Huntin’ With Dad…

The initial plan for this weekend was to go visit family for a few days over the Father’s Day weekend, but a flu bug laid me up for a few days and I wasn’t really up to travelling at all.  My wife and kids were healthy enough to travel though, so here I sit, flying solo for Father’s Day tomorrow.  Which is okay, I haven’t really much of an investment in Father’s Day…after all I’ve only been a father for two of them (before this year) and they’re pretty much like any other day, really.
But I do have a Dad (something I have in common with a few billion people…mine writes a column at this link.  You can check it out if you’re so inclined.) and he is the primary reason you all are reading this.  Dad has always been a staunch conservationist and sportsman, and it was the enthusiasm in wilderness, conservation, and hunting that he literally lived that serves as the bedrock for my own passion for the outdoors.  This blog is merely a public extension of my love of the sporting life.  To say Dad lived a wilderness life would be mild overstatement, but not by much.  While he was not a ‘log-cabin hermit’ he was always involved in the outdoors.  He grew up in Lion’s Head, Ontario on a working farm surrounded by forests, meadows, marshes, and big-water.  I grew up hearing plenty of stories about wandering through woods following animal tracks, sneaking into the marsh to watch ducks, doing hard but rewarding farm work in the outdoors, fishing for speckled trout, and all sorts of other quite idyllic-sounding pastimes that Dad and his brothers engaged in through their childhoods and adolescents.
In career, Dad had a job doing something he was passionate about.  He was the first Ducks Unlimited employee hired in Ontario and he worked for DU Canada in various positions for nearly 30 years, associated in the implementation of hundreds of projects in Ontario.  He took very apparent pride and joy in driving us to wetlands to show us how wilderness could be returned to areas that had been degraded, and how those places were worth working for, volunteering at, and taking care of.  I met landowners and coworkers that Dad was associated with and they all had the same passion and focus.  It made me and my siblings, at a very young age, feel a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.  We were part of nature and could take steps to learn from it and make sure it remained strong.  It wasn’t a marketing or PR statement.  It was real, you could get muddy, and you could do your part.  That was probably the most important thing I learned from Dad.
Work and family obligations aside, hunting was always a primary focus of Dad’s life.  He took vacations, and they were for hunting.  When he was not hunting, he was telling hunting stories or tinkering with guns and gear.  When we went on family trips to visit family in Lion’s Head, it meant we were doing some kind of hunting too.  We learned gun and hunting safety at a young age and were relentlessly reminded of it, hopefully to our benefit.  My brother, my sister, and I were all exposed to hunting, and although my sister never took it up, she has a firm appreciation of the tradition’s importance and place in society.  My brother and I are avid hunters, with my brother holding the deer hunting bragging rights in this tepid sibling rivalry.  I’ll take the calling accolades, at least relative to my little bro.  I think he’d take that trade-off.
Dad had strong opinions about what hunting meant, how it should be done, what was ‘fair-chase’ and what wasn’t, and a whole host of other idiosyncratic traits about the tradition…just as we all do.  I’ve inherited a good many of them, but sometimes we disagree, and that’s fine too.
But the purpose of this post is not to present my Dad’s biography.  That’s for another day, perhaps.  The point of this is to relate, in honour of Father’s Day, my favourite stories from hitting the fields and forests with my Dad.

Hunting With Kids

I had been tagging along with Dad as a spectator since I was eight or nine years old, but being the oldest child in my family meant that after I was licensed, for a few years at least, Dad was my only hunting buddy; he knew all the good spots, and he could drive.  I was also the oldest child to take up hunting in the family so even though my brother and cousins have been coming out as spectators since they likewise were kids, for a stretch there I had something in common with Dad that none of the other kids had with their Dads: we both had hunting licenses.  That figures large in the mind of an early adolescent, I’m told.  Stories about being out with Dad have already figured in this forum before, usually to prove some point or provide a contextual reference for what I’m talking about, but this first one is just about learning.

I was somewhere in that distant past that lurks around the age of eight to ten years old, and Dad and I were out hunting rabbits in the snowy environs of the mixed woodlot south of the farm with the family beagle, Chum (and that’s ‘family beagle’ in the extended sense…uncles, cousins, friends…a lot of people hunted with Chum in his day).  As the beautiful hound music rang through snow-covered boughs, it seemed to be taking an eternity for the rabbit and dog to circle and figure-eight their way through the undergrowth.  Like most kids, I was getting bored, and my feet were getting cold.  I broke off a small twig and started playing with it.  The hound was getting closer.  I made little circles of footprints in the snow behind Dad.  Chum was still getting closer.  I saw Dad shift two hands onto his Remington .22.  Something was fixing to happen.  The dog sounded like he was on top of us, his bays and bawls chiming like church bells in my ears.  Dad stood statue still, the rifle half-shouldered.  I couldn’t see anything and my heart was hammering in rhythm with Chum’s frantic howling.  Without thinking I said “Dad?  Where’s the rabbit?”  Now this isn’t censorship: I legitimately can’t recall exactly what the hissed rejoinder was that I got from Dad, but I’m somewhat confident that he didn’t swear at me.  And then poor Chum’s howls starting getting further and further away.  I’d obviously kind of screwed things up by talking, and Dad let me know that.  While I looked sheepishly at my Welly boots, Dad concisely explained that the rabbit is usually well ahead of the dog.  I said I was sorry and Dad just said in a resigned, pleasant way “But that’s how you learn I suppose.”  And then we kept on hunting.  I can’t remember if we got that rabbit or any others that day, but I remember that I could have gotten cursed out pretty hard.  Dad isn’t a competitive hunter, but when he’s hunting, well, he’s hunting.  So those were three things I learned that day.  Be quiet because hunting can be pretty serious, but most importantly, if you screw it up (or if your noisy kid screws it up, more accurately), just shrug your shoulders and keep hunting.
After that trip, Dad told my uncles that hunting with me was like hunting with a baby raccoon rambling around behind you the whole time.  I don’t think he meant it in a bad way, but only he knows for sure.  I didn’t take it in a bad way.
We all like to think that on some level, our fathers are without flaws.  Of course that isn’t true; they are just people like the rest of us, and they are prone to failings and defects.  Dad probably won’t like this story out for the world to see, he may even suggest some revisions for me, but this is my version.

Even When You Shoot Poorly

In May, 2007 Dad and I were out chasing spring gobblers in the Simcoe County forests north of Barrie, Ontario.  We were sitting on opposite sides of the base of a broad old pine tree that had low-hanging limbs that provided good cover.  Dad was working the box call, and I was sitting listening for responses.  It was gusty, so anytime the wind went down, Dad would make some calls.  After a time, we heard a throaty gobble.  Dad called again, louder and more excitedly.  The response was immediate…and closer.  He ran another series of yelps and cutts together, and this time there was no answer.  I know Dad’s intent was to get me my first bird, but the bird was coming from his side of the tree, so I hissed for him to shoot it if he could.  Seconds later I heard Dad whisper “There he is.”  At the farthest corner of my right-eye’s peripheral vision I saw the outline of the gobbler standing at full periscope.  Dad’s shotgun barked from behind me and I heard the bird flopping.  I turned and was astonished to see the bird get its feet and begin running.  As I fumbled to get the gun on it, and shove the safety off, and try for a shot, Dad hissed an unrepeatable curse as he blazed two more shells at the now low-flying gobbler.  I watched it glide through a low opening and set its wings and soar like a wounded goose out of sight.  At that point, I’m not ashamed to say that my might father…a man who I knew had dispatched many a turkey with a single shot to the head from his 2 ¾-inch-chambered Remington Model 1100, a man who I had watched crumple geese and ducks with ease, my hunting hero who had a basement full of deer antlers from his successful exploits…my dad began setting the one-man Guinness World Record for cursing himself.  Just as he had squeezed the trigger, he told me that his steady arms had forsaken him and the muzzle had dipped just slightly.  There was nothing Dad hated more than shooting a turkey through the body with a shotgun.  Not only did he lament ruined meat (in fact it was nearly criminal in his eyes to ruin a delectable turkey that way), but he didn’t like spoiling the glossy, iridescent feathers.  After a few minutes we tracked the bird, and were happy to find it laying, neck-outstretched, on the leaves just a hundred yards from where Dad had shot it.
As we approached it, I asked Dad if he had any shells in his gun.  He said no, he had only brought three.  This eventuality had never even crossed his mind.  I only had 3 inch shells so I offered him my gun.  He gestured for me to aim for a spot well removed from his location and that if the bird was still alive that he’d usher it that way for me to shoot if need be.  He was confident it was dead though as it had not moved at all the whole time we approached and conversed loudly.  As I stood watching Dad approach it I didn’t even have the gun half-ready.  Safety was on and I had it in cradle carry.  I saw Dad pick up a stick, which I assumed was going to be a blunt instrument in case the bird was still barely alive.  I was astonished (for the second time in minutes, I might add) when Dad casually tossed the axe-handle sized twig on the bird’s back.
The cradle carry was a bad decision.
The bird exploded in a flurry of leaves and feathers and began running away through the woods.  It ran directly away from Dad and right to left through my field of vision.  The first shot was scrambled and well behind the bird.  My second shot shredded leaves a foot over the bird’s head.  Now I almost shouted an unmentionable swear word.  Like my Dad (who I until moments before had deemed infallible) I had only brought the three shells in the gun.  Knowing this last shell would have to count, I bore down and squeezed the trigger.  The bird cart-wheeled forward and the woods fell silent.  With my boot heel on the tough old gobbler’s neck Dad and I looked confoundedly at each other.  It was the first gobbler Dad had failed to kill with one shot, and it was the first one I had ever shot at.  Dad was at the end of one type of streak, and I hoped I was not at the start of another.  We both felt pretty sheepish over our bad shooting display, and I know Dad maligned himself (and we’ve reminded him over some beers at camp once and a while) for making a bad shot that ended up putting that gobbler through about ten minutes of unnecessary suffering.  But the important part was that that bird didn’t go to waste.  We got him, and we ate him, and we learned something.  Most importantly, we know we aren’t the first hunters to shoot badly, and so long as we do our best to avoid it in the future all we have now is a laugh, a lesson learned, and a story to tell.

I don’t know about Dad, but I now carry seven shells afield on every turkey hunt.

Being Humble

I was fortunate enough to shoot a doe fawn in the first three hours of my deer hunting career, and it was a good, humane, albeit lucky, shot through the neck of a running deer.  I missed the doe that was with her, but that’s nothing new for me…that just means that doe could breed again.
There were high fives, and handshakes, and pats on the back, and ‘atta boys” and all sorts of blurred, excited imagery for me after that.  I was elated, and sad, and kind of nauseous, and a dozen other feelings.  By the time Dad had walked me through the field-dressing (and if I could just get a handle on shooting deer to this day, I’d be more practiced at it) and we had planned the rest of the day, it was time that we broke for lunch.  That afternoon, Dad and I were walking through the hardwoods to a spot where he was going to place me for the evening sit and he was having me recount the story.  Suffice it to say, I was a pretty proud fifteen year-old who had just joined, what to my mind was, a pretty exclusive club.  I was a deer hunter now.  Just like my grandfather, and my dad, and my uncles and great uncles.  I said something somewhat disrespectful to the deer and complementary to myself…something like “well that dumb deer just ran in front of the wrong guy this morning”, or another remark equally adolescent and inane.  It wasn’t a Hollywood scene, but I remember Dad’s response like it was scripted.  Without turning around or stopping he just said “Yep that was a good shot; you made me proud.  Now, don’t talk about it like that and don’t let it go to your head.”  And I said the eternal teenaged response to being subtly put in your place by the pater familias.  I said “Okay.”  And that was it.  Lesson learned.  Taking a life wasn’t about boasting or feeling tough or superior.  It was about a tradition of being out in nature and trying to better an animal that was stronger and more resilient than you individually would ever be.  And it was meant to respected and humbling, in success or failure.  I have thought about that walk often, and I’ve come to believe there’s more merit in that philosophy than the alternative.
I’ve got dozens of other stories from hunting and living in deer camp with Dad, and I’m sure many more will make their way into this blog.  It is a near certainty that many of you have your own tales of father-son or father-daughter or husband-wife hunting glory, despair, and hilarity and I bet you treasure them as much as I do my own memories of the outdoors with Dad.
So thanks Dad, for taking me in the woods, for teaching me how to hunt, for being there when it went down as planned, and for not being too hard on me when it didn’t.  Mostly, thanks for being a good example of what a sportsman and conservationist ought to be.
I’ll be stealing most of your tricks (and all of your stories) to share with your grandsons someday.

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