What happens when a Chicago mom tries to become a deer hunter?
Some of the images in the slideshow above depict graphic scenes from deer hunting.
After years of handwringing over the ethics of meat, I decided that this year I needed to kill my own — or maybe stop eating it.
My evolution started a decade ago with meat I bought from local farmers who raised the animals outside. Before long I tried to attend the slaughter of every kind of meat I ate for a summer. I moved on to learning how to butcher animals myself. And finally I thought I was ready to kill my own dinner.
It was part of a project that I did with my then-colleague Barbara Brotman when I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.
We wanted to see if you could take two urban moms and turn them into hunters.
We worked under hunting mentors including Department of Natural Resources instructors Bill Boggio and Ralph Schultz, who told us “If you can learn to walk like a squirrel, you can sneak up on anything in the woods.”
But after freezing through several weekends in deer stands and deer blinds on the Illinois-Iowa border in 2010, we came away with nothing. A minor gun accident convinced our editors that it was probably time to stop. So that was the end of it.
Or so I thought.
As I’ve continued to report on food ethics over the years the fact that I never faced the true cost of meat — never killed my meal myself — has gnawed at my conscience.
So much so, that this year I decided I had to hunt again.
I knew it would be a long shot. I’d have to get licenses, guns, land, special equipment, time off from work and kids, and mentors to guide me. But somehow I managed to do it.
I revisited hunter safety. Brushed back up on deer anatomy. And relearned how to shoot a gun.
My new mentor was Kankakee county horsewoman and hairdresser Amy Strahan. She scouted a spot with me and even convinced her dad, Bill, to help us put together a tree stand.
Next I headed to the Farm and Fleet boys department for more than $200 in head to toe camo gear. Amy kept my hunting clothes in one of her horse stalls for weeks to soak up animal smells.
Then in late November, I slipped on those clothes before dawn and jumped into Amy’s truck. After a short drive, we crossed a craggy frozen field, climbed into our stand and sat in the darkness with the faint whine of the interstate in the distance. The warmth generated by our hike faded as the frosty predawn temperatures crept under my five layers of clothing. I started to remember that, the last time I tried the biggest challenge was just warding off frost bite.
But I also remembered that hunting gives you a front row seat to the spectacle of mother nature turning up the house lights on the world. I sat on the east side of the tree stand and welcomed the tiny warm of the rising sun on my face.
Three frigid deerless hours later, I was thrilled to hear Amy announce that she had to get to work and we called it a day. I spent the rest of the day just thawing out and vowing to bring hand and footwarmers next time.
But by 5 a.m. the next morning I was dressed and trudging through a now-slippery rainsoaked field cradling a 12 gauge shotgun. Let’s just say this is not my typical day as an urban food writer. And still no deer. The whole thing was startng to feel futile and a little absurd.
As we climbed out of our stand for the second morning, I asked Amy what she thought.
“It’s a little discouraging,” she said. “I’ve usually seen something by now. But we’ll just keep trying.”
On the advice of farmer Roger Marcott, who was letting us use his land, we checked out another spot in a treeline across the road.
This time we had bellies full of big country diner breakfasts and a bottle of doe urine that we dabbed on cottonballs and placed in the trees.
Before we even loaded our guns, a buck appeared 40 yards away, snorted and dashed off. A doe frolicked in the distance but she was too far to shoot. My mentors always stressed that one of the worst things you can do is maim an animal with a bad shot. Waiting for a clean kill is essential.
So we settled down on a log tuning into every little crackle in woods. And then just as I was about to nod off, I heard a rustling in the tall dry weeds. A four-point buck was walking right toward us.
My heart thudded in my chest as the deer browsed the greenery and kept advancing. He was now 15 yards away but facing us. Side shots are always a lot cleaner, but he wouldn’t turn. Finally, he raised his head and turned his body to leave.
Amy had taken four deer in the last five years, but I’d never shot anything.
She held her 20 gauge shotgun steady with her scope focused on the target and assumed I was doing the same.
But I’d chickened out. All I had in hand was my recording equipment.
Finally, when the deer turned to leave, she took a shot. The deer leapt in the air and dashed away. I assumed she missed or just nicked him. But we followed after him anyway.
The trail of blood grew thicker as we followed it into another nearby wooded area where just 40 yards away he lay motionless, eyes wide open, tongue flopped to one side and a scarlet hole in his chest.
I was stunned that it could be over that quickly. Amy was stunned that I never lifted my gun.
“I had no idea you were just recording,” she said. “I was waiting patiently, waiting patiently, and then when he turned to leave, I took a shot.”
Amy is a Kankakee mom, hairdresser and horsewoman who agreed to take me hunting this season. It was part of a decade long personal and professional project to understand the true cost of my meat.
She thought today I’d shoot my first deer, but it wasn’t to be. She said my face had gone ashen. But we needed to move quickly, to remove his internal organs and cool him down or the meat would start to rot. Neither of us had ever done this.
So we heaved the 170 pound buck out of the forest and called, Roger Marcotte, the farmer who was letting us use his land.
While we were waiting, I asked Amy how she felt.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think I would have been just as happy to let that buck walk on by.”
Even though we both eat meat, the immediacy of the experience was filling us both with some remorse. She confessed that after she shot her first, “I didn’t think I would ever be able to do it again.”
Roger arrived in his tractor and we loaded the buck and ourselves into the tractor’s bucket, the part usually used to shovel grain or dirt. As we rode across the craggy field, the buck lay at our feet like a sleeping pet. I took some video and thought about how unlike a normal day at the office this had been. But it was about to get even stranger.
Amy’s friend Luke Chappel was waiting for us with his field dressing equipment at the edge of the field.
“Did you bring some [rubber] gloves?” Amy asked.
“No,” Luke replied. “I just go in raw.”
“Awwww,” Amy responded.”Really?”
Luke explained the first cut is around the anus cavity to prevent any feces from spoiling the meat. Next we had to gently slice through the skin and fur on the buck’s belly to expose and carefully remove his organs.
Luke’s taken dozens of deer as a hunter. I asked if it ever made him sad.
“If you don’t have some remorse, there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “You gotta have some remorse. You’re taking a life. But this is going to feed your kids. You’re not wasting it. You’re not just leaving it there and killing things for fun.”
We left the colorful jewel-like pile of organs in the field for the coyotes to eat and brought the carcass across the road to Faith’s Farm. Farmer Kim Snyder raises livestock outdoors and she was letting me stay at her house.
After we hosed off the carcass and cooled it down, we hung it in a barn to dry age several days.
Amy had to return to her kids but Luke said he’d take me out the next morning--the last legal day of the month. I was still feeling pretty shaken by the day’s events, but agreed to go.
After a third restless night of sleep and more dreams about deer, I rose at 4:45 a.m. and was out in the field by 5. Luke and I settled down behind the same log where Amy and I had hunted but saw nothing. We called it a day.
For the next two weeks, I mulled over the experience, haunted by my failure to pull the trigger. My license granted me one last weekend of hunting in early December. And I went to bed thinking about it every night, but finally decided I was done. My boss, however, thought differently. I ran into him on the Friday of the last hunting window of the season. He said I needed to follow it through.
So I returned to Roger’s land to meet Amy on Sunday, the last day of the season. She was delayed so I struck out on my own. Roger was just a phone call away if I needed help, but the help I needed was a compass. I got lost looking for our old spot and wandered way off course. I’m sure I angered and amused several hunters who watched me in their binoculars spook the deer on their land.
Eventually, I was picked up for trespassing by the landowner. Her name was Vanna. She grows pumpkins and sews American Girl Doll clothing in the off season. I apologized and got a ride back to Faith’s Farm.
There I checked my phone and found a new text from Amy. It said:
“I feel so bad. I’m so sorry. I am trying to rally some troops in case you get one. If you have a shot, take it. But I will warn you, the remorse is hardest the first time. But you feel it every time.”
With this warning echoing in my head, I ventured back out into the field--this time to the nearby tree stand. At least I knew how to get there. And I load my gun.
It was a cold, windy December afternoon and worse in the treestand. But it was also supremely peaceful up there. As a mom whose life is organized by deadlines, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt totally justified doing nothing but tuning in to nature for hours.
Still, as the sun began to fall, it became increasingly clear that today the deer would win and I would lose. They’d chosen to make themselves scarce. But I wasn’t altogether ungrateful. I honestly don’t know if I was ready.
Farmer Kim Snyder, who was housing me during my trip, told me as much. She blamed it on my city upbringing that didn’t prepare me for the realities of animal life and death when it comes to food. She had a point.
When and if I do go back out next year, I want to feel more confident. I want to leave behind this nagging sense of fear and doubt.
To do this, hunting expert and author Hank Shaw told me that I needed to get to the range and sharpen my shooting skills in the off season. He said I’ll still feel sad after a kill but the least I can do is “give any animal I shoot a death that I would be proud to have.”
For that, I’ll need practice and maybe even my own a gun. This was never part of the original plan.
I still don’t know what the future holds. But deer hunting season doesn’t start up again in Kankakee County for another 11 months. So I’ve got a little time to figure it out.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org