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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Deer Me

Once upon a time a strange thing happened to me. This was about 20 years ago, I reckon.

I and my family were camping in the high cascades of Oregon, near Mt. Jefferson, at a place called Monon Lake. We decided one day to take a trip about five miles up the road to Breightenbush Lake, which lies just below the ridges fronting the peak of Mt. Jefferson. Two miles short of the lake, the road - or what used to be a road - turns into not much more than a creek-bed, due to years of snow runoff and neglect. The land is Indian land now, having been turned over to the Warm Springs Tribes after surveyors found that the borders had been wrongly drawn, and the tribes have not maintained the area. More money to be made at Kah-Nee-Tah Resort and Casino in the desert.

When I was young, you could travel the road, albeit carefully, in a common sedan. Now, you need a four wheel drive SUV. I had walked that piece of road many times with my son - from Horseshoe Lake, past Spoon Lake and thus to Breightenbush Lake - but this time we had a four wheel drive Isuzu Trooper and were able to negotiate the ruts and rocks, swaying, jolting and sliding, to be sure, but able to top the final rise and roll down to a siding near the lake.

We got out and shouldered our various gear and backpacks. My plan was to fish during the morning hours while the rest of the family swam or explored. Many years before, my father had shown me how to walk to the center of the lake from a certain point on the shoreline marked by a triangular black rock about the size of a common chair. As long as you stuck to the proper route, you would not go further than chest deep in the water, and that for just a short bit. You would then gradually climb onto a shelf of red rock until you found yourself but ankle deep in the water. This shelf is roughly circular, perhaps the size of a baseball diamond, and you can walk along the edge of the shelf with your fly rod, cast your fly into the deep water just beyond the rocks, and the fish - rainbow, brook and kokanee trout - just love it there, where the water turns deep and green and the breeze stirs up gentle, glittering ripples.

But none of this is strange. I am sidetracked by memory. The strange thing is this:

As we begin down the overgrown trail to the lake, we suddenly find, walking right beside us, as if he were just another member of our excursion, a full grown stag – a male  deer. In these high mountains, where the deer are wild and intensely shy, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen. If you see a deer from a distance, he will most certainly leap away into the woods – or, perhaps, if the distance is great enough, he will warily stare at you, ready to bolt. But here comes this deer, walking right alongside us, allowing us to pet him, rubbing shoulders as we squeeze through the denser spots on the trail, unconcerned, even, with our dog, who seems, oddly, equally unconcerned with the deer. In fact, when we reach the shoreline, the dog steps into the water to take a pee, and the deer follows right along to empty his bladder at the same time. This dog, Norman by name, had otherwise never been known to be anything other than a hater of deers, especially in family protection mode, and I had never known a wild deer to do anything other than his best to avoid a dog.

Something is just not right with this picture – pleasant seeming on the surface, but not right somewhere beneath. As we move along the lake shore, the deer moves right along with us. We keep expecting that he will suddenly come to his wits and shoot away into the forest like an arrow, but he does no such thing. He meanders along, stops when we stop, walks when we walk, waits when we sit.

But then, as we reach the black rock previously mentioned, something changes. The deer will not budge another step forward. He backs up a bit, then walks toward us again, backs up a bit and walks forward.

Beyond the rock is a shallow bay which disperses into a wide green meadow shot through with wild flowers and traversed by narrow, natural canals, home to salamanders, frogs and minnows. Beyond the meadow, the land rises again and hidden in the woods beyond are several small lake basins, containing water in early summer, dry by August. Beyond those lakes is a bald-topped hill, red like a sunburned head.

As a matter of course, deers like meadows. In fact, a meadow is the most likely place to see a deer. But this deer is not going into that meadow. No way. And we all have the impression, somehow, that he doesn’t want us to either. There is much to be seen and enjoyed in the meadow, and it’s the only route to the opposite shore of the lake, but that deer is not going, and, at length, it is decided that neither are we. He knows, and we know, that we shouldn’t.

And I will never know how or why.

My wife later reckoned that that deer was my brother – or rather my brother’s spirit – for we had spread his ashes just a year before over the edge of a cliff not far from here. Others reckoned that he was a guardian angel of some sort, while others concluded that he was just plain crazy.

Who knows, or will ever know? In the end, we did as he seemed to insist we do, and, by and by, he wandered off into the the thickets until we could see him no more.

It comes back to me every now and then, this mystery, and I remember it almost as clearly as the day it happened. I hope to meet that deer again someday, in a realm where animals use words that people can hear and comprehend – and I’m gonna find out just what meant to say.

1 comment:

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