Another title for this piece might be “Assessing Apprentices,” but either way, the idea is that every good mentor has more business than he or she can handle. If you are serious about and good at mentoring (whether it’s hunting or weaving or photography), then you will have more apprentices than you can adequately teach.
We’ve previously described mentoring as a handmade relationship, and the more people you cram into the experience, the more diluted and unsustainable the outcome.
I measure the arrival of spring by a couple of metrics: the first purple crocuses that pop overnight out of south-facing slopes around my prairie home, wheeling waves of northbound sandhill cranes, the rising trend of wild-turkey kill photos on my Instagram feed. And the arrival of my neighborhood snipe.
If you’re not familiar with this small bird, it’s a worm-grubbing, marsh-loving shorebird that is an overlooked wingshooting trophy. It’s migratory, leaving northern wetlands as they ice up and wintering in coastal wetlands.
But snipe return to northern wetlands every spring to breed and brood, and I know spring has arrived when I hear the first whistles of a male snipe outside my bedroom window, which looks out on a cattail slough. The male birds perform a relentless courtship ritual, flying high in the sky and then plummeting downward, the air rushing across their feathers creating a high-pitched rhythm that sounds like the distant pulsing of a two-cycle engine. The sound is called “winnowing,” and the snipe in my neighborhood—I’d like to think it’s the same male who returns year after year, but it’s entirely possible that it’s a different bird—is nothing if not dedicated to finding a mate. He will winnow for hours a day, weeks on end.
To me, that’s the sound of spring.
I mention this because each of us has some barometer of the season. Maybe it’s the honk of mating geese, or a particular flower that blooms early and proud. Maybe it’s the arrival of a red-winged blackbird or the shedding of your dog’s coat.
These are cycles that transcend our own short lives, and I mention them now because as we think about our obligation to mentor our neighbors in the arts and sciences of hunting, we need to enlarge the scope of our work to include all the other signs of the outdoors. Our ancestors understood this, and in generations long before hunting licenses or centerfire rifles, they defined a hunter as someone who learned all they could about the wider wild world, well beyond the animals they could hunt and eat.
The Bible names an early version of this outdoorsman: Nimrod. He is variously described as being “mighty to the Lord and mighty to the earth.” I bet he’d enjoy hearing snipe as much as I do.
I want to tie this to another historical reference: one of the earliest books that tried to describe this well-rounded earth steward: Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler,” one of the first fishing books that described the natural cycle of insects that trout eat, and which savvy fishers might imitate to catch more fish. We honor Walton’s stewardship with an ecologically minded organization called the Izaak Walton League.
But you don’t need to join any group to appreciate these natural rhythms. Just get outdoors, open your ears and your eyes. And take someone along to share all the signs of the season.
A good friend of mine in New York City – I’ll omit his name but he’s as much a Brooklyn hipster as you picture – just finished taking Hunter Education, and he’s frankly disappointed.
“I’m one of those adult-onset hunters you are writing about all the time,” he told me. “I didn’t grow up hunting, but it’s something that’s been pulling at me, mainly because I really want to take more control of the food my family eats. But I’m interested because I know more and more hunters, and I really want to develop the skills and comfort in the outdoors that they have.”
Fair enough. Those are entirely valid – and increasingly common – motivations to join the ranks of safe and certified American hunters.
But the mandatory Hunter Education course that my friend took left him wanting. A lot.
“I get the idea that the instructors are volunteers,” he said. “I think that’s great. It really shows that they have the commitment to give back and help bring up another generation of hunters. Except that didn’t really happen in my class. The instructors really weren’t very good teachers. They lectured more than they showed. I didn’t learn much about how to be a safe and effective hunter. Instead, I learned about how messed up New York’s gun laws are – according to these volunteers. I learned that it’s really tough to find places to hunt around here, but I didn’t get any advice on finding places. And I learned that if I make even a tiny mistake while hunting then I could get a ticket. Honestly, that was my take-away from the class. I left more discouraged than encouraged.
“I still don’t really feel comfortable with guns, and I didn’t get the confidence that I could go out in the woods and be effective, let alone safe.”
I’m willing to bet that my friend’s experience is aberrant, that most Hunter Education courses in America are living up to their names, and to students’ expectations that the 12 or 20 hours they spend in the classroom and in field days will prepare them to take the first tiny (and safe) steps into the woods and fields in pursuit of game.
But achieving that expectation is really up to the rest of us. If you’re a volunteer Hunter Education instructor, thank you. But be sure that you’re teaching effectively, and not using the class as a platform for your personal views. If you’re not an instructor, but want to pass on our tradition of citizen-driven wildlife management in American (plus, you love to hunt and love teaching), then consider joining the ranks of us Hunter Educators. And state agencies – please assess the ranks of volunteer instructors, offer frequent in-service training to these amateur educators, but also respond to concerns about instructors who aren’t delivering the best education they can to ensure we have a precious renewable resource in knowledgeable, effective, and safe hunters.
Every year about this time, I help host an outdoor-skills field day for the kids in my town. Youngsters rotate between stations where they cast a hookless fishing plug at a hula hoop on the ground or shoot BB guns at silhouettes of prairie dogs or shoot light-drawing bows at 3-D targets. We let the older kids shoot clay targets with donated shotguns.
You’ve probably attended these events yourself, or helped host one as a member of a conservation organization or local rod-and-gun club. If you have, you know they’re draining, but they pay back the work and tedium of planning with wide grins, whoops, and laughter of the participants. We generally culminate our field day by burning some hot dogs and raffling off a tableful of gear, including a gun or two.
We part with the full feeling that we’ve helped pass on our love of shooting and the outdoors to the next generation. But we’re full on empty calories. One of the revelations of the last decade has been that the kids who attend these events, or who participate in youth hunts, are the kids that would have become hunters or anglers anyway, because of their parents’ passion for the activities. What we’ve missed, in these field days and in our collective marketing of outdoor recreation, is the kid whose parents don’t hunt or fish. But those kids are the least likely to participate in a field day.
The other realization is that when we give away opportunity, or gear, we short-circuit an important link to “owning” – both literally and figuratively – the gear or the moment. When we hand a kid a gun that was paid for and chosen by someone else, we take away years of anticipation that adds value and appreciation and makes a gun much more than a tool. When we give an elementary student a can’t-miss hunt, we deprive them of the richness, won through time and effort, that gives a successful hunt much of its meaning.
Does this mean we should stop opening gates for beginning outdoorsfolks? Hell, no! But it means that if we want to build a lasting relationship between a beginner and a lifetime of experience, we shouldn’t mistake charity for accomplishment. Instead of giving things and instant achievements, let’s give opportunity, a pathway that leads to even greater things and achievements.
When it comes to mentoring, the classic aphorism fits: Give a man (or boy, or girl) a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they eat – and buy fishing licenses, and teach their own children to fish – for a lifetime. Let’s teach our kids to fish.
I love planting potatoes, but only partly because of the promise of creamy, tummy-filling carbohydrates later in the year.
To me, planting spuds is a metaphor for life, and death, but in reverse. You first prepare a grave. In my case this spring, it’s a new spot, between the ashes and rusted roofing nails of an old homestead barn that burned down a decade ago. You dig deep enough to give tubers room to descend and fruit. Then you bury parts of a body, in my case the swelling eyes of seed potatoes that were given to me by a neighbor. They’re heirloom Duke of York varieties, pink as a May strawberry and only slightly larger than a spark plug.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to return to the theme of last week’s McKean Minute, this ground-breaking podcast in which I collaborated with Dylan Ray to bring hunter education to the audio masses.
The idea for the podcast, which is called Hunting 101 and can be found here (https://soundcloud.com/hunting101) is devoted to the foundational principles of various aspects of hunting. Dylan has podcasts devoted to hunting in general but will have episodes on turkey hunting, deer hunting, small-game hunting, and more as the year ticks by.
My collaboration was even more foundational – Dylan and I riffed, for six whole episodes, on the ideas behind our hunter education courses, required by every state in order to certify a hunter as ready to buy a license and take a gun or bow into the field.
Spring is Hunter Education season in most states and communities across the country. It’s the time that volunteer instructors set up impromptu classes in church basements, school libraries, and municipal buildings and help certify a new generation of licensed hunters.
Nationwide, something like 600,000 new hunters are minted every year, but tens of thousands more don’t take mandatory Hunter Ed classes because they’re too busy, or they’re intimidated by the topic, or they simply don’t understand what hunter education (or even hunting) is all about.
We’ve all been there. You show a buddy a picture of your
latest buck. His first question: “What’d he score?” The quantity of antler and
horn has become established shorthand for the relative value of the animals
that carry headgear.
Even those hunters who understand that there’s more to a
hunt than a Boone and Crockett or Pope & Young score routinely assess the
dimensions of an animal with a number. There’s a reason: it’s a yardstick that
we all know and recognize, even if we don’t always recall how a trophy’s score
is calculated. We like numbers. We like rankings. In that way, a buck’s B&C
score is like a thermometer. It’s one thing to say to your buddy, “It’s nice
out. Sunny and warm and seems like a great day.” It’s another to say, “It’s 72
Last week in this space I told you about our Hi-Line Sportsmen group and the third annual fundraising party we threw last month. A couple hundred of our neighbors packed into the St. Raphael’s Catholic Church gym here in Glasgow to eat prime rib and bid on guns, donated art, and sporting goods.
By the time we paid for the firearms (purchased at our local gun shop), the bartenders, and the kids who helped serve food and clean tables, we were left with a pretty good balance of cash. That’s the idea. Hi-Line Sportsmen exists to put the funds we raise back on the ground in our community to help with everything from processing venison donated to our local food bank to funding boat docks at fishing access sites in our county.
We had a party last Saturday night here in my hometown of Glasgow, Mont. A couple hundred folks showed up at the Catholic Church gym. We ate tasty prime rib roasted by members of the Knights of Columbus. We drank beer, including a smooth amber ale from our local brewery, the Busted Knuckle. Glasgow High School students and their parents served food and cleaned tables to help fund this spring’s trip to Washington, D.C.
This wasn’t just a small-town social event, though. We were gathered with a purpose. It was the third annual fundraising banquet for the Hi-Line Sportsmen, and on a night when the west wind howled, blowing around a foot of drifty snow and sending temps well below zero, inside the warm church, we raised a trove of money by auctioning or raffling guns, homemade knives, donated hardware, and even leftover prime rib.