06 February 2007


Well, another spate of warm weather has wrecked the skiing, so instead of skiing today I walked to work. I've been sawing out buttons from a deer antler to restore an old Woolrich coat, so along the way (it's about a mile and a half, so I have some quality thinking time) I thought about the whole "antler thing." That is, why do we save and treasure antlers? Is it a mere acquisitiveness, like rats hording useless items or children collecting baseball cards? Well, I like to think it's a little more than that.

Maybe it's more like scars. Get a bunch of men & beer together, and they (the men) will start talking about their scars. The thumb they split with a wood chisel, the stitches where the chainsaw kicked back and split their scalp, the band of scar tissue where they nearly cut off a thumb while reaching up inside an elk's chest cavity while wielding a sharp knife in the other hand... Antlers, like scars, are a material reminder of memorable events.

Certainly, many antlers just end up a debris in the corner of the basement. At my house, most antlers do not get saved anymore.

But some do. Rarely, I might use them for something quasi-practical--like buttons.

In Pennsylvania, I grew up in a deer hunting family that did not treasure antlers. Usually, they ended up "recycled" back to nature along with the offal, feet, bones, and other inedibles. Or they ended up in the yard, gradually reduced to oblivion as the hounds chewing on them. In my twenties, though, I worked at an oil refinery and got to know fellow chemist Bill King. Nailed up in his garage, Bill had the rack from every deer he'd ever killed . Because in most years he killed a buck in both New York State and Pennsylvania (we lived very close to the state line, and it was common to hunt in both states), there were more than fifty of them. So I began saving mine, nailing them up on various posts around a now-gone family oil property.

I left the refinery and went back to school for my PhD. In central New York State, I shot a classic "8-point" (eastern count) whitetail and mounted it on a nice hickory board slabbed out of firewood. This deer was all-the-more-special because as we were skinning and quartering it, my friend Andy Wilson found an arrow shaft with point embedded between the shoulder blades. The deer had healed completely. It makes a good hat rack and catchall for things like Great-Grandpa's M97 Winchester.

When I moved to Montana 17 years ago, I began to adorn the interior of our home with antlers. The first to go up was the rack from my first elk bull. As I look at these antlers, I recall it all seemed so easy: I just went out the first day of season, hunted elk like I had always hunted whitetails, found a big track, followed it all day, and late in the afternoon shot the bull. Wow. Sometimes it is just that easy.

Having grown up seeing small whitetail antlers, I am still amazed by the size of mule deer antlers. Even young bucks sometimes carry a rack that won't fit in a broom closet. So another hat rack made it inside the house.

My wife was feeling a little crowded by this time, so the next memorable buck I shot had its rack go to the office. It's not a big rack by any means, but it's a bit unusaul: a biologist told me the deer was a mulie-whitetail hybrid (not uncommon, I've found).

Since then, memorable racks go up on the back of the house on the outside wall to the mudroom. Oh yes, you can also see a buffalo skull with horns on the upper right (on the roof). I shot a couple of buffalo for a high school history outing when my daughter was in the history club; sent one skull to my friend Don for his barn (he has a nice elk rack I sent him, too).

What makes a memorable rack? Something about the hunt, usually. I must admit, I cannot recall most of my mule deer hunts. They all blend together into one universal, Platonic hunt that ended up with a 125 pound forkhorn providing good meat.

But I do remember every successful elk hunt--whether I took a cow or a bull. These two racks -- a mulie and bull -- are especially memorable because I shot the two within minutes of each other, and I shot them with my old hunting buddy Dave Carter. Though Dave had given up hunting, he joined me one day for a deer hunt in one of our favorite mulie haunts ("Dave's Deer Mine"). And for the first time, we saw an elk there, too. Also, the bull's left antler is deformed --it never grew out much, and part of the base split off and a brow tine grew down the elk's head between its eye and ear.

Speaking of Dave's Deer Mine, this is from the first buck I shot there. I learned that, to get these deer to the nearest road, you have to wade across an icy river. I've since learned to quit shooting big mulie bucks. Frequently -- if they are in rut -- the meat is so strong as to be nearly inedible. People will deny this, but then they start describing the strong seasonings and other cooking methods...

When I shot this bull, it was a long haul out through very deep snow. I left the head in a tree and hiked back up the mountain to retrieve it the following July. A porcupine found it first, as you can see by the nearly-chewed-through spot on the main beam of the left antler.

These two bulls were shot from opposite sides of the same bedding area in two consecutive years. The bull that carried the upper rack was a sort of dwarf: its body size was more-or-less normal, but its legs were abnormally short and it had only half a liver.
Well, I'm no trophy hunter, and certainly none of the racks I've taken over the years are trophies. But they are memories. By the way, ask me sometime to tell you about that scar on the inside of my left forearm...

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