By JOHN L. SLOAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
It creeps across the prairie at a speed that is deceiving. It is both beautiful and dangerous. Hoar frost is nothing but frozen fog and it can happen in the blink of a frozen eyelid. It started that morning as fog, a dense fog laying over and along the Assiniboine River. Disconcerting but harmless if you wait it out. The sun will burn it off sooner or later. Now, it was something more.
The rustling in the frozen leaves behind me came again. Bear?
I did not have a bear permit and knew how much damage a bear could do to a bow hunter even shot in the heart with a bow. The bear shuffled on, if it was indeed a bear and I believe it was. At last, I could hear it no more. I have killed a few bears, maybe several. I am not unduly afraid of them. However, the bears of the Manitoba prairie have an attitude. They dont like humans.
I will admit to a mild case of the gollywobbles as I sat back down in the treestand. Truth is I was shaking like a dog trying to pass a peach pit. Damn fog. I hate not being able to see. I hate hoar frost even more. A raven scolded me for interfering in his morning routine. Ravens often follow bears, dining on their leftovers.
Again, something moved to my right. Again, I lifted the bow from the holder and tried to slice the fog. Something was rustling the fallen, frozen birch leaves in the fencerow that split the prairie.
I had driven to Manitoba for this late season bow hunt. I had to stop in Thief River Falls and pick up my new Arctic Cat ATV. They wanted to talk with me about a promotion they had in mind and figured they could save shipping money. Therefore, I had a 3,600 mile roundtrip.
I met the Shebaylo Brothers, Bob and Jeff in Winnipeg and we drove to their hunting camp, actually a nice, three-bedroom house, in the Assiniboine River Valley.
We arrived just at dark, after getting settled, put some steaks on the grill, and kicked back. Since I was not on any real timeline, we slept in the next morning. I got up late, almost daylight and jumped on the ATV to scout some fields from the roads and fence rows. At the edge of one field, I saw a better than average buck. I watched him through binoculars and planned a hunt.
After breakfast, we placed a ladder stand in the fencerow, a 100-yard wide band of birch trees that stood out on the prairie 400 yards from the river. I then spent the morning flinging practice arrows. That afternoon I hunted a stand on the edge of an alfalfa field. I saw several deer but nothing big enough to shoot. With one tag, I get selective.
For November, the weather was nice. Cold mornings, warming to 50s in the day and not the usual, biting north wind. I had expected the same for today. Overnight the mercury had dropped to 16 degrees. There was a skim of ice on the shallow river. It would warm as the sun bathed the brown grasses. But that would be quite a few shivering minutes away. Say 380 minutes. Then add the fog.
Daylight brought the fog that had me shivering in the newly placed ladder stand, 12-feet off the ground and 22-yards from a narrow road through the trees. Rubs and tracks were all around me. I had parked the Arctic Cat 300-yards away and the walk to the stand had warmed me. Now, the fog, turning to hoar frost, and the bear had me shaky.
I tried to cut through the fog and see the source of the rustling. I hoped the bear had not decided to return and check me out. I saw something and then a light breeze swirled the fog just enough to give me one clear look. The bow came up and the string came back. The 125-grain Thunderhead glistened with drops of frost. In one, slow, fluid motion, the single sight pin settled and I opened my fingers. The arrow was gone and I heard a solid thump, hooves pounding and then silence. In those days, I could shoot with the best of them when it came to live game.
Now I really had the gollywobbles!
Instead of waiting my usual 30-40 seconds before getting down, locked in the fog, I just sat in the stand and tried to get some semblance of a normal heartbeat and breathing restored. The facts are these: I had just shot what I thought to be a better than average deer, perhaps even a big deer. The sound of the arrow strike was good. I was locked in ground fog, now hoar frost and could not now even see said ground. I was also cold. It was cold enough I figured the fog was freezing on the trees along the river.
I lowered all the various and sundry equipment to the ground and slowly made my way down the slippery ladder steps. Then I did calisthenics. Since I could not see anything, I gripped the ladder and did 50 deep knee bends then 50 jumping jacks and finished with 25 vertical pushups, warm again at last.
I knew where the Arctic Cat was. I also knew how easy it is to get lost in ground fog on the prairie having done it once. You can lose your way in six easy steps. In hoar frost, you can die.
So I waited and shuffled and stomped my feet. I listened for the bear. I agonized over my shot. I replayed it several times in my mind. It was a good shot. Since I didnt own a cell phone, I had little choice but to wait.
One single beam. A shaft of sunlight slender as a tendril of fettuccini touched the ground. The sun was out. The fog/frost began to dissipate like your breath on a cold morning. Inch by inch I could see the ground. Then I could see the break of the river with the fog frozen to the tree limbs. I smiled and imagined I was even warmer. Twenty minutes later I see could well enough to start the search.
First, I found the arrow. It was half-buried in the prairie grass and covered in blood. A few feet away, still glistening with frozen fog crystals was a drop of blood the size of a Canadian Looney, (their quarter). I looked out across the grassland. Something was sticking up above the tough grass.
I retrieved the ATV complete with camera and spotting scope tri-pods and various equipment and after four tries got the buck loaded. I was younger, healthy and strong then. I grinned as I thought of the pile of great food in the form of offal, I left for the bear and coyotes and the ravens. Nothing goes to waste on the prairie. The sun shone warmly and I shed some clothes. It was a great day even in the fog.
This memory came to me the other day. The next year, about the same time, I got sick. I came quite close to dying. I have not been back to the Assiniboine Valley but if my health continues to improve, I just may go next year. Bob Shebaylo called 10 days ago and we talked about it. He urged me to plan on it. Crossbows are legal there and I just might have a chance to send and arrow flying across the prairie and let the raven scold me for interfering in his morning routine.
There are some good bucks up there in the fog.
My Manitoba buck after it warmed enough to shed some clothes. That was my last trip up there.