the opportunity to venture back and try again. The fall of 2015 brought that opportunity.
This was a special season for me. After years of college and missed hunting seasons both my father and I were able to take time off to hunt the third week of November. This being one of his first times hunting in Rangeley he looked to me for guidance and for the first time in our hunting relationship I was planning the hunt.
This season brought with it a new challenge. The weather was unnaturally hot and dry. The morning of November 18, 2015, my significant other Cooper, my father and I, headed towards the mountain in search of whitetail. Every step was harsh. The dry ground crunched below the weight of our feet. There was no wind, no sound cover and as we each went our separate ways I grew increasingly nervous about this hunt.
Having chosen the location based on last season’s hunt through the snow, the hot dry weather had me second guessing myself. I was worried that Cooper and my father would not enjoy themselves and that I shouldn’t be the one making the plans.
I headed straight up the mountain towards an old logging trail I found the year before. The trail moves horizontal across the mountain, delicately balanced along a rocky ledge that separates 2 old logging cuts. All year I have imagined this location. I pictured deer using the trail as a corridor to navigate the rocky pinewood ridge and travel between the two cuts to feed.
I followed grown in logging tracks up the mountain hoping they would lead me to the right area. I had a general idea of were I was going but too far west and I would miss the trail completely, too far east and I would be swallowed by a fir thicket. As I climbed I was quick to anger. An abundance of dried raspberry bushes lined the logging tracks. The bushes grabbed, scraped and whipped at my legs and torso. After what felt like an eternity I finally crawled out of that mess into an area that looked more familiar.
With sweat beading down my forehead, I stopped to shed a layer in the hot morning sun. My confidence of seeing a deer was dwindling. Surely I had made too much of a disturbance while pushing my way up through the raspberry whips. I finished tying my jacket around my waist and as I looked up I saw a white rabbit disappear beneath a pine bough. I decided to move a few yards up the mountain to stand on a large boulder and allow time for things to settle.
I faced downhill peering into the thick mess I crawled out of. Standing quietly I attempted to shake off the frustrations of the morning. Twenty minutes pass and I decide to turn and progress further up the mountain. Before I am able to fully turn I am surprised by the white rabbit bounding back towards me. The rabbit disappears for a second time and I hear what sounds like a deer moving swiftly atop the dry ground.
My eyes widened, my grip tightened around my rifle and I became aware of my heart pounding in my chest. I looked steadily in the direction of the crunching steps and saw a glint of antler moving through the dense pine. A buck was moving swiftly downhill from me only ten yards away. I scanned ahead and saw a small opening in the firs. I needed to stop him before he disappeared completely into the thicket. I snorted, the buck stopped just short of the opening. I could see him peering back at me from behind a broad pine bough. Small pieces of his yellow antlers were visible. His body was mostly covered by a curtain of green boughs, I could see that his front leg closest to me was forward exposing his vitals through a small opening. I needed to act fast. I raised my 7mm hawkeye and took my shot.
I don’t remember the sound of my rifle, instead I remember the flash of a white belly as the buck rolled downhill vanishing into the pines. My hands were shaking when I took my radio from my chest pocket and called to my father and Cooper for help. I sat alone as I waited for them to navigate to me. I began to think my mind was playing tricks on me, Did I really just shoot a buck? Did I hallucinate the whole thing? I can smell him! Can I really smell him? I walked down to where the buck had been standing when I shot. The ground was torn up from the buck tumbling downhill. I scanned for blood but could not find a single drop, no blood, no tracks, no deer.
My father showed up first. As he approached closer he looked at me and said, “I smell him Jessie!” I looked back at him with relief. I wasn’t imagining it. That rutting buck smell was lofting through the air. My father and I meticulously scanned for blood. Coop soon arrived to help and after a few minutes of senselessly scanning through thick firs he decided to climb a tree. Soon after his ascent I heard him yell, “oh wow!” I looked up and saw him pointing towards the ground. From high in the tree he guided me as I pushed my way through a thick mess of firs.
I finally break through and see my buck fully for the first time. “He’s giant!” I yelled to my father. Immediately I begin to admire the buck. I crouched down and ran by my fingers through his hide. In awe of him, I examined the base of his antlers, they were covered in bright pieces of freshly chipped bark. I imagined he was the king of the mountain.
Coop, my father and I were less than 100 yards from the corridor I had set out for. My plan had come to fruition and I was thankful. Before heading out of the woods with a beautiful whitetail we all sat and took the time to admire both the buck and the western mountains. We gazed at him in astonishment, he was beautiful and we were in disbelief.
This hunt taught me to never give up, to push through the frustrations and to be patient because at any moment things can change.