Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The First Time

Young hunters are required to take a safety course before they are able to obtain a hunting license here in Wisconsin.  I remember how nervous I was taking that class as a kid.  Not that the material was difficult -- I'd spent my formative years in the presence of hunters and woodsmen who shared their vast knowledge freely.  It was that there was so much riding on it.  If I failed to make the grade, I'd never be allowed  to carry a gun alongside those men, never be treated to the joy of following happily working dogs in the sun, or so I thought.  It was for all the marbles in my pre-teen mind.

The jitters of taking the course and the test were a mere foreshadowing of the first time I would carry a gun in the woods.  It was a squirrel hunt with Dad and Brian in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, and I was rattling like the last oak leaves clinging to the trees in the autumn wind.  I carried the same Savage .22 that I still use and love today, handed down to me from Dad on that bright morning like a rite of passage.

Still as alluring as she is dangerous

A moment like that, Dad giving you his gun, is a monumental mark on the timeline in the life of a boy.  Pride and gratitude fall around the place like confetti on New Year's Eve.  My dad was "a hugger," there was never any shortage of those, but I remember there being something deeper about the embrace we shared over that elegantly plain little rifle.  It was one of the first times I felt like a man.  I remember how startled I was to notice the wetness in his eyes, and how conflicting shame and happiness overtook me as mine grew dewy in response.  I wanted nothing more in that moment than to shoot straight and make him proud.  A lot of times, that's all I want these days.

We saw one running squirrel that day, in what was probably a short hunt for the adults but seemed like one of the great adventures of my life to me.  I grew up within driving distance of those woods.  I knew them fairly well.  But until that point I had been a bystander on the path, observing nature in action, being taught everything from bushcraft to glacial geomorphology by my elders.  I knew what a food web was, but that morning was the first time I was granted the chance to take an active role in one.  I was finally off the bench and in the deadly game that has been happening since some primordial predator first chased down its prey in the goo.

I will admit now that my predatory instincts got the best of me then, in a move that I would frown upon today.  My young urge to shoot something grew nearly unable to be contained as we walked the kettled oak forest, until I eventually spied a chipmunk stuffing his cheeks in the leaf litter on the forest floor.  He fell that day, for no reason, to my unbridled hormones and excitement.  While age and wisdom have overtaken the heady need to fire haphazardly at anything with fur or feathers, I don't look down my nose on former me.  It was a waste, yes, a moment youthful indiscretion, but the seed of distaste it left in me has since grown to guide me in shot selection and general conservation -- a fine legacy for a hapless chippy with a cheek full of acorns.

I remember also watercress, and how surprised I was that a plant so lush and verdant, plucked from one of the many gorgeous little springs that dot that patch of the country, could be so piquant and bitter.  My entire life experience with leafy greens to that point had been with iceberg lettuce from the grocery store and spinach from the garden.  That a delicate little thing such as watercress floating on a spring-fed pool could be so bold and peppery struck a strong chord with me, obviously, since I just wrote a paragraph devoted to it almost three decades later.

I've gathered a lot of squirrels and watercress since that first childhood hunt, almost exclusively using that same rifle (for the squirrels, the watercress is more easily convinced into the game pouch), none of which diminished my enthusiasm for taking my hunting buddy Frisbee and his daughter on their first pheasant hunt last Saturday.

Frisbee is an avid whitetail hunter, but he'd never chased pheasants before.  When he mentioned that his oldest daughter wanted to go pheasant hunting I was thrilled.  It took us a while to juggle schedules and make things work, but we finally got it on the calendar.

I'd warned Frisbee during the protracted planning phase, that if they weren't ready when I arrived I'd have to wake the entire family with the doorbell in order to meet the rest of our party on time.  I had little reason to worry.  Nearly as soon as I pulled in the driveway, Sierra came bouncing out the front door in the dark, ready to go.  When I asked her what made her want to try pheasant hunting as I pulled on my boots for the day, she replied matter-of-factly, "I just like hunting."  Well, alright.

We arrived at our appointed rendezvous with the rest of the hunting party to find a chilly still morning, and acres of pheasant cover under gray morning skies.  I stepped out of the truck to greet dogs and men, and stole a glance Sierra's way.  She looked to be furtively taking it all in, asking hushed questions of her dad and slowly warming up to the hyper dogs as we all milled about with a bit of an edge, waiting for the appointed hour.

The hunt itself happened just as you would hope when you have a kid along for the first time.  We had not walked a couple hundred yards into the tall grass when one of the dogs got hot.  It took me a few years of bird hunting to be able to tell when a flushing dog was getting birdy, and they are all a little different in their mannerisms, but Maddy was making it abundantly clear to all that she was on a pheasant.

We were soon greeted by the boisterous flash and cackle of a rooster clawing for altitude.  Murph dispatched the bird and we were officially under way.  That field brought two additional birds to our vests, both relatively close to Frisbee and Sierra, which is all that can be hoped for with a new, young hunter in the group.

I think the smiles say more than I ever could

We were granted a couple more flushes in the next hours, in the grass and drought-pummeled corn, but were unable to shoot because of buildings and boundaries.  While I would've been thrilled to have more shots on birds, as I thought about it later, I was glad that Sierra had been there to see some hunter's restraint.  I can only hope that she saw in us the ability to discern safe and responsible shooting on the run, and that she had as much fun as possible.  I have a niggling suspicion that she may have also added a few choice phrases to her vocabulary, as Murph lacks any ability whatsoever to censor himself in front of children, cops or anyone else.

Frisbee and Sierra had to leave after that.  They had things to do back in the world, and I think her little legs had had enough tromping through the cover for one day.  We gave them our pheasants as we parted company and continued hunting minus the newest members of our crew, with hopes that they'd enjoyed themselves and that they might join us again after gun deer season in the cold hard fields of December, where the birds are tougher to hunt, but somehow even more beautiful in being so.

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