Once common, families that hunt together are becoming more rare.
Much is said these days about the management of deer and elk in my home state. Comparisons of management strategies and trends in other states abound. What I see is a dramatic difference from my earliest hunting seasons and today. Populations were much lower and wolves had just arrived to the 9 Mile area. Success was something bragged about for a long time because it might be another couple of seasons before you could do it again.
There was an excitement leading up to hunting season that only Christmas morning could rival. If I happened to be in school the day before the opener, it was treated like a holiday with no real work happening and marathon games of chess with other students. Everyone else was already in the woods. We also purchased a deer and an elk tag, one because we would pursue it, the other if one happened across our path. Finding deer required effort; elk required divine favor. I can recall my first close encounter with clarity: the place where they were, the direction of their travel, the stink they left behind, and their impressive size. It was sometime before we had one of our own, but often friends shared from their own harvests. Today, I am blessed to hunt elk in multiple states each and fill freezers each fall. I remember what it was like to not have elk meat, but it's a memory I work hard to keep in my distant past.
We never brought our deer to a processor. Instead, it was hoisted from a rafter in the shop and cut by ourselves. The weather always seemed to be the coldest part of winter with a biting wind. It was never comfortable and my bare hands slowed, making the chore longer than it really ought to be. I either killed much bigger deer back then, or I have learned to be quicker with my knife. Either way, what took us all day now takes me just a couple of hours. My knives are kept sharp (a key to safe and efficiency cutting), my kitchen setup for deboning and packaging. It was then and still is a family affair: everyone with a job and none of us done until all if it is.
Family is still the largest component to continuing our hunting heritage. Most of us learn from the previous generation. Hunting trips are as much a family reunion as they are a nature adventure. Within the family is trust and shared values that reinforce themselves when the need for help or instruction arises in camp. This is something those of us who grow up in the hunting culture take for granted and don’t know that we have learned much of our hunting knowledge through osmosis. However, the adult onset hunter looking to dip their wool covered toe into the deep pool of hunting feels this acutely. A lifetime of mentorship isn’t available to them and everything is a hurdle. This is probably why I enjoy helping them. I want to share with them what has shaped virtually all of who I am.
Naturally these traditions morph over the years. My early days were spent cold, in the backseat of the truck, doing without something because I had forgotten it again. My dad would count out the dollars from his wallet and I would sign the waxy paper of my license. I knew we were an hour from home, somewhere in the mountains, but that was the extent of my geographical understanding. Today, my gear is always ready and I have a checklist that keeps me organized. I now buy my dad his licenses, sometime around father’s day (and they are much more than the $8 my deer used to cost). We hunt in areas that I have found and scouted and our occasional success has turned into plenty.
I am still purposeful in getting to hunt with my parents. As happens to us all, walks are shorter and the cold cuts deeper. But we manage to find a way and share in each other’s success. Areas with very liberal whitetail doe harvest provide an easier entry to hunting than the elk hikes miles from a trailhead. Hunting continues to provide meals and memories for us and I hope it always does.