Saskatchewan start

Editor's note: To accompany Deer Camp '09, we've asked athletes, prominent figures and outdoorsmen to relate their first deer kill.

The first year of big game hunting, 1955, was full of adventure for noted Canadian wildlife biologist Valerius Geist, professor Emeritus of the University of Calgary.

"I did not connect, but I saw the finest white-tailed buck I have ever seen race past me at some 100 paces," he said. "I was unsure on running shots and only watched him bound past on the snow-covered Saskatchewan wheat field. I will never forget that sight as the magnificent animal, illuminated by the setting sun, jumped the fence, and flag waving, dove into an aspen bluff.

"Just minutes earlier I pulled, and pulled and pulled the trigger, crosshairs on a young buck, then lowered the rifle, exhaled, fogged my glasses — and had to wipe these — only to discover that I had not taken off the safety. Of course the young buck, barely 20 paces off, vanished. I did fire one shot at a very long distant at a doe, late, in poor light, but underestimated the distance."

Geist skipped high school in 1956 and took a bus to Saskatchewan for the early moose season, and he later was called out for it.

" It was an unbelievable adventure, and I shot my first head of big game, a young bull moose, at 15 paces, right between the eyes. When I returned, my physics teacher asked me to step before the class and gave me a grilling," he said. "After that he said, well, as far as he was concerned, I could go moose hunting again. And I did!"

When deer season came, Geist and a friend drove to the Cypress Hills in the southwest. Within minutes of stepping from the vehicle a three-point mule deer buck ran out of an aspen bluff. Geist dared his first shot at a running buck. It ran on. Then several mule deer does bounced from the bush, and he flattened one.

"I had my first deer," he said. "Or so I thought, for the doe suddenly rose and a second shot — a running shot through the neck — put her down. Then I remembered the buck. I ran to his track and found blood. I tracked him a couple of miles in the snow, but the blood got less and less and I finally lost his track It appears I had grazed him on the upper leg. My doe was all we got."

Deer hunting was not over that year. He recalls another trip where he saw 26 deer and missed on eight big bucks, all on the run. He had aimed too far ahead.

He got his first buck with an old trapper, Tom Walker, which cemented his found memories of Saskatchewan.

"I inched through an aspen bluff, slowly, slowly, all alert. There, a motion ahead of me, a deer, a buck, running my way. It stopped broadside about 20 paces off to look back," he said. "As the rifle cracked the buck lit out for the sky, ran a couple of jumps and turned a somersault. It was fine 5-point buck. Tom shot his veritable twin that day. When we had unloaded my buck on our front lawn, I shook the old trapper's hand and waved as he drove off. It was the last time I saw him.

"I went off to university in British Columbia, to an adventurous life as a biologist and hunter, and never returned to Saskatchewan to hunt. But I still dream of it, especially of the magnificent whitetails."

Geist received his BS in 1960 and PhD in 1966, both from UBC, and became one of world's best-known wildlife biologists. Beginning in 1961, he studied wild sheep for six years. In 1963, while studying bighorns in Alberta's Banff National Park, Geist also observed the region's abundant elk herds.

He, his wife Renate and their two young children lived for years in a one-room cabin in the wilderness of Banff National Park, observing and literally living among the mountain sheep, elk and mule deer.

Geist is best-known for his studies of ungulates like mountain sheep, elk and mule deer. He has written or edited 16 books, most on deer — Whitetail Tracks: The Deer's History & Impact in North America, Mule Deer Country, and Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behaviour, and Ecology. Some of his others include: Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North American Bison, and Elk Country.

One of his most important findings on growing big deer is that you need good genetics, but more so you need a good food source and a 1.2-1 buck to doe ratio, which will keep some of the bucks from rutting. Bucks who grow the biggest racks tend not to be breeders, because there aren't enough does and that rut energy seems to go into health, vitality and antlers.

His research also found that the biggest bucks are rarely seen for the simple reason that hunters hunt where there are deer, and the biggest bucks are loners for the most part and aren't where you would expect to find any deer, much less a B&C trophy.

Early in his career Geist supported game farms, but then his research showed the error of his ways, and he has become a staunch advocate of the North American Wildlife Model. He is also one of the first to suggest that the origins of chronic wasting disease would be found in captive breeding pens.

Valerius Geist most recently has become well-known for his research on predators of deer, especially wolves. Geist's seven-stage model for wolf habituation leading to predation on humans has become widely-recognized world-wide and he has been an expert witness in court cases involving wolf-human contacts and attacks.

Looking to the future, Dr. Geist, who is listed in Who's Who In Canada and won the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation 2004 Olaus J. Murie Award, says, "I personally can't stomach the idea that my grandchildren might not be able to buy a license and go hunting on public land and enjoy the great privilege of putting wild meat on the table, as you and I have always done."