The sun had barely started its creep toward the heavens when the Rev. Father Mike Zavage positioned himself against a tree, his .284 Winchester hanging at the ready on his right shoulder. Gusty winds made the 18-degree air feel more like an ungodly 2 degrees, but the 28-year-old priest was smiling, happy to finally be in the woods on this, the ninth day of deer season.
Insulated boots and gloves kept his extremities from turning to Popsicles while he stood, silent and still, for hour upon hour in the hillside hunting spot he'd scouted months before, when these state game lands in Greene County were still green with leaves. Warming his soul was the fact that his father, also named Mike, was trekking through the snow somewhere nearby.
Mr. Zavage had already bagged an 8-point buck the day before in the same stretch of woods, so his job this wintry day was to drive deer out of the brush toward his son and fellow hunter Mike Venesky, 25, of Baldwin Township.
"You want to try to create a shooting lane," Mr. Zavage explained in the pre-dawn darkness, as the hunting party tuned their walkie-talkies to the same channel. It would be two long and chilly hours before they'd actually use them, and then only to agree that it was time to change locations.
Deer hunting for many is a solitary sport, but in the Zavage household it has always been a shared experience. Father Zavage, parochial vicar at St. Anne Catholic Church in Castle Shannon, was born on the first day of buck season in 1982 and has been hunting with his dad since he was 12. His father, in turn, learned the sport at the same age from his father, Andy, who owned a grocery store near Uniontown.
"In Fayette and Greene counties, that's what all the young men did," said Mr. Zavage, 55, a coal miner-turned-mechanic who for the past 34 years has worked for Cumberland Coal Resources. "It's a tradition for the area. You turn 12 and take hunter's safety."
Back when he was a kid in the '60s, the group typically included a half-dozen or more dads, uncles and brothers all going out together, Mr. Zavage remembered. All but one of his brothers is now deceased. So the fact his only son is out here with him, well, "it's good you can pass it on," he said.
Deer hunting is popular enough in this corner of the state that countless boys (and some girls) take off school on the opening day of buck season, which this year fell on Nov. 29, the same day doe season began. But a priest who hunts? Some might find that upsetting; St. Francis of Assisi, after all, is the Catholic Church's patron saint of animals.
Father Zavage understands he's more the exception than the rule; he knows of only one other priest who shares his passion for deer season, and this year he had to pass up the chance to join Father Zavage because of a funeral. Yet when you grow up in Greene County -- God's country, as he likes to tell his parishioners -- hunting isn't so much a hobby as a way of life.
Hunting is also a way for men who find it difficult to tell one another how much they care to demonstrate it. In his Father's Day homily this past June, Father Zavage recounted for his congregation how last year, his father couldn't hold a gun because he'd had shoulder surgery. Instead, he spent many hours over several days trying to drive deer toward his son. On the last day of hunting season, with his help, his son bagged a button buck.
"My dad is not a man of many words, but his actions definitely speak louder than words," he said in his sermon. "Not only did he not get to hunt, but he had to walk miles every day to push the deer to me."
If that's not love, what is?
Father Zavage argues there are two kinds of hunters: those looking to get the biggest trophy buck they can and those who do it only for the venison. He and his father fall into the latter category.
"I feel that if you kill a deer, you're obligated to eat it," he said. "I am insulted when someone throws the meat away."
To that end, anything they kill ends up on the kitchen table in form of chili, steaks, stews, roasts and a jerky so delicious that all three of his sisters fight over it.
True hunters, Father Zavage added, should be viewed as stewards of the environment in that they're helping to thin overpopulated deer herds in a humane and controlled fashion. If people didn't hunt, many of those deer would end up starving to death, he said.
Truth be told, he said with a laugh, vehicles are probably more dangerous to the deer population than his rifle, which was passed down from his grandfather. "My mom hit an 8-point buck in a parking lot," he said.
To wit: Neither he nor Mr. Venesky got a single shot off during more than eight hours of hunting, despite changing locations several times and Mr. Zavage's tireless deer drives. But that, he noted with a sigh, is just the nature of the sport.
"It's hit or miss every time," he said.
No hunter likes to get "skunked," of course, so it helps that the Zavages view hunting as a team sport; whoever gets the first deer then has to push. They also share in each other's victories. Father Zavage wasn't there to help his father drag the 140-pound buck he bagged out of the woods, but he still considers it a notch in his hunting belt.
"It's kind of like hockey," he said. "My dad got the goal and I got the assist. We're supporting each other in the woods."
Even when both come home empty-handed, Father Zavage said he and his dad can't help but have a good time. The experience of being out in the woods, with nothing but your thoughts and prayers to keep you occupied, is as spiritual as being in church.
"There's a lot of solitude I find very calming," he said. "It's my time with God and nature."
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419. First Published December 12, 2010 5:00 AM