Thursday, December 1, 2011

Maturing in the Rain

We all go through stages as hunters and fishers.  When we begin, there is nothing we will not endure in pursuit of our quarry.  Drowsy, interminable overnight drives and are fought through with caffeine and terrible singing.  Fierce blizzards glance off our backs like that of a duck in the rain.  Lumpy sleeper sofas mean little to young backs and necks.  Horrific food does nothing to dampen our zeal.  Raging, noggin-splitting hangovers are braved with grim silence and subtle regret.  Tents destroyed in gale force winds, boot-robbing muck, mosquitoes and ticks and chiggers, burns and blisters...

As a younger man, I've experienced all that in one weekend.  Or seemingly so.  Now we often go get a room of questionable cleanliness and adherence to building codes, and sleep in relative comfort.  A lot of motel shortcomings disdained by more discerning travelers are easily overlooked in the presence of wet socks and a flask of good bourbon. 

The unquenchable urge to land the fish or harvest the buck will be deterred by almost nothing to 20 year old males with a full tank of gas, a tent, and some good tunes.  The only need that could overpower it for me was a biological imperative -- that of the warm embrace of a 20 year old female.

A decade and a half later, some things have begun to change.  For one thing, I'm no longer a young buck, constantly in the rut.  I can go for almost an entire weekend before the urge to buy a drink for a knot hole in a pine tree takes hold.  A little walking around money also helps.  No longer am I left with no other option than to slither into a soggy sleeping bag, only to emerge a few hours later and spend the night huddled over a puny, hissing little campfire.  Quality, modern gear comes in here.  I started with the old-school leather and canvas hand-me-downs from my dad's days of gallivanting about the countryside -- stuff that would inevitably gain a ton weight in the rain, fail to work in the snow, and basically needed to be taken out back, and shot.  Thank God and Robert W. Gore for the relative ease and comfort of current gear.

I still love hunting and fishing (barring lighting) in the nasty stuff.  As a public land hunter in a populated area, the worst days concerning weather are often the best days to get out there alone.  When it's blowing in sideways the chances of meeting another dedicated moron out there are greatly reduced.

There's also a great sense of adventure to it.  I would be hard pressed to ever encounter true wilderness adventure where I live.  Sure, I've been turned around on occasion, walked a mile out of my way, wondered how my compass was wrong and where the hell the truck was; but there are almost always roads and railroad tracks around here that alert the wayward traveler to his missteps before anything gets really hairy.  A snappy jab of Mother Nature to the nose can instantly amp up what I've come to call the Jack London factor.

I absolutely loved Jack London as a kid.  His stories of man vs. nature in Alaska held me rapt for hours.  To Build a Fire is still my singular favorite short story.  It's sitting in a compendium on my bedside table right now.  So when the mercury plummets, or the rain pelts, or the blowing snow claws at my face, it's easy to imagine myself as one of London's heroes, fighting for survival in the wilds, clinging to life on the ragged edge... even though the truck is a half hour snowshoe through the woods and I have a cell phone in my pocket with full reception.

Most of us out here also enjoy being judged a little tough by the general public, I believe.  Donning layers of fleece and wool can be like putting on your armor.  Strapping up to go pheasant hunting while the coiffed and blow-dried little weatherman harps and whines about the harrowing dangers of a quick trip to the store can feel downright manly.  Being judged a little looney never hurt anybody either.  Not gun-toting militia survivalist looney.  More like, It's -20 and you're gonna go sit on the ice and stare down a hole? looney.  Hell yes I am, and I know anybody I encounter out there will be of like mind and spirit.  Or going through a divorce.  Either one will be happy to see me.

All of that being said, there is a beautiful thing that can happen when you mature a little bit, and decide to stay in camp on a dark and crappy day.  Now that I'm not all Run & Gun all the time, I've been able to experience a few times myself.

We have an annual boys party in winter up at camp called Drink Beer Burn Wood.  It was formerly called the winter wood splitting party in an attempt to justify to wives and girlfriends that attendance was mandatory.  Wood was split in those days, but we now have more than enough and our little ruse is up.  Attendance is till mandatory, but we call it what it is.

Saturday of DBBW 2011, last February, I found myself getting nearly skunked through the ice.  While the older guys remained in one of the camps, I'd headed out into the bitter cold and blowing snow to try for some pike and perch.  A few perch made their way to the topside of the ice, but it was by no means a banner day.  As I was hunkering down for what promised to be nothing short of a mediocre afternoon in the cold, I spotted Rodger, snowshoeing across the lake with something in his hands.  It turned out he'd brought me a strong beverage with which I could brace my spirit against the wind.

In years past, I would have remained out there till the bitter end of the day, hoping against hope that the fish would turn on.  But alas, fair reader, I grow older and wiser.  We quickly retired to his cabin where a fire was built and more bracing drinks were poured.  We sat and talked, simple as that.  One of those long rambling conversations between men with a history, covering everything and nothing, full of pregnant pauses; and frankly, comfortable as hell.  We soon returned to the other cabin with the rest of the party in full swing, but I never would have had that time with Rodg had I remained out there banging my head against the ice.

Not a week ago Saturday, nearing the end of gun deer season, wind blew and rain fell and the woods were a sloppy, wet mess.  Frisbee, Cleeb, and I were on a mission to get out stands out of the woods before heading back to civilization and reality the following morning.  It was wet and cold work, and I was soaked through and through, as if I'd taken a shower with my clothes on.  But we made the best of it, joking and knocking tree branches to shower each other with cold spray.

We got back to the camp in time to shower up, join the Rog and Ted in front of the fire, college football on the radio.  Again, it was seemingly nothing special.  In a small camp darkened by the overcast skies, sitting in front of the fire, we chatted and ribbed each other, sipped our drinks, and listened to the Badgers defeat Penn State.  It was just about as perfect as it could have been.  Had I chosen to extend my work-abbreviated deer season by hunting that day, I would have missed what turned out to be one of my favorite parts.

Call it getting old and soft or call it getting wiser.  Sometimes you have a better time staying inside with the guys.  Toss a few cards, tell a few jokes, make a fine dinner.  It takes a few years to realize, but those can be the best days of all.

We may be getting older, but I still have plenty of monsoon days in me.

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