Category Archives: reflections

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.

Two Types of Attention, or, What a Kindergarten Teacher, Twitter, and Media Studies Have Taught me About Hunting

I took a long time writing this post, partly because it is over 2500 words long, but primarily because I was agonizing (okay, not agonizing, but certainly having second thoughts) over what these words were going to do to my “image”.  Now I’m not referring to my image on this blog, or on Twitter, or in the vast real estate of the internet, because frankly I have no reputation there worth sneezing at.  I was mostly worried about what guys I hunt with that read this blog would think.  This kind of personal confessional is not really in keeping with this forum’s Mission Statement, but in the past three months or so, I’ve come to notice a few things as I’ve been attempting to expand this blog’s reach, and I thought I just had to get these out there.  Come to think of it, my “image” is probably pretty bad in the eyes of my hunting buddies anyways…oh well, here goes anyhow.
I’ve received some emails lately that this blog (and my extended Twitter feed about this blog) are altogether ‘boring’ or ‘dull’ to quote directly.  By the way, this post is not going to change those beliefs.  At the same time I’ve noticed that many other sites and organizations that seem to be doing significantly better than this one have gone, shall we say, over the top in their representation of the gory, macho, or intense imagery of the tradition we all participate in and love.  Now I’m not going to start dragging out names or publications for ridicule or negative examination.  They’ve put their own names out there with their approach and they aren’t hard to find; but I will touch on a couple of positive examples by name because my (minor) recognition is probably worth something.  Now I’m not looking for validation and I don’t need any “You can do it!” or “Don’t change a thing!” emails, because honestly I intend to keep the status quo here.  Why?  Because I’m a stubborn S.O.B. deep down and I’m set in my ways.  But like I said all this social media and somewhat increased traffic it has brought to the blog did get me contemplating what a heightened, edgy approach to advertising and media representation has in store for the future of hunting.
When I was five years old, I had a very excellent kindergarten teacher I won’t name because I respect her a lot and I don’t have her explicit permission to use her name in this forum.  Suffice it to say she was, if I were to use a cliché, the kind of archetype that I think all kindergarten teachers should be.  She was kind, but firm and had what even at my young age I believed was a genuine care for the kids in her charge.  She was in a sense old-school disciplinarily and while my kindergarten year was well past the age of straps or rulers as a means of corporal punishment, she did run a tight ship and didn’t tolerate backtalk or violence or crass behaviour.  In short, I got the feeling that to disappoint her would be sin of near titanic proportions.  Plus she was not above reporting your actions bluntly to your parents, and I don’t know about yours, but mine always sided 100% with the teachers.
Now I told you that glowing review of this teacher’s character to tell you this story.  Patience, I’m getting to the part about hunting.
To use a casual euphemism, let’s just say I had “precocious tendencies” as a child.  I spent a lot of time between the ages of five and ten in front of some pretty hard-case vice-principals and principals, primarily because I had a smart mouth and no (initial) desire to follow rules, instructions, or agendas.  While in kindergarten, I have a vivid memory of doing some sort of spelling exercise at that young age, and I did very well at it.  I already had a slight reputation for being problematic my teacher took me aside and very directly and concisely explained to me the difference between good attention and bad attention.  The bad attention came from running my mouth rudely and getting in scraps (verbal or otherwise) with other kids.  The good attention came from excelling in school and helping others do well, and that dichotomy resonated with me.  (Not an afterthought, but I also had an exceptionally good librarian and a superb principal in grade school that both echoed the same mantra to me frequently.  What ever happened to good teachers getting involved with youth development?)  Anyhow, while the criteria of what constitutes positive and negative attention have obviously changed as I’ve grown up, that distinction between good and bad attention has always been with me…sometimes vocal and proud, other times (usually when I’m making knowingly poor decisions) as a nagging voice reminding me that at the very least, my one-time kindergarten teacher likely wouldn’t approve.  So the goal is to try to make the “good attention’ type of acts more than the “bad attention” column. 
But enough history and psychology for now.
Where this plays into the future of hunting is that, for this observer, the distinction between good and bad attention (from the perspective of public perception and social media vis-à-vis hunting) is at best blurred and at worst a distant memory.  For now it seems the only thing that people in the hunting media and industry want is “attention” regardless of its nature, and usually at the motivation of money, notoriety, or otherwise.  This is the thesis statement.  It is also where most who think me a crotchety old bat will navigate away, stop subscribing to the blog, and cease following me on Twitter.  That’s fine; my personal worth is not valued in those metrics.  I’ll likely get some hate-mail too; fair enough.
For those still around, I’ll bounce a few contextual examples off you.
In a magazine I recently read an article about responsible land stewardship and low-impact usage of ATVs, with the aim of educating the reader on how to minimize erosion and negative soil effects caused by ATV use while hunting during the wet spring and late fall seasons.  Four pages later (literally) was a glossy full-page ad of a guy bombing through a deep mud-puddle on an ATV, and looking pretty aggro-cool in doing so.  Talk about your mixed messages in the magazine.  Advertising revenue trumps the message of the previous article I guess.  In reality, if you’ve ever been on any public land (or private for that matter) where people actually do this with ATVs, you’ll be keenly aware of the erosion and damage to sub-soil that this practice causes.  One chunk of county forest in Simcoe County actually has a berm in the trail that is (no kidding) four high.  It is a little tough to negotiate in the dark, thinking nothing of the fact that nothing will probably ever grow in that spot again.
In another (this time, online) magazine, I read a truly great article on a reflective, peaceful outdoors experience that lead the writer to comment on how little it truly mattered if a kill was made.  Same publication, some pages later I found a great ad for a new goose call that would guarantee more lethality.  The term “whack ‘em and stack ‘em” was used…and I hate that term.  Nothing like reducing the hunting experience to a bloody game of “Count the Bodies”.
On a trip to the United States for work in March, I was watching a deer hunting program that devoted a good ten minutes of the show to discussions of ethics in shot selection, aging deer properly on the hoof, and being a good role model for the youth of today that want to learn the art of deer hunting.  They then proceeded to shoot a deer that was standing broadside under a corn-dispensing feeder.  I suppose if the law allows it, flowery talk of philosophy and ethics then become a moot point in favour of what they define as ‘success’.
I watched another hunting show recently where the host talked about the safety required in turkey hunting, mentioning that stalking a gobbler is ‘probably not the best idea’.  Guess how he bagged his bird?  Snuck right up on it.  Sigh.
Now these are examples of arguable hypocrisy, and they may fall into the ‘poor choices’ bucket, but when invariably these acts and indiscretions come to define the hunting experience for youth and the non-hunting public who determine the future of our tradition with their votes they become the examples of garnering “bad attention”…I suppose by pointing them out I’m not helping, but hopefully my end will justify the means.  And once that preconception exists, it is far harder to remove it from people’s minds.
I was recently invited on Facebook to ‘like’ a new hunting show featuring the catchphrase “If they run, they’ll just be tired when they die” or something to that effect.  Certainly catchy marketing and I’m sure some guys had a bar-room chuckle over the wording, but I had to ask…is this really the way the hunting tradition should be marketed in public.  I chose not to ‘like’ the show.
This blog is on Twitter.  I like it, actually because I’m able to keep apprised of the good work that organizations like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited Canada, the NWTF, and the OFAH are doing.  I may not always agree with some of the decisions or approaches these groups take, but I do agree with many of the long term goals and their advocacy role, so Twitter is a great tool to stays informed in that regard.  I also enjoy following some hunting products (Primos is a great example of classy guys giving back to the community that made them successful) for new gear updates because I’m a gearhead, as any frequent reader of this forum knows.  I also have personalities in the industry that I follow and some of them follow back or recommend me to the public.  Great, I’ll take the exposure (albeit somewhat uncomfortably).  But in the Twitter world I found a disturbing trend, and that was the segment of the hunting community on social media (it also exists on Facebook, other blogs, etc, etc) that loves to antagonize non-hunters, proudly relate how they “made that critter die!” (Yep, that’s a direct quote) or otherwise seek the ‘bad attention’ that is so detrimental to the public opinion of hunting.
What’s funny is most guys and gals I talk to about this feel like I do…yet there is a market for this approach.  That’s confusing to say the least.  But I digress.
This segment of the population, as I have alluded to before, has always existed, but they now have a much more public platform to do their damage.  The tired argument about saying what you want, and not giving a damn about what others think of you is fine by me…but in this case it is not what others think about you that is the problem, it is that the world at large thinks about you in the context of what you are talking about that is the issue.  Like I said, that segment of oafish, slob hunter has always been around and likely won’t change, and that trait is not exclusive to the hunting community.  There are slob motorcyclists, slob anglers, slob skateboarders, and so on and so on.  What is troubling for me as a hunter is that the trait is increasingly glorified in hunting media and online, making the obligation now even heavier on those who are maintaining an ethic of respect for the game, respect for the land, and respect for the tradition.  I guess the old axiom that there is no such thing as bad publicity has taken hold and there’s no distinction anymore between good attention and bad attention in many of the public messages related to hunting.
I hear it often that “you’re missing the point” or “that’s not what I meant” or my favourite, “well that’s the image but that isn’t our message”.  Like it or not though, images generally speak louder than words.  Also, for those that say that the issue of stereotyping is the problem of the public and not the hunting community I would refer you to history for a guide.  Marshall McLuhan, who was not a hunter as far as I can tell, said it famously in a way that addresses both arguments. 
“The medium is the message”
Basically, the content is equally important, or sometimes trumped, by the way it is delivered.  My favourite analogy was the old cigarette ads I’d read in the 1960’s and 1970’s vintage Outdoor Life and Field & Stream magazines my Dad kept around.  They showed tranquil, beautiful vistas or bustling nightlife with cigarettes as the focal point…and a small tagline on the bottom from the Surgeon General of the United States that tobacco smoke will kill you.
So it goes with the new media of the hunting industry.  You can have the flowery, positive, tradition affirming language you want in your hunting show, ads, website, magazine, or otherwise.  If the take away message is all blood, guts, and self-important machismo triumphing over beautiful but ultimately secondary nature, that is how you’re going to be known.  By everyone.  That process seems to be proving true of almost all things in our media-centered lives now, so it seems that the quiet, classy, modest approach to hunting is just a victim.  Still, it seems it would be far easier to keep the message positive from the get go than it would be to change the imbedded stereotypes held by both the hunting and non-hunting public.
We as hunters seem to be of a group-think mentality that believes we are exempt from the modern trappings of media saturation, advertising, and stereotyping.  I’ve frequently needed reminding myself that we are not.  We seem to think that since we engage in a millennium-old tradition that it is somehow timeless or untouchable, that nothing negative we do could ever endanger it.  We continue to believe it at our collective peril.  I’m not trying to sanitize hunting, I don’t want catch and release hunting, or have to resort to using darts or paintballs on game animals.  The kill will always be the constant and ultimate goal for those that hunt.  My argument is that ‘hunter’ should not be celebrated as synonymous with ‘killer’ as there is so much more to the hunt than whether or not the animal dies.  Framing ourselves in that ethic of “kill at all costs” or “look at how much I shot today” does a disservice to the tradition and a serious disservice to the animals we pursue.
So fine accuse me of being a negative reactionary, accuse me of being anti-fun.  Say I’m old, or incapable of evolving into a new media age.  Say “who gives you the right to judge me?” or email me that “I don’t know you”.  Tell me I’m outright wrong…doesn’t bother me one bit.  I know the majority of hunters out there are doing the right things, or trying to.  I know that the ones out there muddying the water for us are people too, and they pay their license fees, and some may volunteer their time, and that many probably have kids they want to pass the tradition on to…just like I do, and just like you might.  I am aware that by simply buying a license they get the privilege to hunt on the same terms as you and I.
The question, and this whole post is about one question, is what kind of tradition will our words and actions leave today if we stop treating hunting as a privilege to be quietly honoured and instead behave as though it is an inalienable right to be boasted and crowed about rudely and at a volume unfit for human endurance?
It is a hopeless cliché, but this time it is apt.  As our kindergarten teachers (and our parents and hopefully our hunting mentors after them) tried to teach us, the “good attention” has rewards that the “bad attention” can’t come close to.  And in this case it is the enduring dignity of the hunting tradition.