By PAUL A. SMITH
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
RHINELANDER, Wis. (AP) — She stood alone in the pine barrens, a blaze orange vision of despair.
He was a young man on a scouting mission, open to possibility but never expecting this.
She cradled her head in one hand, a cell phone in the other. She was sobbing.
"Oh, no," thought Nick Owens, fearing the worst. He eased his pickup truck to a stop along the remote road in the Burnett County Forest. "Can I help you?"
It was noon on the fourth day of the 2008 Wisconsin gun deer season, a time of relatively light hunting pressure. Most hunters had either filled their tags, headed back to work or simply stopped hunting.
Not Nick and not her. Nick, an 18-year-old from Rhinelander, had some bad luck at his normal spot and was searching the public ground west of Minong for an alternative.
She was similarly dedicated to the hunt, sitting for the fourth day in severe cold on a spot cherished by her grandfather and father before.
As Nick approached, she wiped her face. She was in her early 20s, he guessed, her petite frame swallowed by an insulated orange suit. She carried a well-worn 30-30 lever-action rifle.
Hunting can elicit a wide range of emotions. Many hunters feel a complex mix of remorse, relief and satisfaction when they make a kill. Nick had taken deer with gun and bow in previous seasons and he understood.
But what he saw before him was something different.
"I shot a deer," she said. "And my boyfriend doesn't believe me."
Nick exhaled as the story poured out.
"He's at the tavern," she said, gesturing to the cell phone. "He won't come help me."
Anger. Hurt. Betrayal. Helplessness. A stew of emotions boiled forth. She shook her head, biting off a curse.
"Doesn't sound like a very nice boyfriend," Nick opined.
"Got that right," she said.
The buck stepped into a boggy clearing about an hour before, she said. She took careful aim with the iron sights on the trusty rifle and fired one shot from 75 yards. The buck jumped and crashed into the oak scrub, disappearing from view.
"I think I hit it," she said. "I think it's a big one."
"Let's go find it," Nick said.
"You'd do that?" she said, a flush of gratitude numbing the pain.
The two set out on a narrow path through charred pine and oak scrub. After about 200 yards, they reached a leatherleaf bog, about the size of a football field; she pointed to the spot the deer was last seen.
Nick hiked over and quickly found a blood trail, then the jackpot. A massive buck was just 20 yards inside the scrub, its white belly shining in the sun. It was the biggest deer he'd ever seen.
He grabbed the rack and began counting, stopping one short of his age.
"17!" she said. "I don't believe it."
She was now nearing the elation end of the spectrum. Perhaps she was envisioning a come-uppance for her boyfriend. Perhaps she was thinking "ex-boyfriend."
Nick had the impression it was her first deer but didn't ask. He helped her tag the deer. Then he borrowed her knife and gutted it.
The two grabbed opposing antlers and began dragging the 200-plus pound trophy. Nick was sweaty and gassed when they reached the road. He had no hope of lifting the buck into her pick-up.
"I couldn't even get its shoulder off the ground," Nick said.
In time two other hunters came along and helped hoist the buck into the truck; it took all their strength.
Two hours had passed, one very good deed had been done and no names were exchanged.
Nick wiped his bloody hands on a towel and prepared to leave.
She started shaking, hyperventilating.
Perhaps she was overwhelmed by the acts of this good Samaritan, perhaps by the realization that she had taken a trophy in a spot hunted by her family for generations.
When she could speak, she offered Nick money.
He accepted her profuse thank-you's but nothing else.
They drove off, nameless acquaintances brought together by good will and a great Wisconsin tradition. She likely made a stop at a certain tavern.
He went home and shared the story with family. As often happens, word travels.
When it reached Dave Swanson, DNR conservation warden in Minong, he decided to check it out. Not only did he find it credible, he nominated Nick for the Wisconsin Hunter Ethics Award.
The award was originated in 1997 by the La Crosse Tribune and the DNR to recognize exemplary behavior among the state's hunters.
Something about the story resonated with the judges. Nick will be honored as the 2008 recipient of the award at the Natural Resources Board meeting in Hayward in August.
News of the award is spreading. For Nick and a certain female hunter, it helps complete an emotional circle in a most pleasing manner: recognition earned through kindness, happiness that money didn't buy.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.