November on the Yellowstone River in Montana. Hemmed in by the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges, we push the paddling envelope in what's become a tradition. Weeks after people have boats stored for winter, we head onto the ebbing currents, snow already sticking to high peaks, ice in the bucket at dawn, full dark by six. All of that, but also the concussion of firearms reverberating across the valleys, ominous and vibrant.
Ruby and I coast into an eddy at the end of a sand spit for lunch. I haven't spent time with my daughter in months. It is chilly, breezy, gray, half-winter. We wear rubber boots, down jackets, long underwear. Bald eagles hunch on bare branches. A few geese linger.
"Too bad Sawyer's not here," Ruby juts her chin upriver. A band of mule deer hesitate there. The lead doe drops her head, makes her way down the steep scarp. The rest follow. They drink. They assess us.
"He could spear one of them from here," I say.
"'Course, if he were here, bringing that hunting energy, they would never come to drink."
The deer finish, climb delicately up the bank, vanish into the sage. My son's tag remains unfilled. Ruby and I turn our backs to the wind and share lunch. A rifle booms dully in the distance. The dark river ripples past.
I am not anti-hunting. The only meat I consume is game and fish. My two sons hunt. We share in their bounty. I understand the irony at the heart of life: In order to live tomorrow, we kill and consume today. I understand the primal thrill, the stalk, the reading of landscape and sign, the patience required, the vigilance, the effort. The satisfaction of a full freezer. I get it.
And yet, in the gathering dusk of the year, the darker side of that irony is manifest. It reminds me of Twain's War Prayer, in which he points out that when we pray for our victory in battle, we are also praying for the deaths of other children, the laying waste of other lands, the desolation of other cultures. In our patriotic fervor, in our anthems and pledges and parades, we pray for the grief of others.
Each fall, especially on the rivers, I come face to face with the equivalent prayer for the sporting life. Call it the Prayer of the Hunt.
One November, with ice rimming the East Gallatin River, Marypat and I heard the booming of shotguns. And then, around a bend, we saw a blind and an eddy bobbing with duck and goose decoys, and smelled the smoke and powder. The hunters watched us pass in terse silence. Some unbridgeable divide separated us. Two bends down a green-winged teal flailed in the current, mortally wounded, brilliant wing color fading. One bend further, a mallard, lifeless and bedraggled as a soggy towel.
In the distance, the fading drumbeat of shotguns. More birds falling from the sky.
Another time, near the Three Forks of the Missouri, our canoe slipped along a gravel bar. Suddenly, there was the smell of death on the breeze. I glanced at the bank. There, propped against a downed cottonwood, a massive, untouched and very dead bull moose. Huge rack, probably 1,500 pounds of meat, but wasted, rotting. The smell faded, but the memory stays sharp to this day.
On the Yellowstone, Ruby and I find an island to camp on at dusk. Darkness falls quickly. We cozy next to a small fire, sharing dinner and hot tea. The river slides past, silent and timeless. Ruby tells me about her travels, her plans. I talk to her about my mother's death. Ruby was in Europe when Mom died. She took it hard. I find myself more emotional than I expected. We are quiet in the dark for a long time, looking into the flames, together with our thoughts.
It is midmorning and miles downstream from camp when Ruby points at the shore. A mule deer doe lies on the gravel, nose almost in the river. Something about the posture is unnatural. And why would a deer be lying there like that? We coast near.
"It's dead," I say. "Shot."
At the sound of my voice, the doe's eyes shift to us. Nothing else moves. Even the eyes are dull with the coming certainty of death. We drift by, the eyes track us. All day, those failing eyes kept tracking me.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman.