I am often approached by friends and coworkers who know of my passion for hunting. They’re often my age, have a little outdoor knowledge, and will occasionally fish or backpack. They wait until some quiet moment when eavesdropping ears are not around. With bashful eyes and hushed tones they ask, “how do you hunt?” It always warms my heart to bring a new hunter into the fold. Once they go through the Hunter’s Safety course I take them to the field. It’s a great thing to see someone hunt, harvest, and eat their own food for the first time.
As I guide them through the finer points of scat identification or cleaning the kill, I often have a brief thought, “nobody ever taught you this?” I then remember that this skill, this vital connection to the world, is being lost to the tides of time. What was once an ability so common that everyone knew how to do it has become esoteric.
How do I know how to hunt? From whence cometh my Crockett like capabilities? I certainly learned a thing or two from books but they can’t teach you everything. I was blessed to be born the grandson of Dick Hess, an Army Lieutenant Colonel and Colorado Division of Wildlife Game Warden. From my earliest memories I can remember him teasing me with a turkey call, explaining why you could see the eyes of animals at night, and teaching me how to clean fish. His house is full of trophies, equipment, and stories that I poured over as a youth. I knew how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble a rifle before I knew how to cook ramen. I could tell the difference between new and old tracks, identify different bird calls, and know which clouds meant it was time to head for camp. I learned all this from my grandfather. Without his guidance and patience (lots and lots of patience) I would still be a tenderfoot.
There is much emphasis today on getting youth involved in hunting. As the suburbs sprawl and video games become more addictive, kids would rather spend more time inside than out. Maybe they do have a desire to learn to hunt, but they have no mentor. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be born with a modern Major Burnham as a grandparent. This is why large sums of money are spent, special hunting days created, and other programs are made to teach young hunters. Rightfully so, as without another generation of sportsmen and women to care for our natural resources, people will only know of animals from the zoo and think food comes from the store.
I think it is important that we teach America’s youth the ways of the scout and hunter. Equally as important, is to honor and pay homage to the parents and grandparents who shared their knowledge with us. Even though grandpa doesn’t move like he used to and takes naps with alarming frequency, it doesn’t mean he’s finished with hunting.
Last fall I nervously watched as my 81 year old grandfather climbed the ladder of a stand. We were blanketed in darkness and the ladder was a full two stories up. I was imagining the tongue lashing and harassment we would receive were my fiery Irish grandmother to witness these proceedings. He safely made it and settled in to watch the light creep up through the trees. Though we did not see any cow elk that morning, we saw several good sized bulls as well as some deer. We also did something rare these days; we sat in silence and watched the slow rituals of the wilderness unfold before us.
The cool air and the long light took me back almost twenty years in time. I was a young man on my first big game hunt. We were in a blind built of hay bales on the edge of a large field. Sitting in the quiet morning light and waiting for our prey, I hoped that I would be able to harvest my first deer and make my grandfather proud. I didn’t know then what I and many other hunters now know. Bringing home several hundred pounds of tasty venison is good, but sitting in a blind and telling dirty jokes with your grandpa is better. Learning to hunt is so much more than just stalking and shooting. It is a process of acculturation where the stories, values, and goals of society are kept alive.
So what if he can’t walk fast or hear very well. Grab some .22’s and go walk a fence like you did when you were a kid. Find a good field of plowed corn and set up a goose blind the day before hunting. That way when you take the old guy out he’ll be a little more comfortable waiting in the freezing dawn. It doesn’t have to be hunting cape buffalo in Rhodesia with Selous. Maybe just an afternoon amongst the oaks, listening for the skittering call of a bushytail. The best part about taking a geezer hunting is that now you can both drink beers afterwards!
A post script to the stand story. I spent several days with my grandfather in that elevated stand last fall. We saw almost every form of wildlife in the Western Rockies except female elk. It was a great experience even though he didn’t harvest. I went back home to the dungeon of grad school and working nights in the ER. Two days after I left he was in the stand, by himself, and decided to go home. The light was fading and he hadn’t seen anything all day. He taught me to always move quietly, even if you’re giving up and going home. Doing just that he came around a bend in the trail. In the clearing that opened before him was a broadside cow elk. It was an easy 75 yards and she had neither seen nor heard him. Using a shooting stick and a 7mag he folded up that wapiti so hard it died right where it was standing. No mess, no tracking, just an effortless ethical shot that filled his freezer and mine. Don’t let the naysayers fool ya, grandpa can still hunt.