Good, solid hunting mentors like I had growing up are in serious demand these days. Without them, kids are content to sit inside, warm and dry with their faces glued to electronic devices. I never had that opportunity because electronic devices didn’t exist yet. I was forced to play outside. The out of doors, as near as I can tell, was the modern-day parental version of screen time. “Go outside!” my mother would often say with a sweet and kind tone to her voice. An aging group of mentors and kids growing up with no desire to step foot in the woods is a bad combination!
Now that pocket-sized electronic devices have been invented, I carry one with me where ever I go. I can recall many times of sitting outside in a cold, damp environment, my faced glued to the screen as I scrolled through pictures of people having fun in warm places. Why many kids can’t seem to get excited about leaving the house these days is hard to tell. It’s probably because there is a multitude of hunters who aren’t willing to drag these kids out of the house to teach them a few woodsy type things. Fortunately for me, I had my father and uncles who were willing and sacrificial mentors. I was already outside thanks to my mom’s encouragement, why shouldn’t they teach me a thing or two while I was out there?
I learned from them that one of the most important woodsy type things that a seasoned hunter can pass along to a newbie is the privilege of allowing them to field dress and drag out a deer. These are important skills to learn, and it takes a selfless mentor who is willing to sacrifice that privilege and bestow it upon someone who has yet to earn the right. Now that I’ve matured as a woodsman, I’m more than happy to sacrifice in this area if it results in the recruitment of new hunters. I can’t wait to pass along what I’ve learned from my elders to my sons as they grow up.
I can’t take credit for the following list as it is not of my own creation, though it is clear that a few of them were clearly generated with me in mind – numbers eight and ten for sure. I’ve also been known to have firsthand experience with numbers five and six. Here they are:
- Some hunters have never done this before, so this is your investment in their education.
- It is your obligation to involve new, young hunters in learning how to properly gut a deer. If there are no volunteers, you whisper in the ear of the youngest: “Did you ever tell your dad about what you did with his truck last summer?”
- You’re afraid that all that wrenching and twisting to drag your deer through deadfalls might exacerbate the hernia that you don’t have yet.
- Your heart medication (which has been in your pack for five years, awaiting this moment) seems to have expired.
- You just realized that you have left your sharp knife home.
- You also forgot to bring your dragging rope.
- You’re wearing your brand-new tick-proof, Scent-Lok, Gore-Tex, leafy-wear, camo coveralls that cost $350.00 and your wife would be unhappy if you got blood on them.
- You’re addressing a vegan group tonight on the subject of building a green home on a budget, and they might be distracted if you had blood on your hands.
- With all the excitement, your sugar is low so you need to eat a candy bar or two and drink some Gatorade, so while you’re doing that, maybe someone would gut this bugger so the rest of us can start dragging him uphill about a mile to the truck.
- Your wife just had a baby, and the doctor said to avoid heavy lifting for the next couple months.
My father and uncles have been perfect examples of such mentors in this regard. As a recent example of my continuing education, last fall I whacked a spike horn with my bow and found it the following morning, which happened to be the opening morning of Rifle season in New Hampshire. My dad, who was pulling double duty that morning hunting and helping me search, hiked down the hill to lend a hand while I field dressed the young buck. When I finished, he eyeballed the hill from whence he came, then the buck, and then me. “Why don’t you drag that back to the truck by yourself? I’m tired and I think I’ll keep hunting now that I’ve hiked all the way down here.” He said. Well played, Dad.
Another fond memory of this type of mentorship comes to mind from when I was still blossoming into a young man. This time it was with my dad, my cousin Branden, and my uncle Dan, Dad’s brother. Dan was a teacher at the time, so he knew the importance of creating lifelong learners, which should be the goal of every teacher. We were hunting mule deer on public land in the great state of Wyoming – a state full of a variety of game animals and a couple of Easterners each looking for a mule deer to claim as their own. As luck would have it, my father and my uncle both shot fine bucks within thirty minutes of each other, magically transforming Branden and me into pack mules at the crack of their rifles.
“Boy’s, why don’t you load up those packs with meat and make a trek back to the truck. Paul and I will finish cleaning up these deer so we are ready for the second trip when you return,” my wise Uncle said. I knew he was wise because he told us that was the wisest thing to do. Branden and I looked at our new bodies with amazement. How two young lads could so quickly be transformed was truly astonishing, though both my dad and uncle seemed less surprised. As Branden and I crested the rim of the first Coulee on our two-mile trip back to the truck, I remember looking back at our fathers and noticing how they were resting comfortably on the hillside in the sunlight.
Both use the word “why” in their statements, but it is not meant as a question. It is what I would call a command softener. It’s a word that makes the person stating a command feel better about themselves. I do it all the time with my son. They were not really looking for an explanation, though Branden and I had plenty we could have provided. In fact, I remember we discussed many of them on the pack out back to the truck, but we felt the wisest thing to do under the circumstances was to keep them to ourselves upon our return. Plus, we didn’t want to give our fathers heart attacks at the shock of hearing two mules talking sass.
And then there is my Uncle Dave, an expert in this area of advice if there ever was one. In fact, he is the coauthor of the ten reasons listed above with my Uncle Dan, having emailed them to me to me last fall. I never had much opportunity to hunt with him – distance and difficulties of life events kept us separated for much of my life until recent years. However, there was one time I remember that he was in town enjoying the peace that God often provides when one is alone in the woods, and I was also out hunting a little way down the ridge from him. As luck would have it, a fine doe wandered by my stand that evening and I shot it.
He showed up at the recovery site giving every indication that he’d be unable to help with the drag – rambling on about outdated heart medication and brand new camo clothes, or something like that. Fortunately, another friend was hunting with us letting Dave off the hook, not that he was ever on it to begin with. About that time in my hunting career, my bad habit of puncturing the stomach when field dressing a deer was in full swing. It had started years before and continues at times to this day, but it had reached its peak around this time. I was just about to make my friend and Dave aware of my bad habit when my knife slipped and sliced the stomach open, spewing a fountain of stomach matter. My friend laughed, Dave laughed, and I spit out partially digested acorns. If you think acorns taste disgusting fresh off the tree, try them after they’ve been mixed with stomach acid for a while. Not good. Thankfully, Dave was off to the side when my knife slipped so his new camo clothes weren’t tainted. “That will give you something to write about one day,” he chuckled. I’d like to think that moment inspired #7, but I am sure he had many stories like that of his own.
When his email arrived in my inbox I remember smiling as I read through the list. He knew that I have always feared #8 could become a reality, as some of what I do at work has been known to involve talking to people of the vegan ilk. Why some people choose that form of masochism is beyond me, but as the title of my future New York Times bestseller reads, Vegans Are People Who Should Have Homes to Live in Too, I Guess, and work is work, whether it’s for vegans or normal people. Should some meeting be inconceivably scheduled with a potential client during deer season, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that blood stains could still be on my clothes or hands when I arrive at the meeting late. I need someone to mentor that’s old enough to use a dull knife to help alleviate some of my concerns.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the last hunting related communication I had with Dave. He passed away last week. For some reason, I hadn’t yet found the time to write an article around the ten reasons he sent, though I always had the intention of doing so because I never even filed it from my inbox. It’s been sitting there since the day he sent it. I suppose writing this now as a way of remembering him will have to suffice, especially since I’d never known him to jump at the opportunity for physical labor. He could have authored a sequel to this list titled, “10 Reasons You Should Allow Your Hunting Partners the Privilege of Hauling Your Gear to the Woods for You.”
Life has a way of taking unexpected twists and turns and Dave happened back into my life around eight years ago. There are things that happened in his life to him and by him that I still have a hard time reconciling in my mind to this day. At first, I remained guarded toward him because of it, but we slowly formed a relationship I could never have predicted we’d have. Ever. Talk of hunting and dealing with grief served as the foundation for it. He was tenderhearted toward those that were grieving, having spent much of his life dealing with it himself, and there was a period in my life where the reasons for my grief and his continual grief were similar. I’ll never forget some of the email conversations we had during that time.
Gradually, I began sending my articles to Dave to review before posting them. He was an editor and loved to hunt and fish, with a sense of humor like mine. It was a good set up for both of us as we barely knew each other when I began to dabble in the fine art of writing, and my hunting stories gave us something to talk about other than work and the possibility that I might need to interact positively with a vegan someday.
Each time I’d send him a story, I’d include a short sentence in the email that said something to the effect of, “Why don’t you let me know if this is dumb or not.” Command softeners are important when you are requesting someone’s assessment of your work because it encourages them to consider softening their response as well if your work is particularly bad. A good mentor will teach you that – Branden and mine’s foresight to withhold our thoughts towards our dads after the mule deer pack out is case and point.
Dave was good at not making me feel stupid and helped me become a better writer, though some of you reading this may dispute that claim. If I’d had the chance to send him this article, I’m sure he would have smiled at the spin I put on his list, only questioning why I felt the need to include comments about my unfavorable disposition toward vegans. Why? Because like his list of ten reasons, it’s important to keep things lighthearted sometimes, especially if you are planning to mentor someone to do all your work for you next time you shoot a deer. No mentor should have to deal with a couple of mules that have bad attitudes.
I’ll miss him.
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