When we turned thirteen, all the boys would make a trip up the Rogue to Libby Creek Pond, where we went through a rite of passage: we would all spend one night, or maybe it was two, to take our hunter’s safety training. At the end of the whole thing there would be a written test where we would get our card. We’d proudly show the thing off to our dads and classmates, finally able to (legally) walk around with a gun, apply for a deer tag–along the Pacific Coast it was black-tailed deer–and try our best to shoot the biggest buck we could find during September. There were kids who didn’t pass the test, which I found appallingly simple. I’d only missed one question, about whether or not you shut a gate you drive through, or if you leave it hanging open. I don’t think we actually got to shoot any guns for the test. It was all a written thing. I don’t remember a thing about the class itself. I think it was just local old farts admonishing us to for-gods-sake don’t shoot anyone in the face.
I was a year behind the other boys in my class because I was one of the younger kids, along with my buddies Scott Coogan and Don Martin. I remember Kyle Hensley and John Brent showing theirs off in the halls once they got them. One of the kids got a doe tag their first year, which I kind of thought was cheating. In my mind you had to shoot something that you could show off for years to come by mounting its antlers on the wall. My dad had a rack from 6-point (it’d be 11 point on East coast) Roosevelt elk resting on the wall above the fireplace. I remember the year he got it, up Pistol River on above the Walker Ranch. The rack was nearly perfect in its symmetry, and he would usually have a rifle resting on one level of horns, and hats or baseball caps hanging from the others. We always ate all the meat or froze it for later in the year. It’s not like we were only hunting for the thrill of the kill.
Admittedly, hunting was fun. I was a good shot. When I was 7 or 8, I would beg my dad to take me “hunting for digger squirrels.” This was up on the hill near Carpenterville, where they would pop their heads out of the dirt and stare around. We’d site in our guns on them, and POP… I remember him grunting an affirmative when on my very first try I hit my mark, about 50 yards out, and later telling our shooting companion “he was swinging that thing all over the place like a dowsing rod and I’ll be damned if he didn’t hit it anyway.” Later that year, maybe for my birthday, he gave me the nickname Snapshot (which I’ve never ever used and you’re not allowed to either), because I’d been bugging him for a CB radio handle. Don’t look at me like that. It was the 70s. And I was 7 or 8! His handle was Copenhagen, after his favorite brand of chewing tobacco. I also never ever used the CB, mind you.
I usually hunted on foot, since I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was seventeen. My first try at the license, I’m pretty sure I terrified the Driver’s Ed instructor into wetting himself. That test took me three tries to pass. It was only 20 questions long, and had complicated diagrams about right-of-way when six cars arrive simultaneously at 4-way intersections, which was ironic, because thee cars never arrived anywhere in gold beach simultaneously, much less at an intersection. You could miss three questions. The first time I missed five. And the second time. The third time, I was so excited that a month later I hopped into my car and drove it into a ditch about 50 yards from our house.
Back to hunting: when I got my license I hunted with a Winchester .38-55, a single-shot bolt action rifle from the late nineteenth century, previously owned by my great grandpa. When I asked why I couldn’t hunt with a gun that had a clip, my dad thought about a minute and said “Well, you only need one shot if you do it right.” I was a little insulted. I thought maybe he supposed I was a little kid. Later I read that the .38-55 was known around the world for its exceptional accuracy at ranges to 300 yards. It didn’t have a scope. I guess, after all this time, he thought I was good enough I didn’t need a scope. This was a marksman’s rifle. And I was Snapshot, baby!
So I hoofed it up and around hills near our home. I’d ride to landings where my dad was working, and wait until daylight. I’d hike around logging roads for miles. Up Third Street behind Gold Beach, I hunted all day one autumn. There were rumors of a wild dog running around up there, descending into town and killing domesticated things. A couple hours into my hunt, I saw him 10 feet in front of me, as he trotted across the logging road I was following. He froze immediately, noticed me, and before I could react, he had run off into a stand of short scrubby Douglas firs that were recovering from a fire. It scared the bejeezus out of me. I never saw it again even after a pretty thorough search of that area, so I kept on with my hunt.
One year, Scott and I hiked around Kimball Hill across from his house for a day. It was a soggy, pale cold mess of a hunt and we never caught a whiff of a deer, which was ironic since I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t see deer meandering through his front yard. His dog Farrah would go apoplectic with rage, and the deer would just gaze at her coldly and continue eating. They seemed to sense when it was deer season. They’d all vanish and return when the coast was clear.
Incidentally, what Scott and I did is called stillhunting. Robb Cobb, a writer from Outdoor Life magazine, says it as well as I ever could:
“Stillhunting is very popular among forest blacktail hunters, at least those with the patience of Job who are willing to move at the pace of an overweight snail. That’s because the thick country renders the glassing techniques so popular with open-country hunters ineffective, and because the rainy weather that dominates the Pacific northwest can quiet the woods to church-like stillness. Sneaking along a deer trail that winds through chest-high ferns, thick berry tangles and ancient trees–stopping to look for a minute or two between steps–is as exciting as any hunting I’ve done.”
I think it’s a funny, if appropriate term, by the way. “Yep. Stillllll hunting. Still wet too…”
In all that time (it was only 4 seasons, now that I think about it) I never got a deer. It was a gamble every year, and every year I just drew the short straw. I loved hunting, but I’ve spent 20 years in a college environment, and the last decade in suburban Washington DC, all without my granddad’s trusty .38-55, so I never bothered to hunt. The last time I held a gun was Christmas of 1994, when I gave my .22 caliber rifle to my brother-in-law Roger.
I don’t feel the need to hold a gun. I don’t get a thrill just from holding or owning one. I know a bit about them, just having been around them while growing up. I can disassemble and clean a rifle for example (it’ll even still shoot once I’ve put it together), but the need to hunt isn’t so deep that I’ve needed a rifle in my home. Still, although my eyes are far worse these days, I would probably not pass up a chance at target practice if someone invited me. I wonder if I still live up to my CB Handle.