DULUTH — I came across the deer stand on a grouse hunt a couple of weeks ago. That isn't uncommon. Bird hunters, walking through random patches of typical grouse habitat, sometimes find themselves peering up at the weathered remains of a stand where some deer hunter once spent many fall days.
The stands are typically primitive — a couple of planks laid between two popples, or maybe nailed to the lower branches of a white pine. Maybe the hunter has screwed a few short pieces of two-by-fours between the twin trunks of trees to be used as steps in climbing to the stand.
Usually, the steps and the stand itself are in some advanced stage of decomposition. Graying with age and exposure, the boards are well on their way to being recycled by the elements. The stands are relics of a simpler deer-hunting time.
Many of these old stands have long outlived their use-by dates, and they won't be replaced. County, state and federal policies, ordinances or rules now prescribe exactly what deer stands may look like, or whether they can be placed on some public lands at all. Those rules came about to prevent the construction of elaborate stands that resembled studio apartments in the aspen woods and to offer some measure of protection for loggers and their equipment.
I'll admit I have a romantic affection for some of those old, decaying stands. I would like to know who sat there on cold November mornings, and how he or she kept warm. I look around when I come across these simple platforms and scan the surrounding forest. I try to imagine what it might have looked like 20 or 30 years before. I try to guess where a whitetail buck might have ghosted through that country — around a swamp, along a ridge — or where he might have paused to leave his scent in a scrape on the forest floor. It's usually difficult, though, to re-create such scenarios. Time has changed the woods too much since that hunter once sat there.
The hunters who built these rudimentary stands so long ago did so without the benefit of four-wheelers to haul in their building materials. They had to carry their lumber and nails and tools in an old Duluth pack, and they had to carry the bigger pieces on their shoulders. You'd have built a simple stand, too, hauling its pieces that way.
The stand I came across the other day was on private land. I was with grouse hunters whose family members owned the land. This stand wasn't one of the simple, old-timey ones, gray and lichen-dappled. This one was of recent vintage, free-standing on sturdy posts, actual stairs leading to the roofed, enclosed shelter. It was square at every corner. The lumber looked as if it had been hauled away from Menards or Home Depot a few weeks earlier.
The hunter who carries a rifle up those stairs in November will sit in relative comfort, looking out at the woods through a picture window of thin air. If the day is cool, the hunter likely will have a small heater inside taking the chill off the morning.
And this stand was still semi-primitive compared to some — it had no sliding Plexiglas windows.
Today's deer hunters are happy to trade their grandfather's 270-degree sweep of the forest for a narrower field of view — and guaranteed warmth. A deer hunter can sit a lot longer when she can still feel her toes.
Some things have not changed, though, for those who sit in the whitetail woods. Deer hunting remains, in most cases, a solitary affair. The hunter sits, looks, listens. Perhaps the hunter replays the scenarios in which he shot previous bucks from this same vantage point.
But the hunt is not all about the possibility of the shot. As the hunter sits, he or she also thinks. About life. About her job. About the kids. About aging parents. And, over and over again, about the odds of a deer appearing where there had only been hazel brush and saplings before.
Perhaps a chickadee will land on the sill of the stand and cock its head, trying to figure out all of that orange clothing. Perhaps not.
And if a deer steps out, it will be the hunter's decision alone whether to take the shot or to pass on it. Is the angle right? Is the distance reasonable? Is there too much undergrowth? Can I make a clean shot? Should I wait for a bigger candidate?
Long ago, Aldo Leopold addressed this eloquently in "A Sand County Almanac."
"A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics," he wrote, "is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact."
Deer stands come and go with the years. But the essential privilege and responsibility of the deer hunter remains unchanged.