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There had been ample opportunities and I had squandered every one. Pheasants were exploding directly up and out of drainage ditches, out and away from windrows, to my left and right from thickets of alder. My friend’s dog was performing admirably in less-than-ideal conditions, but I continuously failed to levy a shot worth a damn. Late in the afternoon, we dipped into an arroyo populated by handfuls of cattle, bifurcated by a beautiful stream. Here and there an odd pheasant blew up and into the heavens, but too far for a shot.
I had driven over 1,100 miles to hunt with my buddy, who, whether he knew it or not, had also become a hunting mentor. The truth was, I had never previously hunted pheasant. While we walked that coulee, I whispered a mantra to myself: Don’t shoot your friend and don’t shoot his dog, don’t shoot your friend and don’t shoot his dog, don’t shoot your friend and don’t shoot his dog. I desperately wanted to bag a limit of pheasants, but I also looked at this hunt as training. I was beginning a new practice in my life, trying to become better at something I knew next to nothing about, but wanted to learn so much more.
Near the end of the afternoon, as the sun made the western Montana sky a silvery pearlescent, Zeke the dog zeroed in on a clump of frozen vegetation near a meander in the stream. I could hear in my friend’s voice that this was it, a profoundly perfect point. What was implicit was: This is your chance, buddy, and don’t fuck this up.
The pheasant flushed right to left, not twelve yards away from me, and the shot was true. The downed bird lay on the opposite side of the creek, and there was the music of gently flowing water and shoreline ice forming. My body was jangly with adrenaline. I will remember that moment: my friend celebrating what I had done, my sudden understanding of the genius of his bird-dog, my gratitude for the moment, for the bird, for the land, for being alive. A hundred profound sensations swirled at once.
All made possible because I had a mentor. A friend who put me in the right place at the right time, and then congratulated me when I had done something just as I should have.
But that experience was nothing like my first hunting foray.
My initiation, my rite of passage into hunting, is an ugly story, but sadly hardly an uncommon one. I was twelve years old and had successfully passed my hunter’s safety course. I was an active Boy Scout, grew up with a respect for firearms, and was no stranger to the woods of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. So, when I was of age to hunt deer for the first time, I was elated. I imagined that this activity might be the sort of thing that my father and I could share for the rest of our lives. Something pure, something ancient, something that might bond us in blood.
The plan was to tent-camp just south of the Wisconsin/Michigan state line, and to hunt on public land. Our campsite would not be too far from my grandparents’ home in the UP, so if we needed supplies, or success came early on Saturday morning, why, we could break camp and move into their comfortable house. I thought nothing of camping in late November; my Boy Scout troop scheduled once-a-month camping trips no matter the weather. Below-zero temperatures were commonplace in December, January and February.
That Friday night before the season began, we ate dinner with my grandparents before returning to camp. For some reason, my father and I slept in separate tents, and after I crawled into my sleeping bag, he announced that he would drive into town — to drink, I imagined. My father was an alcoholic, so I had been conditioned to accept this sort of decision-making as commonplace. His headlights illuminated the green nylon of my tent as he drove away, toward the nearest bar, and I was left there, alone, with the dancing oranges and yellows of a fading campfire. I fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, I woke suddenly, very sick, and vomited all over myself and my sleeping bag. I called out to my father repeatedly, but there was no answer. It was dark and cold, and I had no sense of time. When I peered out of the tent, heavy snow was falling. I cleaned myself off and returned to sleep; what else was there for me to do?
We set out the following morning in the pre-dawn snow and silence. My father stationed me on the side of a ridge, deep in a hemlock forest, with a view of a stream below. It was a beautiful place to sit. Then he went his own way. We never discussed where he’d gone the evening prior, whether he was stone-cold asleep while I was calling out, or drunk, or not yet returned to camp.
The snow continued falling very heavily. After an hour, possibly two, of growing increasingly cold and wet and miserable ((and possibly still being sick)) I decided to hell with hunting, I’d build a little fire. But the snow kept spilling off overhead boughs and extinguishing my efforts. I’d read a little Jack London, and I felt like I was reliving his story, “To Build a Fire.” Eventually, I found my father and asked to be brought to my grandparents’. To his credit, he obliged.
And for the remainder of the afternoon, I lay ensconced on a couch, a college football game on the television, a fire in the hearth, and my grandmother moving from kitchen to living room, delivering me hot bowls of soup, bread and butter — whatever I wanted. Finally, I was safe and warm.
Just before dusk, my grandmother excitedly pointed out toward the wide pasture beyond their house. Some seventy-five yards away stood a deer, visible through the gloaming and falling snow.
“Get your gun,” my grandfather whispered. “Then go to the garage.”
I did as I was told, heart pounding. In the garage, my stockinged feet grew damp with melted snow, but I nudged a door open, took careful aim, and fired out into the white field. The deer dropped as easily as a target at a shooting gallery.
My grandmother whooped and hollered, saying, “I can’t believe you did it! You’ve always been so sensitive, and you were taking so long to line up your shot…” After we all laced up our boots, we walked out to survey my first kill. But as we drew closer, it was apparent that this was no monster buck. Nor a healthy-sized doe. This was a fawn of that year, surely less than sixty pounds. I felt sick to my stomach.
“Go back inside,” my grandparents told me. “We’ll take care of this.” They did not ridicule me or make light of the situation, and I was grateful not to have to gut the small creature. The word fawn, after all, implies the word baby.
When my father returned, likely from another northwoods bar, I don’t remember that he congratulated me, or hugged me, or asked me to tell the story of the hunt. He joked that “Bambi was just trying to eat out of your hand, and you blasted her.” This became something of a legend in our family: the time Nick shot a fawn from the garage in his socks. I felt ashamed, I felt sad, and I had learned nothing at all. Only that I was capable of taking a life. I had not gutted or otherwise processed the deer; I hadn’t eaten the deer. The only memento of that hunt was a necklace made from the brass shell of the bullet that had killed it, a gesture from my father that, while well-meaning, also felt empty. Because what I wanted more than a handsome mount, or even a glorious story, was time with my dad.
And for the next twenty-five years, I had zero interest in hunting, except to occasionally accompany a friend during pheasant season. But just as often, I didn’t even carry a gun.
* * *
About five years ago, an urge began to rise in me. I didn’t need, have never needed, to become the sort of hunter who devotes weeks or months to hunting. But I wanted to become competent in hunting.
I wanted to learn more. The trouble was, my dad had suffered a massive brain aneurysm years before, and I had no close entrée into the hunting world. It is easy to take for granted the skills our parents pass to us in childhood, like genetics. Hunting is one such skill. Most of the hunters I know actively hunt with their families, and in this way, a lineage of knowledge is maintained and hopefully even grown. My own lineage had been severed.
Although I truly believe that there are thousands, even tens of thousands of hunters who would gladly mentor someone eager to learn more about hunting, the dynamic of the relationship is incredibly unusual, I think, in our society. It isn’t easy to submit, to admit that you aren’t proficient in something, that you need help, that you don’t know what you’re doing. The student must trust that their mentor is not going to belittle, pressure, embarrass or otherwise endanger them. This isn’t learning to play cribbage. There is a real element of danger that must be acknowledged. To say nothing of the cost of gear, taking the life of an animal, the emotional weight of the hunt, the potential for “failure.” Trust, compassion, excitement, even love — all the parameters of our most important relationships should exist too in this bond between student and mentor.
I was incredibly fortunate. Not only did I find that I had access to many potential mentors, I found that once I announced myself as a person who wanted to learn more about hunting, I did not have the time or resources to actually hunt as much as would have been possible.
One of my first mentors was my wife’s uncle, Paul Gullicksrud, co-owner of a small, family-owned grocery store in Strum, Wisconsin. Paul is a spritely man in his early sixties, compact and fit, and he is incredibly knowledgeable about the local landscape. He’s also a damn good turkey hunter.
So, it was last spring that I found myself driving through the predawn mists, through the tiny town of Strum to Paul’s house, where we piled into his truck and then lit out to one of his favorite spots. His honey-hole was not a bucolic forgotten farm, but one of those intersections of man-made infrastructure and forlorn, abused nature. We did not creep to our spot, but rather moved quickly; I admit it was difficult to keep pace with Paul, even as he had one arm in a sling after a recent operation. But once we were in place, Paul began advising me, predicting where we might see turkeys, how to hold my gun, my posture, a litany of little things I hadn’t considered. I listened to how he called turkeys — what calls he employed, what intervals. When one spot didn’t pan out, we moved on, hunting all morning into the early afternoon. We hunted like this for a couple days but never fired a shot. I was hardly disappointed. To the contrary, I was ecstatic to be in the woods with a man I respected, a man who had made time for me, a man who was trying to pass along his passion and knowledge.
My mentors didn’t always actually know they were mentoring me. My neighbors Dave and Tim were thrilled to have a new set of hands to help them process the six deer they shot this year. As time allowed, I would cross Hillview Road, enter one of Dave’s sheds, and there, alongside three other men, we would grind, spice, and package pounds and pounds of venison bratwurst, as we joked good naturedly, talked football, and took breaks to sample the goods. Another man whom I serve with on a not-for-profit board became an unwitting pheasant mentor. And on a recent trip to Montana, the writer Noah Davis immediately picked me up in Missoula with shotguns, ammo and waders ready. I’d never been duck-hunting before, but there we were, walking a creek in search of mallards and talking about the poetry of Ross Gay and the novels of David Joy. When I thanked Noah for all his time and patience, he couldn’t stop smiling. He was just as thrilled to be out on a late afternoon in the wild as I was. He thanked me, the hapless pupil.
It isn’t always easy to submit yourself to another person’s authority and intelligence, but once you do, once you admit that you know nothing, or nearly nothing about a given subject, the resultant sensation is not ignorance or embarrassment, but rather freedom, a lightness that is drawn from the liberty to learn everything, to be a student. The mentor, I think, also experiences freedom, because as teachers, they are no longer under the pressure of having to bag an animal, only to place their student in winning circumstances, well situated for success. Every single one of my hunting mentors has individually said, “I’m having more fun watching you hunt than if I was hunting myself.”
The mentor and the mentee also become a team, just as how humans originally hunted, with older generations instructing younger ones, with humans working together to transport an animal, to dress an animal, and to savor in the spoils of the hunt together. As a mentee, I like to imagine myself as being “adopted” by my mentors and entrusted with the knowledge of their own sacred hunting lands and practices. In this way, a hunting lineage is less of a single line or tree, and much more like a timeless web or net, constructed of millions of souls or spirits, each acting as a knot in a great circuitry.
The great Wisconsin conservationist and hunting advocate Doug Duren embodies the spirit of the mentor in ways that are so charitable and transparent as to be frankly stunning. Every year, he opens his ancestral land to new hunters, pairing these newbies off with mentors such as himself. “As both a landowner and hunter, I have an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to encourage the development of conservation values, or as Aldo Leopold called it, A Land Ethic, in folks who are interested in the outdoors,” Duren explains. “Hunting is a great vehicle to help people understand the interconnectedness between people, the land and the other members of an ecosystem community.” Duren’s generosity of spirit goes beyond a hunting mentorship to a wider understanding of ecology and community, seemingly erasing the boundaries of his own property, extending an invitation for anyone interested to participate in a timeless hunt.
In this way, mentoring is a metaphor for how we live our lives. Do we strive to learn and teach, to participate in a community, to honor our planet and all its denizens? Or, after some graduation or another, do we proclaim that we know quite enough, have met enough people, and are content to collect Amazon boxes off our front porch, as if each new delivery were wisdom we could purchase?
For me, the answer is simple. I’m going to try to keep learning. I’m going to try to become a better hunter, a better ecologist, a better neighbor. I want to be a student of this world.
The Weight of Wolves
Hunting with Wolves