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Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, the day we celebrate our dads, the people who helped us grow into young men and women. For thousands of years, fathers have been the protectors and providers for their families, and they have traditionally been the source of life-saving wisdom and decision making. The lessons and skills they teach their children, especially their sons, are essential for living life properly.

Thank you to my dad, for teaching me to use a chainsaw and an axe from a young age. For giving me the childhood chore of splitting and stacking firewood all summer long, so that our family would have heat and comfort all winter long. Other chores included weeding the garden and shooting pests like chipmunks, squirrels, and groundhogs, all of whom could easily do tremendous damage to the garden in just minutes. And while these chores trained me in self-reliance, hard work, and planning ahead, it was the one thing that dad would not let me do that probably shaped me the most.

Although my dad comes from a hunting family, he himself did not and still to this day does not hunt. Oh, he appreciates wild game and will eat it over everything else, given a choice. But when I started taking my BB gun on deer hunts with neighbors at age eight, my dad always told me I had to get close to the animal to shoot it. As I grew into a young Indian or frontiersman out there in the wilds of southern Centre County, I was prohibited by dad from topping my rifles with scopes. Only open sights were allowed. He said using only open sights taught me woodcraft, requiring me to get close to the wild animals I wanted to harvest, before taking their lives.

“It is only fair,” he said. “You can’t just assassinate unsuspecting wild animals from hundreds of yards away. If you hunt, you must be a real hunter. You must get close and take the animal with skill, on its own terms, where it can see, hear and smell you. That is fair.”

And so last deer season, on a steep hillside deep within the Northcentral PA state forest complex, all of those lessons and preparation came together in one quick, fleeting second. I did the Elmer Fudd thing all alone, quietly sidehilling into the wind, trying to live up to Dad’s dictum. One cautious, slow step at a time. Eyes scanning ahead, downhill, and especially uphill. Ears on high alert for any sound other than the wind in the leaves. Big bucks that are bedded down high above where the puny humans might slip, stumble, and walk, are most likely to flee to higher ground when one of us Pleistocene guys shows up too close for comfort. Deer might hear or smell us coming a long way off, or they might see us at the last second because we are being quiet and playing the wind right, but they know that within a hundred yards or so, we can kill them. So they flee uphill, and in stumbling up against gravity and slippery things underfoot they give us shot opportunities we would not otherwise have.

And so when the strange <snap> sounded out ahead of me, just over the slight rise that led into the large bowl filled with mature timber and rock outcroppings, and an odd looking animal bolted down hill almost bouncing like a fisher, I quickly backpedaled.

Anticipating where the deer would emerge about 130 yards below me, I quickly and also carefully walked straight backwards to where a natural slight funnel in the ground provided a clear enough shooting lane down through the forest to a small stream bed. Anything passing between me and the stream would be broadside at moments, providing a clear shot through heart and lungs if I took careful aim.

And sure enough, the big doe filled one of those spaces so briefly that I don’t even recall seeing her. All I do recall is how the rifle butt fit carefully into the space between the backpack strap over my shoulder and the thick wool coat sleeve, and how the open sights briefly aligned with her chest. The thumb safety had been snicked off already without thinking, and the gun cracked. I fired the gun instinctively.

Quickly raising the binoculars to my face, the doe was clearly visible way down below me, lying fully outstretched on the forest floor just above the stream bank, like in mid-leap with her front hooves and rear hooves completely extended ahead and behind, except she was not moving. She was laying still, her neck fully stretched out on her front legs like she was taking a nap. I watched her tail twitch a few times and then knew she was dead.

Sliding on my butt down to her was more challenging than climbing up to where I had been still hunting her. Northcentral PA mountainsides are the most difficult terrain for humans, in my experience. It is topped with a layer of slippery leaves, then wet twigs and branches waiting underneath to act like oil-slicked icicles, ready to throw a boot way ahead of one’s body. If the wet leaves and branches don’t make you fall down, then the rotten talus rock waiting underneath the leaves and twigs will slide, causing you to either do an extra-wide wildly gesticulating split, or fall on your butt, or fall on your back.

So I scooted downhill to the doe, tobogganning on my butt on the slick forest floor, cradling the rifle against my chest, keeping my feet out ahead of me to brake against getting too much speed and hurtling out of control.

Arriving at her body, I marveled at how she resembled a mule. Her long horse face and her huge body were anything but deer-like. Her teeth were worn down, and she must have been at least five years old. The single fawn hanging around watching me indicated an older mother no longer able to bear twins or triplets. This old lady had done her job and had given us many new deer to hunt and watch over many deer years.

Normally, in such remote and rugged conditions I will quickly bone out the deer, removing all of the good meat and putting it in a large trash bag in my backpack, leaving the carcass ungutted and relatively intact for the forest scavengers. But this doe was so big that I just had to show her off to friends, and so after putting the 2G tag on her ear, I ran a pull rope around her neck and put a stick through her slit back legs, and began the long drag out.

This hunt has stayed with me almost every day since that day. I think about it all the time, because it was so rewarding in so many ways, and emblematic of being a good hunter. Not the least of which was the careful woodcraft that led up to the moment where the smart old doe was busted in her bed and then brought to hand with one careful shot as she loped away, far away. Just as easily I could have been a hunter clothed in bucksin, using a stick bow and arrow five thousand years ago.

Thanks, Dad, for all the good lessons, the chores, the hard work, the restrictions and requirements that made me the man I am today. Without your firmly guiding hand back then, I would not be the man I am today. And what kind of man am I? I am a fully developed hu-man; a competent hunter with the skill set only a dad can teach a son, even if it takes a lifetime.

[some will want to know: Rifle is a 1991 full-stock Ruger RSI Mannlicher in .308 Winchester with open sights. Bullets in the magazine were a motley assortment of Hornady, Winchester, and Federal 150-grain soft points, any one of which will kill a deer or a bear with one good shot. Binoculars are Leupold Pro Guide HD 8×32 on a Cabela’s cross-chest harness. Boots are Danner Canadians. Coat is a Filson buffalo check virgin wool cruiser. Pants are Filson wool. Backpack is a now discontinued LL Bean hunting pack, most closely resembling the current Ridge Runner pack. Knife is a custom SREK by John R. Johnson of Perry County]