A few years ago while looking for deer, I listened to trees creaking and moaning in a Southeasterly gale. Snow fell steadily, illuminating the gloomy forest. I continued up a mountainside I planned to hunt and soon came across the fresh tracks of a wolf.
The week before I’d passed on three does in this area. I jumped one big deer that was probably a buck. A few minutes after, I spied a big doe traversing a bench below. I watched her in my scope, imagining how good she would taste but refrained from pulling the trigger.
I had taken my rifle for a lot of pleasant walks in the woods that December, but I was growing a little anxious. The season was almost over and I could use one more deer. Between the weather and the wolf, my chance of eating fresh heart and back-strap for dinner was seeming pretty low.
I’d hunted this mountainside a number of times and knew all the best benches and open stands of trees. So did the wolf. I half expected to bump into it.
I find encounters with megafauna in the rainforest more intense, intimate and somehow special than out in the open. Whenever I see a deer in old growth it feels like a small miracle — my brothers are quick to point out I feel this way because I don’t see that many.
I’ve only seen one wolf, and just a fleeting glimpse, while deep in the forest. Another time, when I was kneeling over a freshly killed and partly eaten deer I’d found, wolves began howling nearby. I walked away, glancing over my shoulder. At the parking lot at the base of that trail, after stepping around McDonald’s litter and a dirty diaper, I sat in my car feeling as if I had tainted the kill for the wolves merely by discovering it.
The odds of running into the wolf were even worse than me shooting a buck. After a half hour of creeping along the mountainside and constantly running into its tracks I admitted defeat. There was something almost hypnotic about the restless forest and the falling snow. I hunted in the opposite direction — even though the wind was poor — squinting in the hopes of seeing movement or the shape of an animal.
At dusk I still hadn’t seen a deer. I began the hunter’s walk of shame, one I know all too well, homewards. The screeching of ravens and eagles roused me from my doldrums. Soon I came across fresh tracks of the wolf, this time leading towards the avian ruckus. Though there was barely any light left, I circled upwind and began creeping closer. It was brushy and the snow was deep but the storm masked most of my sound.
A fawn, partly covered in snow, lay fully intact near the base of a large jack pine. I knelt and brushed snow off. The birds must have only recently arrived because her marble eyes were still intact.
I mentally cursed the wolf. It was silly to apply my sense of morality to nature, but killing and wasting a baby deer didn’t sit well with me.
Something seemed odd, though. The fawn appeared to have died this morning. With how hard the snow was falling, the wolf’s tracks couldn’t be more than an hour old. I rubbed her fur and my hand came away covered in congealed blood. I parted the hair on her neck and jabbed my finger into a bullet hole.
The shadows of ravens eyed me greedily and the blurs of eagles screeched with an excitement that bordered hysteria. They hopped from snowy bough to bough, flapped wildly and glided in circles just above the stunted muskeg trees.
I sat with the fawn for a short while before whispering an apology and getting out my knife. I skinned out a tiny and still warm hindquarter and sliced it free from the spine. I sniffed the flesh, hoping to salvage what I could.
The trees whispered and moaned as I hiked home with an empty pack. Soon even the sounds of the birds fighting and feasting faded into the storm.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. Check out the preview of his first book, “Haunted Inside Passage,” and follow him at www.facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.