Wind walker, shadow stalker

“Just walk with the wind in your face.” – Kapali

December 17, 2018

 The wind murmurs raspily as it rushes past my ears and steals the moisture from my face. A hunter becomes accustomed to the feather brush feeling and the thrumming sound. If it’s not there, you’re doing something wrong. Pause. Redirect.

A perfect half moon above me gently lights the divets in the dirt road as I trudge rhythmically up the hill. My shadow falls about two feet directly in front of me and silently urges me onward, mirroring each step for encouragement. I will not call Uncle Randy, and my mom will not know.

“Do you let anyone know when you are out alone? When do you get back? Don’t blow away.” She had texted me that morning when I told her I was out hunting on Lanai again. She worries about me dying a tragic death in the wilderness all alone, but as far as dangerous hunting grounds, Lanai is like going to Kindergarten. All parents should send their errant hunting children here. The people are genuinely kind and friendly. There are no bears, snakes, wolves or deadly plants. The weather is a balmy 75 during the day and a cool 60 at night. It would take a truly freak accident, likely automobile related, to cause death or dismemberment here. Nonetheless, I’d thought of Momma as I sat in the bottom of the gully planning my next move.

By the time I realized I was falling, it was over, and I was pulling my ankle out from underneath me, swearing loudly at the pain. During the slide, there was a loud pop like the metal lid of a jar of jam when you open it for the first time. Instinctively, I lifted my bow out of harm’s way as I tumbled down. My precious, ferocious baby. The first instant after hearing that metallic sound was filled with concern for my bow, but that was before the pain hit. Sound travels faster than neurologic impulses.

Sensation. The wave of pain was followed immediately by concern. I have a very high pain tolerance, but this actually hurt. I’d been walking barefoot all day through rocks, thorns and burning hot cinder soil to toughen my feet. A thorn in the soft meat of the arch of my foot was a sharp inconvenience. The rocks were cruel and unpleasant, but no more harmful than the sharp bite of cold, pelting rain on a winter night. This pain was still gnawing at the front of my left ankle.

Data collection. The physical exam sequence goes like this: observation, auscultation, palpation, passive motion, active motion. It was dirty, but not swollen or discolored. No spurting blood. Not much to listen to, so we’ll skip the auscultation part. I put my bow down tenderly in the tuft of grass beside me and laid my right hand flat just below the base of the tibia. The throbbing pain matched the pulsation I felt underneath all four fingers. Probing and prodding. Mushy, but largely intact. I moved my hand higher and gripped the lower part of my shin. That helped a bit. Supporting with my left hand, manipulating with my right. I moved my foot in small arcs, testing the range of motion. Seemed fine for the most pa…ouch. Ok. It hurts when I extend and supinate. That makes sense given the angle it had stretched under me as my butt landed on my heel and the hill pushed my toes toward my spine. I can move it on its own. Pressing down into the mound of dirt in front of me caused manageable pain, worse in certain angles. 

Analysis. Localized strain to the anterolateral left ankle with joint pain that was initially rated as a 7/10 and now is a 3/10 severity. No bony point tenderness. Minimal swelling, no ecchymosis or hemarthrosis, no open lacerations. Joint is largely stable. Pain is relieved by compression to anterolateral shin. Pain is worsened by extension and supination of the ankle joint. Able to bear weight. Hopefully. Overall, it could’ve been worse.

Plan. Stabilize left ankle with the roll of electrical tape that I carry in my hunting pack. Find a walking stick for stability and as a probe for footing in the quickly approaching dark. Get back to the road while there’s still some light. Get to the Jeep, parked way at the top. On the way home, get frozen peas and an ACE bandage. R.I.C.E.

Injury always induces a calm efficiency in me. The worse the damage, the better I am at devising a plan and bandaging myself up. I pull the roll of electrical tape out of my pack and wrap it around the ankle and under the arch of my foot. Buckling my backpack back in place, I push myself up using the stabilizer of my bow as a hemi-crutch. A few yards away, there is a dead branch with gnarled points. It would do until I found a better stick. My limp is largely painless but the occasional wrong step sends a twinge of pain shooting up like a rock hitting a windshield.

Murphy’s law says that I will have a shot at a deer on my hike back to the Jeep. That’s how life works right? I ponder whether I would take the shot as I crash noisily up the rocky hill in the dim evening light. I can hear deer bounding away on the hill above me, and see it as confirmation that I chose a good spot for my evening hunt. They’ll be back another evening and I’ll be here waiting for them. I’m making good time, especially with my new walking stick. If I need a light, I’ll zip tie one to my bow, but for now my eyes are adjusting to the gloaming light. Swish, swish, thunk. Swish, swish, thunk. The dry grass hisses me onward through the dark. Too dark to shoot a deer now, but I would have if I’d seen one. The adrenaline pumped me full of energy. My self-sufficiency left me in a great mood.

In my white coat, I’ve learned not to mention hunting. Most people get excited about the thought of bow hunting. First dates ask whether I’m like Katniss from The Hunger Games or joke that they hope I’ll leave my bow at home on the first date. With local people, it’s a bonding thing because nearly everyone hunts or knows someone that hunts. I’m one of them. Medical people are different though. If I mention that I bow hunt, their eyes slide awkwardly away and the conversation ceases. It’s a stigmata somehow and I don’t understand why the reaction is so different among my peers. Do they think I’m low class? Boorish? Sociopathic? Why does something that everyone else seems to admire outside the hospital become an ostracizing mark of shame with people that went through medical school?

Superficially, hunting fits perfectly with the recommendations that we give our patients. Get lots of exercise, have a hobby, eat less processed meat. Cleaning a pig with Uncle Randy was the first time I wanted to become a doctor. It was fascinating to see the way the muscles slid inside fascia and viscera all fit neatly together. Bow hunters generally have a lot of positive qualities: patience, persistence, dedication, work-life balance, passion, pragmatism, humility, respect for life, desire for excellence. What is there to dislike?

Personally, hunting was the way that I proved my independence to myself. I spent a week hunting alone on Lanai in March 2018. Best week of my life, and the turning point that freed me from needing anyone in my life. I spent days walking into the wind, chasing deer. Just me and myself. After that, I came back and wrote my Ph.D. thesis in a week. Defended a month later. I left the bone-crushing loneliness somewhere out on that dry, grassy slope.

“The deadliest hunter is the one that sits still.” – Uncle Randy.

In the morning before I strained my ankle, I parked the Jeep by the gravel pile and got ready to sit and wait for deer. Skittering hooves on rocks meant that deer were crossing the road right beside me, but it was still too dark to see movement. I waited until the quietness of the morning settled again before I set out after them. The darkness is disorienting and I’m off balance as I climb the hill beside the road. Soft dirt slides away under my feet and a spider web slips past my bow and hits me in the face. Finally I reach the top and I’m walking quietly, a shadow in the night. Muscle memory guides me down deer paths in the dark, headed to the side of the ravine where I will sit as the sun rises, hoping that a deer will browse along the opposite face. Halfway there, as I crouch to drop down into a creek bed and freeze as a shrill bark shatters the silent air. The doe is only 20 yards away and I see her shadow moving nervously behind a bush on the other bank. Her head bobs up and down, trying to identify the interloper that disturbed her starlit stroll. Still too dark to shoot, but I cautiously reach for an arrow. The broadhead gleams with faint excitement as I muffle the twang of the nock against the string with my fingers. She keeps barking a warning at me, letting me know without a doubt that she’s on to me, although I know she hasn’t actually verified my humanity because she’s still standing there. She’s as blind as I am in this darkness. Shadows stalking shadows.

She was long gone by the time I stood up and continued my journey. Tomorrow I’ll be earlier and I’ll sit under the keawe tree where I keep bumping into these silly does. A noise in the bushes. Me. I’m fidgeting. This is why I’m a terrible hunter. I try to doze. A noise in the bushes. Approaching from the opposite side. A shot of adrenaline. I nock an arrow. More rustling. Getting closer. Directly across from me. Could it be? My lucky morning. I’d been sure that Ms. Barker this morning had warned off all the deer for miles. A cluck precedes the wrinkly head of a turkey. I sit back trying to stay as still as possible as I let my bow rest against the bush again. Turkeys are off-limits, but they will still raise hell if they spot you. At that point, I should definitely just head out. The sun is blinding as it crests the mountain and turns its fiery face toward me. I haven’t seen a single deer after that shadow doe. Now the wind shifts, blowing at the nape of my neck and chilling the sweat that is already beading from the morning heat. It’s time to go. I’m satisfied with this morning’s unsuccessful hunt, but I don’t know why. Wind walker, shadow stalker.

Standing on the mountain almost at the exact spot where I watched the sun come up this morning as I waited for deer far below, I scan the slope slowly with my binoculars. A dark green patch of a’ali’I bushes cuts a swath through encroaching saw grass. Deer graze lazily in the middle. That’s my next destination. I decide to walk barefoot this afternoon. There are hardly any keawe trees with their wicked thorns and this particular remnant of a Dole pineapple field is covered in a velvety blanket of soft red dirt. Last time I was on Lanai, I walked my vibrams to the point of disintegration, but my feet were too soft from wearing them for a week to hunt barefoot. This “new” Ebay pair of vibrams is already on the verge of failure, held together with duct tape and shoe glue. By going barefoot now, I will save my shoes for the less friendly terrain and I’ll toughen my feet so that I can hunt barefoot more.

A puff of red dust curls around my toes as I step out of the Jeep. Bow in hand, I am nearly noiseless with my soft, tight leggings and compact gear. The water in my camelback sloshes faintly and my rangefinder knocks gently, but my feet are silent as I duck through a tunnel in the bushes, following a deer trail. The wind is shifty but mostly blows into my right ear as I walk. There are sharp, fresh tracks in the dust and I step in a pile of fresh poop. It sticks to my foot for a while, which is good. That will help hide my scent. A deer bursts out of the bushes five yards to my left. She was downwind anyway. I never see her. I startle four more somnolent deer from their afternoon naps, when I get within five to ten yards of their bedding spots. I’m cheerful, like a toddler chasing pigeons. I knew that I wouldn’t have a good shot most of the time in here, and I figure that any deer I push out of this area will likely head down to my evening spot, hopefully while it’s still light enough to shoot. I’m headed there next.

I hear a deer stand suddenly and wait in the bushes, looking for the source of the noise that woke it. The spots of its back are bright white in a patch of sun. I am a statue, motionless as a deer, but with an arrow already on my string. I draw and anchor, 58 lbs of potential energy stored behind the sharp steel point of my broadhead. Carefully, I step backwards, lining myself up with an opening in the brush. The deer is only 7 yards away, and if it takes a step forward, I’ll have a clear vitals shot. Instead, its head swings down into the window, pauses for a split second and then bounds away with the rest of its body, healthy and intact. I wait at full draw for a few more seconds, listening for any other deer that might have been startled away by his flustered escape. All I hear is the wind, so I let down and return my arrow to the quiver. My goal is to bump as many deer in here as possible and then I’ll see more this evening. What a wonderful afternoon. All told, I probably spooked about thirty sleeping deer. I didn’t have a shot on a single one. Welcome to the hunt.

The wind is still wrong for this evening spot, but I’m confident that it will die down later and shift into my favor after. I’m walking down the long dirt road early, it’s only 3 pm, but the wind is covering my hunting area in Erica scent and I want to make sure that I get through early enough that I don’t ruin the spot for the evening. I’m going to walk with the wind this afternoon until I’m at the far corner of my hunting area and then I’ll come up diagonally. The wind will be in my favor that way.

I walk down the road, still barefoot, but the rocks are sharp on my tender feet. I’m wincing with every other step on the sharp gravel. All in the name of toughening myself up. Near the bottom of the hill, the dirt road becomes a gravel road and I relent, putting my shoes on. They feel like cushioned heaven. I pick up my pace before I cross into the grass to get into position. Only 40 yards in and I’ve already bumped a group of deer. I wouldn’t have been able to see them because they were sleeping behind a berm, but I must’ve been noisy. They sprint off to about 85 yards, stopping under a keawe tree to look back at what woke them. By then, I’m already low in the grass with an arrow nocked again. Pointless, they’re out of range. With the next breeze, I settle back and raise my binoculars to watch them.

No antlers yet today and now I know why. The three at the back of the herd have two inch nubs between their ears. Rut ended a few weeks ago and the bucks have shed their antlers. No wonder it’s been so hard to spot bedded bucks. Normally, that’s one of my skills, seeing the pair of antlers in the shadows of a shrub. I have never seen a bedded doe. Deer are really good at hiding. The does in the front decide to continue onward down the hill, but the bucks continue to look back languidly. The sun is low at my back and they squint, but don’t see me. I watch them browse for a few minutes behind the thorny acacias. Their heads pop up to scan less and less frequently. The third buck drops behind the bush and I move backwards, then down and around the hillock until I’m in the shade, less visible. I pause to check that they weren’t alerted by the rustling before moving deliberately towards the last place I saw them. I position myself behind a tree about 30 yards from where I think they bedded down again. Where are they though? Doubt clouds my thoughts. Maybe they left and I’m on a wild goose chase again. I scan the shadows under the nearby bushes. I was sure they bedded right here. I’m frozen in indecision, second-guessing myself. I force myself to move, because scaring them off is still better than waiting precious hours for deer that are no longer there, especially since I still have to get into position for this evening. These are the times when hunting helps me practice and improve on flaws that affect my life in other ways. Indecisiveness, self-doubt, inefficiency. The things that have made me an ineffective hunter in the past, also make me less effective in the other parts of my life. There’s a conscious effort to improve those parts of myself while I’m out here, just like I’ve been walking barefoot trying to toughen my feet.

A few steps past the tree, I see a burst of movement and the smooth buxom buttocks of the three bucks bounding away toward the ocean. They were under a different set of shrubs, 15 yards farther down. Dang. Oh well.

I’m walking up the hill now. The wind died as I though it would, (small victories), and I’m berating myself, good naturedly. Why didn’t I just sit in that one spot further up? Every deer and their mom can see and hear me right now. I’m out in the open, no way I’m going to have a shot. No wonder I haven’t shot a deer yet. I like moving though, I argue back. I don’t want to sit. I love walking around out here and I don’t want to shoot a deer right now anyway. Think of all the work that would be. Jeez. It’s a beautiful evening and I’m getting a healthy dose of exercise that I didn’t get enough of during the last grueling six months of medical school. I reach a compromise. I’m going to walk up to the spot where I sat the last time I hunted here. Then I’ll get exercise and still have a chance to shoot a deer. That’s when I fell. 

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.” -Robert Frost

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