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Saturday, November 24, 2007

At Last -- Opening Day

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, Nov. 24, 2007.)
I’ll be back to “sivilization” all too soon.
Opening day. Nothing is like it. It holds the anticipation of Christmas morning, the exhilaration of a new car, and the excitement of a championship game. It almost feels like we should have a locker room pep talk. But no one needs it. Or we give it to ourselves.

It’s not the same on the eve of the archery opener, or the early muzzleloading week, or spring gobbler season. Deer season is different. I can’t explain it.

On the Sunday night after Thanksgiving almost a million hunters experience it. Ever since I was 12 years old, I’ve had trouble sleeping on that night. Mom said to get to bed early, but it was useless. I’d just lie awake. Still do.

No matter what time I go to bed, I won’t go to sleep before 1:00 AM. A variety of scenarios unfold in my mind. Where am I planning to go? What’s my back-up location? What will the wind be like? Will it rain? Will it snow? Is all my gear ready? Have I forgotten anything?

Rifle has been sighted in. Ammo is ready. Knife is sharpened. Clothing is washed and aired out. Lunch, snacks and thermos are ready. Scouting is over. It’s game time.

Depending on where I plan to go, my alarm rings between 3:30 and 4:30. I want my morning preparation to be unhurried. I go outside to get the Times Observer. No matter how early the hour, the newspaper is already here. The paper carrier must have deer hunting rituals, too.

Back in 1979 I was sitting in a pediatrician’s waiting room at an appointment for my newborn daughter, reading a recent copy of Sports Illustrated. It featured an article on Pennsylvania’s opening day of deer season. The writer said it’s the single biggest participatory sporting event anywhere. It brings out more people to engage in the same sport at the same time than any other sporting event in the world.

People from outside Pennsylvania don’t understand it. Neither do a good many non-hunters inside Pennsylvania. Deer are big business here. Schools are closed. Businesses run skeleton crews. Diners, hotels, filling stations, and lots of other establishments ring up the healthiest sales of the year. Kids home from college put off returning until they’ve hunted at least half the day.

Pennsylvanians are serious about their deer hunting, so it’s no wonder they have strong feelings about the state’s deer management policies. Opinions aren’t always driven by science, and one hunter’s common sense views often conflict with another’s. But inside every orange-hatted head are firmly held convictions.

Deer hunting is an egalitarian sport. Always has been. Everyone can get into the act, everyone has a stake, everyone can succeed, everyone has something to say, and everyone has treasured memories.

Most hunters killed their first buck as a youth. It was a rite of passage, a milestone infused with the emotions of family camaraderie. That buck initiates the hunter into the world’s biggest and closest knit fraternity -- the international brotherhood of deer hunters.

Amidst the excitement and anticipation, it’s easy to misplace your priorities. Getting a buck isn’t the most important thing in the world. As you get older, the antlers, the deer heads, the photographs -- they’re symbols of something greater. They take me where I can find solitude. Where I can think. Where I can breathe free. Where I can actually interact with truly wild animals. Where I can appreciate what no one ever finds in a shopping mall, under a Christmas tree, or inside the walls of civilization.

On opening day, more than any other, I feel like that quintessentially American character Huck Finn. “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.” But there’s one difference between Huck and me. I’ll be back to “sivilization” all too soon.


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