When I see my first deer of the season, I freeze. Then I feel a surge of adrenaline; it’s like there’s a thick, beefy heart beating in each ear. My breath goes shallow, my mouth dries up, and my vision telescopes until it seems the buck and I are standing hoof to toe and staring directly into each other’s eyes. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t made us yet, but I’m naive about deer mannerisms. Perhaps he’s playing a deeper game. Then I remind myself that he’s a deer. He doesn’t have the mind of a killer—even if my body’s reaction would suggest that he is the one hunting me.
If this is the case, he’s going to need all the help he can get. Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) and my guide for the day, has taken measures. “Time to stop smelling like a human,” he said when we arrived at the hunting ground. After spritzing our shoes with “earth” scent, we solemnly walked to our tree stand, synchronizing our footsteps to minimize noise. Once at the stand: more scent. Johnson sprayed an attractant on the ground, then a pine cover scent on the stand itself. Sufficiently hosed down, we climbed to a camouflaged platform suspended 10 feet off the ground. As long as we could sit still and not cough, the buck wouldn’t stand a chance.
The sound of other hunters taking shots is all around us, distant pops that put me on edge but don’t bother our deer. He comes closer, heading down a narrow trail that will put him directly below us. I expect Johnson to reach for his rifle, an updated version of the single-shot muzzle-loaders people hunted with when Minnesota was first settled by whites. Instead, he sits watching as the deer softly pads by through the undergrowth.
“He’s just a little fork horn,” Johnson whispers. He gives me a warm, fatherly smile that borders on a wink. “Too small to be worth it.” For the past two days I think I’ve been hearing Johnson refer to “four corn” deer—but now I see how, on this young buck, the immature antlers are just starting to branch. Fork horn. Of course.
Once the deer is out of range, Johnson says he’s holding out for at least a six-point buck, but overall he would rather shoot a doe to help manage the herd. It’s a sober, soothing, and winning argument, representative of Johnson’s belief in deer hunting as a form of stewardship. It’s also part of his campaign to prepare me in the event he does shoot a deer this morning. There is a reason for everything. Johnson explains that if we see a doe it might be with its fawn, but I am not to worry. Any fawn still with its mother was born late, meaning that even if the mother isn’t “harvested” today, the fawn will not survive the winter. Regardless of its mother’s fate, such an animal will almost certainly “go back to nature.”
I nod as if this is all very reasonable. Yes, we must not harvest the fork horn. A fawn born late will go back to nature.
I have lived in a city my entire life and have only seen a gun on TV or in a glass display case at a sporting goods store. The last time I hunted anything was in fifth grade, when my friends and I would throw rocks at squirrels. Yet it doesn’t seem at all strange to be up a tree with a stranger and his weird, old-timey firearm, ready to kill. In the past two days, my city-boy reservations about hunting have melted away. I am calm, maybe even slightly expectant. The buck is far away now, but I’m ready to see another. If it’s the appropriate age and sex, then I say blast away.
I am much more guarded on the way up. I’ve traveled Up North a number of times in my 18 years in Minnesota, but never during deer season, and the state where I have made my home suddenly feels like it’s in another part of the country. As I drive through small, weathered towns like Floodwood and Warba, the evidence of hunting culture grows more and more abundant. Blaze-orange jumpsuits drying on clotheslines, gun cases sticking out of the backs of pickup trucks, beards. At gas stations, whole families dressed in camo fuel their ATVs and linger over copies of Whitetail Hunting Strategies magazine. By the time I reach Grand Rapids, site of the 2004 Governor’s Deer Hunting Opener, the entire town resembles a military staging area for a war against deer.
Minnesota governors have been holding ceremonial fishing openers for more than 50 years, but in 2003, at the suggestion of the MDHA, Tim Pawlenty reached out to the state’s 475,000 deer hunters with an event of their very own. As Pawlenty told the Minneapolis Star Tribune when he announced his new gubernatorial initiative, “[Deer hunting is] a big deal. And it’s a great family tradition. We’re committed to making it an annual event.” In 2003, Pawlenty failed to bag a deer, but the inaugural opener in the Brainerd Lakes area was nonetheless considered a success (according to the governor’s website, it raised more than $9,000 for “habitat and conservation education programs”). The sequel has brought me to Judy Garland’s hometown with the promise of a gala weekend of wildlife management, politics, and PR.
On the first night, the main attraction is the Big Buck Community Dinner at the Sawmill Inn. In an effort to blend in, I change into something that I hope is a little less Uptown. When I arrive, I see that this was a futile move, as I do not own a camouflage sport coat. There are about 200 people here, sitting at round tables in a bright, low-ceilinged room guarded by state troopers and ringed by display tables chock full of guns and hunting paraphernalia. On each table, next to the centerpiece, there is a sample of Special Golden Estrus, a product that contains “extra fresh natural deer urine with estrus secretions” and features on its label a hot blonde hefting the head of a dead buck with a bloodied mouth. Later, ham and scalloped potatoes will be served.
I sit down with the Bergman family, because they look friendly and because the matriarch, Virginia “Ginnie” Bergman, is wearing a blaze-orange sweater of unsurpassed brightness and fluffiness. She’s here with her son Bart, daughter Christine, son-in-law Greg Chandler, and Greg and Christine’s 12-year-old daughter Ashley, who wears a school volleyball shirt and doesn’t say a word.
While speeches are made at the dais, the Bergmans begin my initiation into hunting culture in the Grand Rapids area. They say opening day of deer season is like Christmas, and they’re not the only ones who use this analogy. School is unofficially closed the first two or three days of the season because so many people are out hunting. Prodigal sons and daughters return home to reunite with hunting parties that span generations. Many families share a traditional meal the night before the hunt—a ritual that holds great significance. (For some reason, lasagna is a particular favorite.) “We start talking about what we’re going to eat in July,” says Ginnie.
I want to know about the killing part. At this point, that’s what hunting is to me: the shooting, with a gun or a bow and arrow, of a four-legged animal that would prefer you didn’t. But the Bergmans tell me I’m missing the point. “That’s just a teeny part of it,” says Ginnie.
“It’s all about the stories,” says Bart, and the Bergmans have them, their deer hunting history inseparable from family history. The year someone vandalized their tree stand, Christine hunted from a jury-rigged stand while five months pregnant with Ashley. (That someone had torn down the stand is an outrageous violation of property and family; that a pregnant woman would haul a gun into a tree is presented as perfectly normal.) Bart tells the story of how, when his father died in ’98, the family put the plastic memorial from the funeral in his favorite tree stand. When the land was later clear-cut, a logger spared the tree. Bart offers this story with such tenderness that I have trouble maintaining eye contact.
Hunting also plays into daily family dynamics. It spawns little games, as when the hunting party comes back from a successful hunt and pretends to have failed, all while hiding their bloody hands. It creates pecking orders. “The best hunter in the family is the top guy,” says Ginnie. “It becomes part of who you are.”
Then it’s time for our state’s top guy, Governor Tim Pawlenty. Like the warm-up speakers, Pawlenty will dredge his speech in the batter of family and tradition, but first he has to respond to a challenge. During her remarks, Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau waved a blaze-orange-and-camo chef’s hat and threw down the gauntlet: whoever didn’t get a deer would have to cook the other person’s.
“Let me start by trash-talking Lieutenant Governor Molnau,” says Pawlenty. He holds up his fingers and ticks off his response. “First, biggest, cleanest.”
Pawlenty, dressed in full hunter drag, gets more folksy than I thought humanly possible. In reference to having gotten skunked at last year’s opener, he says, “I’m not going to just get a deer. I’m going to get a buck. I’m going to get a big buck.” He goes into a humorous spiel about why hunting is good for Minnesota, the talking points being that “it’s better to harvest deer with a Remington than a minivan…deer hunting puts over $600 million into the economy…[and] the world is a better place with men sitting in trees than in La-Z-Boys.” Then Pawlenty tries to connect with his audience on a personal level. He evokes his youth and those magical times when he’d tag along with his older brother, who loved to hunt grouse. The governor’s account is as vague and inconsequential as the Bergmans’ stories were sharp and vital, but he’s smart about it. He doesn’t push his luck. “Faith, families, memories around those things,” says Pawlenty. “I don’t pretend to be a big deer hunter, but I know it’s important to Minnesota.”
I look around the room. He’s a hit.
The next night I attend the hunter-host dinner, where I am officially paired with Mark Johnson for tomorrow’s opener.
I’m pleased to be with someone so knowledgeable, but I sense a public relations setup. As executive director of the MDHA, Johnson will be representing 20,000 deer-hunting enthusiasts and conservationists. But it’s less his position than his personality that makes our pairing seem calculated. I have been matched with the kindest, mildest, and most fatherly hunter in the state. I was hoping for Ted Nugent; instead, I will be hunting with John Denver.
We’re in another dining room at the Sawmill Inn. This gathering is smaller, with only a dozen or so tables. Johnson and I are joined by three representatives from Cabela’s sporting goods company, along with two older gentlemen who will be in our hunting party tomorrow. I hear more stories and listen attentively to hunting small talk, including a spirited discussion about the deliciousness of canned bear meat.
I’m learning more about why people hunt. There are the hunting equivalent of computer nerds, people who will stay up all night fine-tuning their rifles. There is the pleasure derived from getting your own food. There is the excitement, the “buck fever” you feel when the hunt is engaged. There is wackiness. People drink kerosene by accident and pass out, then wake up to find a deer trying to cover them with leaves, like a cat burying a turd in a litter box.
I’m still stuck on the killing part. For me, hunting still hinges on the moment the bullet breaks through the deer’s hide. No kill, no tradition. No death, no culture. The hunters I talk to either don’t see it this way or don’t want to open up to me about it. While one hunter allows that there is an emotional difference between catching a fish, shooting a bird, and shooting a deer, most gloss over the moment of truth. They hide behind euphemism—one hunter even calls killing a deer “bringing an end to the hunt,” as if it were some kind of ceremony one passively attends—or they skip past the deer’s death and speak of larger themes. “It’s not about the kill,” says Johnson. “It’s about getting in touch with something deeper in yourself.”
If Johnson weren’t the Universal Dad, I would laugh, but he’s starting to convince me, partly because hunting always comes back to family and childhood and coming of age. Provided you’ve gone through firearm safety training, you can go out on a hunt unarmed, purely as an observer, when you are 11. Once trained, a 12-year-old—a kid, really—can kill a deer, but the child must hunt in the company of a parent or legal guardian. At 14, that same kid can hunt alone.
Some of this leads to good clean fun, as when families award a Bambi trophy—a bottle painted brown and daubed with white spots—to the person who kills the smallest deer. But there is also something creepy about mixing guns, death, and puberty. All over town I see little boys and girls dressed in hunting clothes, aching to please. I hear stories of parental disappointment with the kids who don’t want to take part, and of button-bursting pride at the little Connors and Madisons who bring home their first deer and pipe up at the dinner table, “Isn’t this the best venison you’ve ever had?”
“The feeling of wanting to belong with that circle of people,” says Kraig Kiger, operations manager at the Minnesota Shooting Sports Education Center in Grand Rapids. “Until you’re 12, you can’t belong.”
ON OPENING DAY, I’m dressed in a pair of blaze-orange pants Johnson loaned me and a red parka I brought from home. I look like a guy who can’t decide between hunting and skiing. Johnson is such a good man that I’m not even sure he notices. He’s also been busy trying some deer-attracting techniques. Since deer season coincides with the animals’ mating season, also known as “the rut,” Johnson has been making sounds that will help get the party started. He blows a deer call (blaaagh, blaaagh), then takes two small antlers out of his backpack. The sound of two bucks tussling will make other bucks think there’s an available mate nearby, so Johnson rubs the antlers together like a kid making two action figures fight.
Nothing happens for a while. Then a doe appears off to our left, maybe 25 yards away. Johnson, who is also to my left, quickly and smoothly raises his rifle. My sense of time slows. The twin hearts are back in my ears. The doe pauses. I can see her through the sights; it’s as if I’m holding the gun. Johnson aims at a spot just ahead of her shoulder blade, but her heart is obscured by a tree. If she takes two steps forward, he’ll have a clear shot. She takes one step forward. She takes another.
I blink. My eyes open. A ringing sound seems to be coming from a cloud of blue smoke that surrounds my head. Then I refocus on the deer. She falters for a moment, then looks suspended in mid-fall. My eyes go to the wound. Through the clearing smoke I can see a ribbon of blood gently unspooling from her chest. She keeps falling, but just when I think she’s going to capsize, she’s back on her feet and off into the woods. The deer runs for a while, then stumbles.
I hear the death throes, a mild rustling, then quiet. Johnson is holding still, breathing cold air fumes like smoke.
As part of my preparation, Johnson told me that after you shoot a deer you’re supposed to wait a half-hour for the animal to die. If the deer is confronted while it’s dying, it will suffer more; if it’s left alone, it will “expire peacefully.” “Everything is for the sake of the animal,” he said.
For the first 10 minutes of our wait, Johnson gives me my privacy. My heart rate returns to normal. I can breathe again. Then the mind starts up. Mostly I’m thinking about being 12 and having this experience, but I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be here with my father or grandfather or mom, or to have pulled the trigger myself.
“How do you feel about this?” says Johnson. “Today.”
“Today is good,” I say, even though good is not quite the right word.
“I’ve shot 36 deer and elk in my life,” he says. “I’ve just started to calm down. Right now you get a little sense of remorse. Which is healthy. You’re going to have a mixture of feelings. Understand it’s just another part of life. In this case, the animal goes to use.”
We sit quietly, feeling blue for a few minutes longer, and then it’s time to enjoy the spoils. When Johnson says, “Should we go take a look?”, it’s as if we’re in the backyard grilling and need to check on the coals.
We follow the blood trail to the body. The deer is lying in a patch of dry leaves amid mossy fallen trees. Her head is craned all the way back, her forehead touching the leaves, as if she had just stretched out for a nap. Johnson stoops and pets the deer’s neck. “A magnificent creature,” he says.
What happens next is fast and efficient, almost forensic. I am suddenly in an episode of CSI: Grand Rapids. Johnson checks the body to determine the doe’s age and whether she was lactating. He inspects the wound. He puts on a pair of “gutting gloves”—clear plastic with big hands, they go all the way to his shoulders—and, over those, a pair of surgical gloves. When he begins field dressing the body, the animal stops being an animal and starts being a carcass. He saws open her middle, then pulls out the marbled guts with a sucking, slopping sound and lays them on the ground next to the body. There is steam.
“You okay?” says Johnson.
“Yeah,” I say.
Noting that birds will appreciate the fat nodules, Johnson arranges the gut pile so they’re on top. “The eagles will feast today,” he says. Then he wipes his knife on the deer’s haunch, wraps her forelegs behind her head, and drags the body to the car as if the deer were a wagon or a sled. It’s not until we drive off that I realize what’s happened. It’s over. My first hunt.
“I feel good about today,” Johnson says on the way back to the Sawmill Inn. “I feel like I contributed.”
During the drive, Johnson tells me about the Five Stages of a Hunter. Around 1980, two professors at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse developed this sporting taxonomy after extensive surveys of more than 1,000 hunters. Johnson’s descriptions are less academic, but the essence is the same:
Stage 1: Get something. Anything.
Stage 2: Limit out.
Stage 3: Trophy.
Stage 4: Technician (special weapons, methods, etc.).
Stage 5: The Experience.
“A lot of people never get past the trophy stage,” he says, adding that a trophy hunter can only advance if he “quits thinking about the hows and starts thinking about the whys.” The hunter who is attuned to sanctity of the Experience finds moments in the woods when “it all connects, it all feels right.”
I’m not sure that it all feels right—it definitely doesn’t feel like Christmas—but I’m starting to understand. When you’re an outsider, you see the kill but not the culture. When you’re on the inside, you see the culture but not the kill. If I were 12 and Johnson were my dad, this would be a very big day. I would be lying if I said I am changed forever, but even now, pushing 40 and with Johnson as my assigned press date, I know I’ll never forget this morning. The other night, when Ginnie Bergman said, “It becomes part of who you are,” I thought she was talking about your place in the family, but now there is another layer. Regardless of your age or what stage you’re at as a hunter, I don’t see how you can do this and not be affected.
While we were dressing the doe, Johnson received a call on his cell phone and learned that the governor also had bagged a deer, his first ever. I ask Johnson what he thinks the governor will say at this afternoon’s press conference. Johnson likes the governor. At the hunter-host dinner, Pawlenty stopped by our table to chat. Growing expansive, he fantasized about holding a press conference in the Cities with a big deer rack behind him. One of the Cabela’s representatives didn’t think that would go over. “It would go over,” said Johnson firmly. Now he is convinced that Pawlenty will talk about the remorse. Even though Pawlenty is, by his own admission, not a hunter, Johnson believes the governor is in touch with the Experience.
“He has that spirit,” says Johnson. “He has an appreciation for how people feel.”
Tim Pawlenty is holding forth in the parking lot behind the Sawmill Inn. Duluth’s KBJR News 6 is on the scene, as are a number of hunting journalists and local reporters. Someone says, “Tell us the story.” Meanwhile, the subject of Pawlenty’s story, a fork horn buck, rests at the top of a small embankment behind him. Any gore is obscured by a log that seems to have been dragged over expressly for that purpose.
Pawlenty reminds us of his bet with Molnau, and there is a brief ceremony in which he gets in some funny, friendly jabs at the lieutenant governor, who makes a show of wearing the chef’s hat of shame. Mostly, though, Pawlenty’s remarks have the detail and depth you would expect from a professional athlete.
“I just got lucky today,” he says.
“It was beautiful,” he tells Duluth 6.
A local reporter lobs a softball—what does Pawlenty like about the area?—and the governor says that when he’s up here, the stress just melts away.
Eventually the story comes out in pieces. Members of Pawlenty’s hunting party were in the woods, driving deer toward the governor’s location. Pawlenty says he heard a sound behind him—a loud snort. “I thought this could be a big buck on a full-tilt run.” Two deer appeared, and he put one in the scope and pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t fire. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to blow this thing,’” he says. Then there was a shot in the distance, and his deer froze. When he pulled the trigger a second time, success.
“We just had a lot of fun,” he says.
Where is Johnson? I wish he could hear this, but he’s not around. I ask the governor how he feels. “When the gun didn’t fire, I felt this anxiety [over a] missed opportunity,” he says. “It was very exciting and a lot of fun and very interesting.” He then heads for safer territory: the fellowship at deer camp the night before. “It was just a lot of fun.”
I tell him what I’ve heard about the sadness—I don’t want to scare him off with the word remorse—that hunters feel.
“I wouldn’t describe it as sadness,” he says.
I press him about the body. He talks about the blood trail, also neutrally. I ask again about how it felt, and he reiterates the absence of sadness. Then it’s time to pose.
The governor heads up the embankment, kneels behind his fork horn, and holds up the animal’s head. Two girls from Cabela’s—they are actually women, but in this context they are functioning as girls—pose with him. As for the deer, his tongue is threatening to slide out and there’s a dull red slit running down his white belly, but he’s another magnificent creature. Right before the picture gets snapped, Ryan Bronson, a hunter recruitment and retention program supervisor at the DNR, steps up and snatches a leaf off the deer’s snout.
“Why did you do that?” asks Pawlenty.
“I have a lot of respect for the deer,” says Bronson, a little testy. “I want him to look good.”
The governor looks at Bronson as if he’s nuts.
Afterwards I’m on Pawlenty again about how he felt. I respect the governor’s right to be a guy about this. I’m not expecting Hemingway—I’m not even expecting Robert Bly—but I’m still hoping he’ll offer up more than that he had a heckuva lot of fun today. I want him to show me something. Anything. I bring up the older brother and those tag-along days of grouse hunting, the older brother who was also with him at deer camp and was at his side during this morning’s hunt.
“Did your brother prepare you?” I ask.
“Not really,” says Pawlenty.
Now this is getting weird. Did killing his first deer make an impression on the governor, or didn’t it? I don’t know. Maybe because he was with a big crowd, there was no room for a personal experience. Maybe it’s not in Pawlenty’s nature to care about what happened today. Or maybe it is in his nature but he’s unwilling to reveal this side of himself. Whatever the answer is, I can tell I’m not going to get it.
“You just went out and did it,” I say.
“I just went out and did it.”
This reminds me of something Johnson said before the hunt, when we were discussing whether he should bring along an extra rifle for me. Because of my age, I wouldn’t have to go through firearm safety training. Legally, I could buy a license and kill a deer. But Johnson cautioned me against hunting without being mentally and emotionally ready. “You have to be prepared,” he said. “You’re taking a life. You don’t want to just do that.”
Minneapolis writer Dennis Cass profiled departing überanchor Paul Magers for Minnesota Monthly in December 2003. He has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and Mother Jones, among others. He’s currently working on a book about the human brain, to be published by HarperCollins in fall 2006.