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Black Powder at the Hawk Factory, Part One (or My First Deer at 34)

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A strange calm had settled over me, filling the space previously occupied by a fluttery excitement that stole my sleep since the season opened. I’d been wanting to hunt deer since I was a young child, and without hunters in the family for guidance, I undertook the journey on my own.

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Nothing could have prepared me for what the experience would be actually be like–not countless hours of podcasts and videos, or range time, or even hunter education. I never thought it would happen from behind a black powder rifle. Every detail is seared into my memory, and I hope I can do it justice here.

I woke up that morning and drove silently through the darkness knowing that something was different. It was twenty degrees on the farm. It’s been called a “hawk factory,” because every tree and post bears a harrier or kestrel; and the screams of red-tailed and red-shouldered ghosts ring across the fields. Sparkling frost and a deep hush were draped over the pastures, and the moon was a bright sickle hanging on a pink and blue sky.

I parked by a rusty bar gate, crunching over the frozen grass and silvered leaves in the pale predawn. I figured they’d be there-and sure enough, I immediately bumped a few deer. Their white rears and snorts faded into the woods–a familiar spectacle to me by now-but this time, I was undeterred. This was the field where I had wanted it to go down-a wild tangle of paulownias and oaks flanked by a narrow strip of open grass, stubbly with old brush piles and relentless thickets. It was the place where I’d seen the most deer and gotten the closest to them last year.

The hawk factory produced more deer, and they arrived too quickly and too close for comfort. Comfort would soon be a laughable distant memory. I seated on a stump between two massive brush piles, bracing my borrowed muzzleloader on a branch. The does glided into my awareness like phantoms, clad in the woods’ colors. One, then another, and another tiptoed gingerly into the clearing, into my line of sight from beyond the brush pile on my left. Their movement traced a high-tensile fence line. At first it seemed they would blunder right into me, as I’d experienced before-or perhaps continue on, untouchable. I knew then that today was the day I couldn’t let either of those scenarios happen.

Then the first deer in line turned her head and initiated the awkward, penetrating stare down I had come to know (and dread) so well. She pawed the frozen ground, raising and lowering her head, trying to discern my hunched form. But then she flicked her ears and fussed at the grass. She wasn’t completely at ease, though; I could tell by her body language. So, I raised the gun and found the second doe in my cross hairs, aiming at first at the vital area outlined in the hunter ed literature, then remembering what my venison-loving neighbor told me-following the front leg up to the heart.

That’s about when my foot began to cramp. At some point after seeing the does, but before we were fully in sight of each other, I had moved just a little bit closer, and in so doing had contorted myself into a weird and totally unsustainable position. They’d just come up on me so fast. Now there was no time or place to shift-their senses were piqued; one move from me and they would bolt and it’d be all over. At this point, I grasped for something akin to meditation. I accepted the trembling this time. I wrestled my breathing into a slower pace, staring through the scope, caught in a rip current of adrenaline.

A million thoughts raced through my mind-should I take the shot, in a compromised position? What if I flinched, having never fired this rifle (or any muzzleloader, ever) before? What if she moved at the last minute? What if I missed? What if the shot was poorly placed–how could I even live with myself? But the deer answered all these questions for me in the longest moment I’ve ever known. Somewhere behind the two or three I could see; an unseen doe began to blow in increasingly frantic alarm. The whitetail translation was “Warning! Danger!” but my human interpretation was “Do it. Do it. DO IT NOW.” I had worked so hard for so long for this specific moment in space, time, and nature-and everything was in my hands now.

And so was the trigger. So I pulled it.

To be continued…

Heidi Chaya

Heidi Chaya is a food journalist, farmhand, and avid home cook. Her experiences living and working in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley provide her with many opportunities to expand her culinary horizons and continue to learn and grow through hunting, fishing, foraging, and farming.

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