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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Celebrating a memorable hunt in a special place as hunting season nears its end

It is a long walk in the dark to the narrow fold of land hidden between two ridges.

Across a rolling pasture, and down the grassy farm road that slopes to the woods edge. The stars are bright in the cloudless sky. There’s a hint of yellow on the horizon.

I feel my way into the timber and shuffle downhill through the leaves. The woods are clear underfoot. Even in darkness, there is the feeling of being in a sacred place — a sense of reverence and awe, like gazing at the ceiling of an exquisite cathedral.

Dawn breaks in the forest (Photo provided)

I sit down at the base of a huge oak and wait for light.

The only sounds are the soft tree calls of songbirds and the babble of water rolling over rocks. The ground is damp and the air is sweet.

Dawn creeps into the forest, and the trunks of trees appear as gray shadows. Then the rising sun flares like a starburst, sending beams of light to the forest floor.

The huge tree trunks are lined up like pillars. I crane my neck to look at the gnarled limbs and canopy of oak leaves, dark against the lightening sky.

From the hillside, I can see the head of the valley, where once there was a road. Now it’s a game trail, all grown up with hardwoods and cedars.

Downstream, the valley widens, and the trees are much larger and farther apart.

The old wood frame house beside the creek is falling down. Trees are growing through the roof, and vultures roost in the rafters.

I have come to hunt squirrels, but it is more like a pilgrimage. (Photo by Carl Brenders)

The small creekside garden plot is crowded with trees and shrubs, where corn, squash and beans were once grown. I can imagine barefoot children playing in the front yard.

The hidden valley has gone back to forestland, bright wildflowers and lacy ferns.

The old trees are like parents, watching over their family of plants and animals who live in the valley as a community. This was, and still is, a special place, vibrant of spirit, as bright as the scarlet tanagers that return every spring.

The big trees seem patient and understanding like good parents should be.

I have come to hunt squirrels, but it is more like a pilgrimage. I feel great admiration for the economy and resiliency of nature. No, it’s really envy, for something so complex that seems so effortless.

The lessons of nature are to go forward with hope for the future. What better example is there than the towering oak that grows from a small acorn?

What I have experienced in this valley through the years is etched in my mind, wistful and ornate like fine engraving — as enduring as life’s lessons.

This was the tree from which a flock of wild turkey hens cascaded to the leaves one beautiful April morning. Their chorus of fly-down cackles was answered by a thundering double gobble. Then another gobble, a rattling, passion-filled plea. I never got a chance to shoot that morning, but it remains as one of my most memorable turkey hunts.

Black powder rifle and powder horn (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Then there was the time I hunted deer in a snow squall. The trees of the valley were even more magnificent stripped of their leaves and draped in white.

The sight of that buck with his antlers held high and steam spurting out of his nostrils seemed so wild and the valley so remote. How wonderful it was that I could be there at just the right moment to witness such a spectacle.

The daydream is over.

Two gray squirrels are shaking the leaves up in the crown of a giant hickory.

From my horn trickles a stream of 3f black powder into the measure made from a deer antler tip. Then I pour the charge down the bore of my long rifle.

The squirrels are too far away to shoot. I continue loading. Reaching into my leather hunting pouch, I pull out a round ball and a strip of greased pillow ticking.

I seat the ball in the barrel’s muzzle, cut the patching and ram the ball to the breach.

The squirrels have disappeared. The forest has fallen silent again.

I prime my flintlock rifle and the hunt begins.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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