Hunting > Adventure

My Dad’s Adventure

The story of a perspective-changing hunt for my father, one that echoed our earliest days in the woods together and lit a fire for our hunting future.

3/21/2010

Many better men have written about the bond that hunting can foster between a father and son. It's a bond that not only strengthens our passion for the sport, but carries it into the future.

My story began as I held an old Savage Model 110, flanked by my dad and my hunting buddy, Bill Miller, on a cold garage floor. I fumbled with the rifle—chambered in .243—for about an hour as my two hunting mentors determined how hefty a gun I could handle at the ripe age of 11. Not long after that, I was slipping on my first pair of camo coveralls and tossing on my orange "Elmer Fudd" hat to head out for Maryland's junior hunt.

More than a decade later I think back to my first hunting memories, and it was the time spent with my dad that I remember most. I remember sitting at our kitchen table as he helped me lace up my boots, and packed our lunches. Dad had usually prepared two ham sandwiches, a Coke and some peanut butter crackers for the day's hunt. He always had to double check that I had my lunch and the hunting necessities; I tended to be a bit forgetful. Once all our gear was packed, we'd step out into the cold November morning and wait for the hunting crew to assemble. I'd stand on our frosted stone walk, hands buried in the bottomless pockets of my coveralls, and watch my breath drift off into the icy air.

I still have my old coveralls, the pair with the dirt-worn knees, a barely visible camo pattern and a sweat stained collar attached to a broken, duct taped zipper. I scan past them every time I search through my closet, and I remember the mornings at home with my dad. Every stain or rip in that dusty, blood-stained suit carries a story, and every story carries a connection to a moment in time I don't want to lose.

The energy and excitement that accompanied our Saturday mornings was unmistakable; I think we both knew it was the beginning of a lifetime passion. But for me, there was no joy in hunting without the old man sitting next to me or just a radio call away.

My Partner
My dad, Harry O'Brien, has been hunting for the better part of 30 years, traipsing up and down the unforgiving mountains of western Maryland, trying to bust whatever happened to get chased across his tract of public land. There were never any trophies to be had, swank blinds to sit in, or fancy equipment to track down his game. There were only longjohns, work gloves, old boots and the hope that there would be some meat on the grill come nightfall.

But, for about a decade or so, hunting left Pops. Work, raising a family and the occasional football and baseball practices left no time for outdoor pursuits—until that day on the cold garage floor when his son took up the sport. Since then we have been all hunting. When the autumn cold rolls around, there's no other topic in our house. We've got DVDs galore, following some of hunting's greatest trophy trips that we had always drooled over. But with college expenses, family vacations and a downright busy schedule, my dad could never afford the big-game hunting trips of his dreams. We just kept hiking up those same mountains, hoping to luck into a buck worth taking home. 

Last August something changed. With both his sons grown and out of the house, a heavier wallet and that lingering hunger for life's adventures, my dad made a decision. For the first time in his 50-some years it was time to hunt outside our East Coast spot, and head on a big game adventure of his own.

A Trip of a Lifetime
I don't remember the exact phone call or the precise moment when my dad told me, but I do remember how I felt—it was excitement, pride and jealousy wrapped in one.

My dad was headed on a caribou hunt in the wilds of Quebec's James Bay Territory with Cargair Outfitters, some 300 miles from the nearest town.  It was a six-day hunt with at least four days of travel time, including a 30-hour drive followed by two hours on a single-engine Cessna 206 seaplane.

The SeaplaneMy dad would carry with him two caribou tags, and a bear tagjust in case they ran across a big boar.

Heading to Northern Quebec is the thrill of a lifetime for those who call themselves weekend warriors, and my pops was no different. The coming together of hundreds of thousands of migrating caribou herds of the Feuilles and George Rivers in the James Bay sector is known for being one of hunting's most memorable adventures. 

Friend and fellow hunter John Davidson had been asking my dad to go for years, hoping he would one day give in and take the trip. Too many factors had previously kept my father home, but now it was time to step out into what would be a new experience, a new world.

"This is the first time I'll have paid to hunt anything," he said, the night before he set out. "I wish you and Bill [Miller] were coming along. It won't be the same." 

In fact, it wouldn't be the same for either of us. Little 16' x 20' plywood shacks (pictured below) in the James Bay wilderness don't get good cell phone coverage.

The ShacksSo, I'd be stuck in hunting story limbo for about 11 days while my dad trekked around up North. Not to mention my dad and I haven't gone more than a few days without talking since I moved out of my parents' house, and now we'd have to go for over a week without any contact.

I helped my dad load up the last of his gear and said my goodbyes on a quiet September evening. I found myself checking his bag for ham sandwiches and crackers like he had done for me so many times. We both knew his time was different thoughneither of us said it.

Hunting Theatre
Ten days later I sat in my office relatively calm. I knew my dad was headed home that day. I also knew that when he reached cell range he'd call my mom, and then he'd call me.

It was after 1 p.m. when the phone rang, and almost immediately it was like hunting theatre.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "The adventure itself just came at you. I had to take it all in and hope that the amazing moments remained as real in my mind as when they were happening."

I knew the stories would go on for days, so I told my dad I'd be home that night to drink a celebratory beer and relive what seemed like a life-changing experience. When I got there we hugged, grabbed a beer and sat at the table with the smell of my mom's new favorite dish 'Bou Stew circling the kitchen like only her home cooking can do.

"The best part of the traveling was getting in the plane," my dad started out. "Once you got into the little float plane with the other hunters you started to feel it. It was an adventure. There I was in this little seat, next to a compartment crammed with baggage about to take off to a place I'd never imagined.

Then, there was the landing. You splashed down on this little lake right out a movie. We shuttled up to tiny shacks that we'd be staying in for the week; they were literally in the middle of nowhere. Two and a half hours by airplane to the closest civilization of any kind."

The first camp the hunting party flew to, Camp November, was devoid of Caribou. The migration was well east and had been all year. But that didn't mean there wasn't anything to do. For the next three days my dad fished, scouted around the territory and made the most of what the time he had.

"I caught a lake trout as long as my arm," he bragged. 

the group at campDad also made some new friends among the fellow hunters he'd been jammed into those plywood shacks with. There was Billy O'Leary (pictured with John [Davidson] and my Dad), a good ol' boy from Illinois, and Stefan, Harry and Freddy, all the way from Austria.

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