I became a father just about a year ago, on May 9, 2010. Admittedly, a lot of that day is clouded in my memory. The sight of the anesthesiologist giving my wife Katie an epidural with a needle that was bigger than my brine injector caused me to come about as close to passing out as you can without actually doing it. While Katie was enduring contractions in the delivery room, I was out in the hall with my head on a nurse's lap wondering how a guy could field dress a couple hundred big-game animals and skin a couple thousand furbearers without developing a strong enough stomach to watch someone get a shot.
Thankfully, I'd regained my composure by the time our son James was born. I was flooded with emotions and thoughts when I first saw the miracle, but the one that I remember most clearly is the thought that he looked like a good hunter. Since I was actually seeing nothing but an 8-pound bundle of slimy skin and purplish hands, I have to admit that this was nothing but wishful-or rather, hopeful-thinking.
Since then, I've often asked myself why teaching him to hunt means so much to me. You might think it's a simple matter of wanting my boy to be like me. However, I suspect it's much more complicated than a simple matter of the old saying, "Like father, like son." There are many aspects of my being that I definitely don't want to pass along. While I make my living as an author, I'd prefer that he went into a more reliable line of work; and while I've been known to drink a little vodka on Saturday night and then regret it on Sunday, he'll be wise if he goes to bed early on Saturday and enjoys his Sunday.
Instead, I want to teach my son to hunt for the same reasons that my father taught me to hunt. He had served in World War II and had me when he was 50. He was short-tempered and demanding, and generally a difficult guy to be around. We didn't see eye-to-eye on much. But he was exceedingly generous with his time in the outdoors, and through hunting he taught us a blueprint for living that's as applicable today as it ever was. No matter what was going on in our lives, be it work or girlfriends or school, we set aside time in the early fall to begin scouting for deer. We walked in the woods together and traded observations about fresh sign and helped each other interpret it. We selected our stand positions with an eye toward cooperation rather than competition. When we went out to our blinds in the mornings or afternoons, we were as excited about what the other guys might see as we were about our own experiences. If it was rainy or freezing, we found in our camaraderie the strength that it required to stay put until dark. When one of us got a deer, everyone chipped in on tracking and dragging, even if it meant staying up so late that we had to miss the first the half of school in the morning. And when we got the deer home, we butchered the meat together, and shared many exciting wild-game dinners as a family.
Now that my dad's gone, my brothers and I still carry on this tradition even though we're spread out between Alaska, Montana and New York. And while we now pursue things that are a bit more on the wild side than Michigan whitetails-such as Alaska Dall sheep and Montana elk-we do so by using the hand-me-down skills that we picked up from our old man.
When James was born, a lot of my buddies asked how I felt about the prospect of missing out on hunting due to the baby. Even though Katie has so far assumed the primary role in taking care of him, there were, in all honesty, a few moments when I may have felt a little sorry for myself. For instance, last spring was the first time in I don't know how long that I missed out on both the spring bear and the spring turkey seasons. But even while I'm changing a diaper, or trying to feed him with a spoon while he tries to rub the spoon's contents into his hair, I find myself getting excited about the many things that he has to look forward to: the sound of wood ducks bombing down through a canopy of oak at sunset; the fear of hearing a sow grizzly woof at him from 20 yards away; the thrill of sitting downwind from a bedded muley while waiting for the buck to stand up and give him a shot; the satisfaction of procuring and preparing wild game for his family.
But even as great as those things will be-and they'll be really great-none of them is as important to me as those key elements that we can all learn from hunting: teamwork, patience, strength. Those are things that every father should pass along to his son, and then be proud that he did.