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Close Encounter at Choteau Creek
When I fell through thin ice into Choteau Creek, I thought deer hunting was over for the day. My only hope was to escape the icy water alive and retreat to home and hearth.
As I settled into the water, I instinctively raised the rifle over my head. Maybe I did it because I had read about outdoorsmen who were saved from drowning when their rifle or shotgun straddled a hole they had made in the ice.
My stupidity bothered me almost as much as the cold water. Any fool should know a creek with moving water might have thin ice. By good fortune, my accident occurred in a creek less than 15 feet wide and shallow enough that my feet hit bottom while my head was still above water, which I am sure is more pleasant than a full bath.
Still, hypothermia didn't feel far away so I wasted no time in wading toward shore. The depth didn't change much with the first step, but I was pleased that it became more shallow with the second and the third. I broke ice with the butt of my gun as I proceeded to shore ... or should I say, to the icy wall.
The creek bank was so steep and slippery that repeated attempts to climb onto solid ground seemed futile. A rope would have been good. I looked at my rifle sling and decided it wouldn't be much help to a cowboy catching a steer but it might be enough of a rope for me.
I took the sling off my Ruger and threw the rifle onto the bank. To add some length to my rope I took the belt off my pants. (You probably don't know this, but it's not easy taking a belt off wet trousers with cold fingers.) Finally, I connected the belt to the sling and my first cast at a close-by tree branch was successful. I pulled my frozen self onto the snow-covered bank.
I had propped myself up on my elbows and was wondering whether I could make it to the farmhouse a half-mile away when I heard a crash in the brush and looked up to see a big whitetail buck charging my way. He was less than 30 yards away and it seemed he was intent on running right over the top of me.
Maybe all this reads like a scene from an Indiana Jones adventure but I was a high school principal in Wagner at the time, and went hunting and fishing to get away from the routine stresses and strains of small town life. I had been looking forward to the East River deer season for weeks and my father and I spent opening day together, hunting Missouri River bottomland. We held out for bucks but all I saw were does, a two-pointer and coyotes.
The temperature dropped with the sun on that November Saturday afternoon and the stirring winds and ashen-grey sky suggested snow. Sure enough, I awoke Sunday to a foot of snow and a raging blizzard. Only a fanatical hunter would consider venturing out in such conditions. I pulled on my boots and stepped outdoors.
I knew of an abandoned farmstead northeast of town where a four-point buck often bedded down. Certainly he would seek shelter there in this storm. I didn’t plan to drag the deer back home in the minus 50 degree wind chills. I'd just field-dress him and hang him in one of the vacant buildings.
The half-mile hike into the wind was brutal but I knew it would ensure that I arrived ahead of my scent. There must have been 100 pheasants in the jungle of cedar, lilac, mulberry, honey-suckle and Russian olive that formed a perimeter on three sides of the farm place. The birds were reluctant to fly and they dodged behind or under the boughs. I'd never seen pheasants act like that.
After a thorough search, I realized the buck was not there so I returned home, with the wind. The storm howled all night and continued Monday. No school for this principal. The house across the road was nothing more than a fleeting mirage. The Dakota winds played eerie notes into the night on our home's north rain gutter.
But, as with all prairie storms, it stopped as quickly as it had begun. The dead stillness was accented by bitter cold and starlit skies. County and township snowplows would start their rounds at daybreak but school was called off for Tuesday.
Thus it was that opening weekend of the deer season stretched into a fourth day for me. “What luck,” I thought to myself as I filled the pickup box with snow so that the added weight would keep my back wheels gripping as we headed for Choteau Creek. There was not the faintest whisper of a wind and the 15-degree temperature felt unseasonably warm. Against the white background of fresh snow, I expected to see deer everywhere. But after three hours of checking favorite whitetail haunts I hadn't seen any.
A South Dakota blizzard will leave 10 feet of snow in protected areas while open areas will be relatively free, so I was able to walk over open prairie that separated the wooded bottoms from the giant bluffs that overlook the Missouri River.
I wondered whether ducks or geese were sitting on the river, and how much of the water was still free of ice, so I hiked to the bluff's top, momentarily forgetting about my search for deer. From my high vantage point I soon discovered why I hadn't found deer earlier. They were all gathered together in a cattail slough about 40 yards below me – maybe 50 in all.
Taking a shot was out of the question. There would be no practical way to retrieve the deer. More important, my license was for Charles Mix County and I was standing on the wrong side of Choteau Creek, in Bon Homme County. However, I figured the deer might work their way to the mouth of the creek and into fields of alfalfa stacks and corn piles where I had permission to hunt so I took a stand along the most likely route.
I waited for two hours ... more than enough time to wonder whether I knew anything about deer and their habits. Finally, I begrudgingly worked my way back to my pickup in the yard of the Soukup family farm. I half-heartedly worked at slipping my rifle into its case when I caught some movement on a hill above the creek — a half-mile to the south. My naked eye told me it was a deer and reflected sunlight off an antler indicated it might be a big buck.
Fresh excitement came over me and I decided to walk down the Choteau Creek so I could hide as I advanced. Yes, I checked the firmness of the ice with my first few steps, but my worries were forgotten as I neared the spot where I thought the deer might have been.
I was looking for a place where I could climb onto solid ground when the ice broke. I thought my problems were over for the day as I finally crawled out of the cold water and prepared to rise up and hustle, as quickly as frozen legs would allow, toward the pickup.
That's when the deer charged. I grabbed for my rifle when I realized he was going to run over the top of me. Much of the rifle was covered with snow. Would snow in the barrel cause the gun to rupture if I fired it? It's funny how many questions enter your mind when you're in a hurry.
I raised the rifle and held it at arm's length with my right hand while supporting myself with my left elbow. The buck was close enough to detect his bad breath when I squeezed the trigger and a four-pointer tumbled, literally, at my feet. Soaked as I was, a warm feeling swept through my body. At the farmhouse, dry clothes and a warmed-over Thanksgiving dinner offered still more relief.
Was the buck the same one I had seen earlier? I don't know. I didn't retrace his steps. Did he see me lying in the snow? Was he going to intentionally run over the top of me? I don't know that, either. I'm guessing he just happened to be running full-out. Perhaps he felt like running after being huddled down so long in the storm. Deer are like kids in that respect.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the Nov/Dec 1991 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.