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Riding Shotgun

The journalist and the governor go a-hunting


Published November 21, 2012 at 8:19 a.m.

Gov. Peter Shumlin imitates a bear chewing on a sugar-bush line.
  • Gov. Peter Shumlin imitates a bear chewing on a sugar-bush line.

It started with a taunt. I was walking to my car through a South Burlington parking lot after covering Gov. Peter Shumlin’s first press conference since winning reelection the day before. Not far behind me, the governor was talking about hunting, as he often does.

“Hey, Heintz, you don’t hunt. Do you?” Shumlin yelled over to me.

Before I could come up with a clever retort, the governor answered his own question.

“Nah, you don’t hunt,” he said. “You’re a Dartmouth hippie.”

My manhood challenged, I wanted to contradict him. But, well, he had a point. Lamely, I stammered that, no, in fact, I don’t hunt — but that I’d love to learn.

At that, Shumlin made the kind of promise any good politician might: He said he’d take me out hunting one of these days and show me how it’s done.

Yeah, right, I thought.

Five days later, I was riding shotgun in Shumlin’s Dodge Ram pickup truck along the back roads of East Montpelier. It was three days into rifle season, and the governor had finagled an afternoon off after speaking at a Veteran’s Day ceremony in Burlington.

Of course, he wasn’t exactly off the clock. For Shumlin, this was an opportunity to demonstrate that, despite his blue-state politics, he’s a red-blooded American. Though he may fight for gay marriage and single-payer health care, that don’t make him no weak-kneed liberal.

No, sir. He’s a gun-totin’ Vermonter with an A rating from the National Rifle Association. He’s the kind of guy who pronounces neither the “n” nor the “t” in either “hunting” or “Vermont.” The kind of guy who likes to kill shit and eat it.

And this reporter, who hails from the wilds of suburban Connecticut? I was just along for the ride.

“I’ve been huntin’ since I was 11. I love to hunt,” Shumlin said, with one hand on the wheel. “Pre-governor, I would always try to take three or four days off and try to get five days of solid hunting. If you can take five days, you can get a deer. Now, with this job, I’m lucky to get a patch of six hours or five hours.”

My tape recorder rolling, I figured now was the time to ask any hard-hitting questions I might have — before the demands of hunting trumped those of journalistic inquiry. Now was the time to make absolutely sure that Shumlin was the real deal — not some varmint-hunting Mitt Romney or goose-hunting John Kerry. Given my complete and utter ignorance of the sport, it was a mission for which I was particularly ill suited.

“Um, when was the last time you bagged a deer?” I asked, hoping I’d used the right term.

“Three years ago? Four years ago? It’s been a while,” the governor said. “I usually hunt on my farm down in Putney. I’ve been there all my life, and I know it very well. I got a beautiful eight-pointer. I actually had it mounted. I don’t usually do that, but it was such a beauty.”

Silence. And then he continued.

“I think there are two things to hunting. One is luck. The other is knowing the land you’re hunting,” he said. “I don’t know the land up here, but you figure out where the deer — where you can push ’em, what their patterns are. If you’re hunting a place you’ve never been before, which is what I’m doing up here, you have to figure it all out again.”

Surrounded by forest now, Shumlin pulled his truck to the side of the road. We hopped out and grabbed our guns from the backseat of the cab. His was a sleek Remington 700 with a fancy-looking scope. Mine was a relic of a Winchester 94, likely hailing from the days Teddy Roosevelt stalked white rhinos on the plains of the Serengeti.

I’d borrowed it that morning from my girlfriend’s dad, who had tried in vain to teach me a crash course in rifle safety. In my sole attempt at releasing the hammer without firing the gun, I’d sent an errant bullet into a nearby hillside. Before I left, my girlfriend’s dad politely advised me to simply refrain from loading the gun while hunting with the governor.

But Shumlin had other ideas. After giving me a quick refresher course, he loaded two rounds into the chamber of my borrowed rifle and handed it back to me. Evidently, he feared not for his safety.

The same could not be said for me.

“I told my team I’d have you gutted out and hung up by 4:30,” Shumlin said in what I hoped was a joke. Visions of Dick Cheney’s hunting partner danced in my head. Suddenly I regretted always being such an asshole during the governor’s weekly press conferences.

One final piece of housekeeping remained before the great hunt could begin. I had to ask the governor to sign my temporary “mentored hunting license” — essentially a learner’s permit — and assume responsibility for me while we were in the woods.

For a political reporter, it was a humbling moment.

And then we were off. Down the road, into a clearing and up a hill we walked. Wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a blaze-orange vest, Shumlin moved quickly and quietly, but conditions were not in our favor. It was early afternoon and unseasonably warm. Dry leaves crackled underfoot, surely scaring off any deer foolish enough to be moseying in these parts this time of day.

“It’s too bad we couldn’t’ve gotten started earlier,” Shumlin said. “Ninety percent of the buck I’ve shot have been before 10 a.m.”

We separated, working our way up a hillside and reconvening at the top of a ridge. We found a makeshift seat the governor had built from a pile of stones two days before. Nearby, he spotted a tree scarred by a rutting buck since last he’d been here — a good sign, he said.

The governor offered me the stone seat and sat beside me on a camouflage cushion he’d brought along. From our ridgeline perch, we scanned the drab, post-autumnal landscape, looking for signs of Bambi’s dad. Ahead of us, a low November sun poked through the clouds. A warm breeze blew our way — masking our scent and sound, Shumlin assured me.

We watched and waited, the calm of the woods enveloping us.

The quiet was interrupted only by an occasional whisper from the governor, who felt compelled to remark upon his newfound hobby of mushroom hunting. And about how nice it was to sit outside. And how the near-70-degree temperature that day was evidence that “climate change is alive and well” — his sole political proclamation of the afternoon.

Every now then, Shumlin’s Blackberry buzzed in his pocket. He exercised considerable restraint, but occasionally pulled it out to type a quick response. (I assume he was informing his staff that he hadn’t done me in yet.)


Above: Reporter Paul Heintz waits for his prey. Courtesy of Peter Shumlin.

Leaning side-by-side against the same tree as Shumlin, I was struck by the peculiarity of the situation. Typically, my encounters with the governor are fleeting — and nearly always confrontational. At press conferences and in interviews, my colleagues and I tend to pepper him with leading questions, trying in vain to pull him away from his talking points. Ever on-message, he ably parries our questions with the confidence — some might call it arrogance — of a politician who knows he’s always a few steps ahead of the press.

Now here I was, sharing Shumlin’s Ziploc bag of chocolate-covered raisins — bro-ing it out in the woods with the enemy. Oh, shit, I thought, I’ve been co-opted. What would Bob Kinzel say if he could see me now?!

Some 45 minutes after taking up our positions, we finally heard something promising. In the distance, something was tromping through the raspy leaves — perhaps the four-legged Odocoileus virginianus we were stalking. Shumlin grabbed his gun and peered through the trees. He spotted the source of the noise and beckoned for me to stand up and take a look.

It was a flock of turkeys.

Shortly thereafter, Shumlin decided it was time to make a move. Following his instructions and his lead, I took off along the ridgeline and then down its leftward slope. The governor was moving in a similar direction, but we left a space of 50 or 60 yards between us. I mimicked his pace, pausing every few steps to look and listen for our elusive prey.

In the distance, Shumlin bobbed and weaved through the forest. He had a certain bounce in his step, like a boy freed from the boredom of the classroom and let loose to roam the woods. Now and again I’d lose sight of his orange vest as he dipped behind a hillside or disappeared behind a tree.

When we came upon the plastic tubing of a sugar bush, Shumlin picked up a severed line and pretended to gnaw on it, imitating the bear he said was responsible for the damage. Alluding to his infamous encounter last spring with a few bird-feeder-baited bears outside his Montpelier home, I joked that, rather than hunt for deer, we really ought to be seeking revenge against the black bears.

He didn’t laugh.

Not far past the sugar bush, we came upon another hunter’s perch, which had a commanding view of the woods below. We paused, rifles at the ready, and scanned the landscape. Nothing.

Down a steep slope, we reached a section of road not far from where we’d parked. The land across the road was posted, but I recognized the owner’s name. It was that of an old friend of Shumlin’s, with whom he’d recently — and quite famously — gone in on a 182-acre land deal.

Though he hadn’t mentioned it when we parked earlier in the afternoon, it was clear we were hunting in Shummy’s backyard.

With the late afternoon sun fading, we decided to spend the last half hour of daylight laying low on opposite sides of the hill ahead of us. Now was the time, Shumlin said, that the deer would be stirring. It was our last chance to bag a trophy buck, whose rack we’d have to saw in half so that it could be displayed in both the offices of Seven Days and on the fifth floor of the Pavilion Office Building.

Alone now, I settled into position beside a crumbling, moss-covered stone wall. From this vantage point, I had an unobstructed view of a narrow, bowl-shaped valley. Were any deer to wander my way, I’d have a clear shot — so long as I could figure out how to fire my rifle.

By now, though, killing seemed beside the point. Hunting, it seemed to me, was simply another excuse to get outside and away from those who hassle you. Unless you make the dubious decision to take your hasslers with you — be they shifty politicians or pesky reporters.

A cool breeze picked up. The sun dropped lower in the sky. My butt fell asleep. Finally, Shumlin reappeared from over the hillside.

“We better get outta here before the game warden catches us,” he said.

Indeed. Then we’d have ourselves a front-page story.

As we retraced our steps back to the road, a bushy, white tail — and then another — leapt up in the distance, bounding away from us at top speed. Shumlin raised his rifle and aimed, but didn’t fire. It was too dark to take a shot, and the deer had a head start on us.

They’d been waiting there all along — not more than a hundred yards from where I’d been sitting. Sneaky bastards.

And so our hunting expedition came to an end. We had no venison to show for it, but both governor and reporter emerged from the woods unscathed. That alone was trophy enough for me.