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In Our Own Backyard...The thrill of the hunt

I found myself looking down the "schnoz" of one of the biggest bucks I'd ever seen. His antlers were almost as thick as a man's wrist, the 20-something-inch spread seemed mammoth, and the 15 points were long and elegant, like Liberace's candelabra.

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I wasn't looking on from a tree stand with a rifle resting across my lap, however, nor was I wearing face camo and carrying a bow over my shoulder. Instead, I was standing on Avenue C out in front of our newspaper office, photographing the latest entry in the Pine Journal Big Buck Contest.

After a slow start to the season, with only one entry after opening weekend, Wednesday suddenly saw a flurry of incoming bucks — just as we were on deadline for last week's paper. Business Manager Julie Schulz and I spent a fair part of the day shuttling in and out of the office to register and measure bucks. And that was when Ken Koivisto brought in the giant buck with the amazing antlers.

I regret that the weather was too bitterly cold, and our deadline looming too near, to stop and ask to hear Koivisto's tale of how he felt when he first saw the buck moving through the pines in the early light, whether he'd been sighting the buck year after year or if this time was the first, and how he knew when the shot was just right before he fired.

Hearing the tales of the hunt is one of the most enjoyable things about the Minnesota Firearms Deer Season, and no doubt Koivisto and all the others who entered the contest will be telling theirs for years to come.

I've never hunted deer myself, though I recall many a pitch dark winter morning hearing my dad rustling around the kitchen making coffee, readying lunch packs and getting set to head out hunting.

Sometimes I envy the passion that hunters experience at this time each year, heading out to the shack during October weekends to restock the larder, get rid of the mice and clear out the shooting lanes, eagerly anticipating the start of the season. Time spent with family and friends in a hunting shack is undeniably the high point of the year for many, and something that cannot be replaced by anything else in this world. The antlers that line the walls of the shack often tell tales of their own — the trophy racks and the tiny spikes alike — and chances are the same old stories will be spun once again this year around the heat of the wood stove.

Somehow, I never quite got myself out of bed on those dark, cold mornings when my dad headed out hunting, so I will never truly know what it’s like. But as my husband and I set out to hike the remote trails of the North Shore last weekend in our blaze orange, I could only imagine the excitement that must stir inside every hunter as he or she sets out on opening morning.

We watched for signs of hunters or deer as we hiked — aware that we needed to proceed with a certain degree of caution if there was active hunting around us — but we saw neither. It was a windy day, and the swirling scents may have spooked the deer and made them decide to lay low in the cedar copses for the morning.

We had spotted numerous hunters' pickups parked along Highway 61 and figured they must have headed into the woods before first light to take up their stations or plan out their drives. We didn't, however, see anyone with a buck slung across the bed of their truck.

After a couple of hours, we decided to find a place to stop for lunch. We were fortunate to come across a backpacking campsite with a metal fire grate where we could light a campfire to warm us while we ate. A few snowflakes spun down as we munched our sandwiches in silence, enjoying the sounds of the chickadees and the beauty of the morning. And then, a slight movement in the thick forest caught my eye just off to the right. I softly nudged Ken in the side and nodded ever so slightly in that direction — just as a magnificent young buck stepped cautiously into the clearing.