Saturday, Nov. 9 Northeastern Minnesota saw a 19 percent drop in deer registered during the first three days of the season, and not a whitetail was seen or heard by this hunter that first day while sitting deep in a North Woods swamp. But a dearth of deer allows for plenty of time to think and ponder, and to give thanks for the unequaled public lands heritage we all enjoy in this country.
While silently scanning the surrounding woods in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest for the telltale movement of brown fur, I remembered that it was a hunter-conservationist, and veteran, Theodore Roosevelt, who was most responsible for protecting public lands in northern Minnesota, and across the country. During his tenure as U.S. president, TR protected some 230 million acres of public lands, or about 84,000 acres per day of his presidency.
Sunday, Nov. 10 I settled into the “swamp stand” Sunday morning on the periphery of TR’s Superior National Forest with a feeling of anticipation only hunters know. Within an hour, shortly after sunup, I heard the unmistakable sounds of several whitetails breaking brush, circling around the swamp while occasionally revealing fleeting flashes of brown as they noisily crunched their way through the crusted snow and tangled terrain.
A forkhorn maneuvered through a mess of downed, scraggly pines about 70 yards out, angling away and presenting an awkward-but-makeable shot opportunity. I missed, but the young buck froze in place, not sure of where the shot came from, and I took a deep breath to refocus before pulling the trigger again. Click. My 1970s vintage semi-automatic had misfired. After manually ejecting the shell, a few minutes later another deer was in the crosshairs, and I pulled the trigger again, clicking through yet another misfire.
Adding insult to injury, the forkhorn circled all the way around my stand and passed by in clear view about 50 feet away before fading into the surrounding swamp, leaving me to ponder the yin and yang intangibles of bad luck (i.e., three trigger pulls: one missed shot, two misfires) intertwined with good luck (hunting amid several million acres of wild public lands habitat).
In 1909, President Roosevelt signed Presidential Proclamation No. 848 establishing the Superior National Forest. While the move didn’t make headlines in Washington, during the Roosevelt administration forest reserves nationwide would increase from approximately 43 million acres to nearly 200 million acres.
Monday (Veterans Day), Nov. 11 The temperature drops precipitously during the night, and the camp woodstove has to be fed just to keep the cabin temperature in the low 50s while outside it’s clear and pushing single digits. Before sunup the Big Dipper is visible overhead, and a fresh layer of frost covers the hushed landscape as I crunch noisily over the now frozen swamp eagerly anticipating this Veterans Day sunrise and deer hunt.
It’s cold, but on the stand I’m warm and the rifle feels good across my lap. The sun breaks the horizon and yellow-red light brightens the swamp. A red squirrel leaps out of a pine onto frozen leaves and chickadees flitter about. Then, just after sunup, the unmistakable sounds of several deer noisily approaching, at a trot, from somewhere behind my swamp stand, interrupt the morning silence. When it sounds like they’re almost within spittin’ distance, I swing around and spot a doe. One shot and she’s down, but the buck trailing her keeps going, and at 50 yards turns broadside.
I half expect another click and misfire, but the .308 roars when I pull the trigger, followed by another shot, with the husky “swamp buck” absorbing the hits like a prize fighter. Staggering, but still on his feet, I finish him with one more shot, and it’s over. The heavy-beamed 8-pointer (the only true monarch amid these wild public lands) reluctantly succumbs to his fatal wounds, and the swamp returns to a hushed silence, as if in prayer.
Once more I give thanks, for the sacrifices made by both the buck and those Americans who have given so much to protect the United States and our public-lands heritage. Since this great nation was formed these lands have been jointly owned by every citizen. They would not be ours, nor in such relative good health, if not for the sacrifices and commitment of our servicemen and women and many other American patriots from all walks of life.
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