My first and only hunting story was with my dad, my grandfather and brother. We would all go up to the family dacha most weekends during the summer. Women and children would plant and harvest and the men would go hunting and chopping wood. (gender roles again) My younger brother was 16 I think and just learning to shoot. He was determined that this time he was going on the hunt with the other men. He was beginning to resent being left at the dacha with the other women and children. I was seventeen. I decided I would go too. I had learned to shoot at targets already but never at anything that moved.
My cousin who was the same age had no interest. She preferred to stay on the dacha. Her dad, my uncle, had a minor work injury so he reluctantly stayed too.
The routine was that they would set off in the early morning and hike a couple of hours into the forest and find a herd of deer. We would set up the camp and then spend the afternoon tracking them. If we could get one then even better, but we would have the next day too. Sometimes you would not find deer, but the area is also teeming with small black pigs which are also a good catch.
I have never seen an elk. The deer we have are much smaller. I was able to carry one myself although with some difficulty. Most of the serious hunters use horses but we didn’t have horses. The Cossacks prefer to catch the herd way out on the steppe and then chase them on horseback until they begin to tire. Then they can pick off a few easily.
There are very large herds and they are easy to find, but they scatter quickly at the slightest noise or smell they don’t recognise so they are difficult to get close to. If you are on a ridge looking down at them they look up for predators sometimes springing up on their back legs for a better view and leaving their front legs momentarily hanging. At that angle, because you cannot see their hind quarters they look remarkably like kangaroos.
Anyway all we got on the first day were two rabbits, both shot by my proud as punch brother. I was disappointed because I hated rabbit; and I knew that my grandfather would not tolerate waste of anything, and so we would be eating rabbit that evening. But my grandfather had remarked that my brother was a fantastic shot at such a young age and my brother’s chest was puffed out for the rest of the weekend.
The following morning we found ourselves in the middle of a large scattered herd which seemed to be following the bank of a narrow but fast flowing river, looking for somewhere to cross. On the far side there was no forest, just a vast expanse of open plain where you would have little chance of getting close to a deer. Under the direction of my dad I managed to find one and line it up in my sights, but I took too long. I didn’t really want to shoot it. It got nervous and skipped away behind some trees. We found a second one, or maybe the same one again, but this time I bungled the shot and missed completely. A couple of hours later I got a clear shot and hit the deer in the side of its head. It just stood there for a moment and then dropped. into a cluster of ferns. We found it easily. I know it is stupid but I didn’t get the thrill of the hunt. I just felt a little guilty.
My grandfather and brother were about a half a mile away doing the same thing. We heard two shots from where we were. My dad instructed me in de-gutting the deer which is probably the most disgusting job I have ever done, and then we tied it up, washed ourselves off at the river, and began carrying it back towards where we had camped. The hunters in Russia use leather cords to tie the deer’s legs in a kind of sling. Then you wear it like a big rucksack to carry it. But I found it very heavy after a while and pulled the girl card on my dad. We ran into grandfather and Peter on the way and I was pleased to see that Peter had got one too because he was delighted.
We packed up and hiked back to the dacha. The two deer were handed over to my mother and grandmother who would take it from there. We all hiked back down to the river for a swim. In our dacha tradition the women cook in the evening, but the men are expected to cook on the last evening, so they cooked up a feast of venison on the outdoor grill.
The rest would be cut up and parcelled for freezing by my mother and grandmother and my aunt. In the tradition of my grandparents who had seen the leanest times imaginable, nothing got wasted. Even the last remaining shards of flesh and bone would have been stuffed into a big pot with some vegetables and boiled for hours to make stock.