McKean Minute: Gifts for Your Mentor

This is weeks too late—or months too early—to be any real good, but I’m going to give you some holiday advice, anyway.

I’m going to tell you what to gift your mentor, that person who taught you to shoot a gun, read a deer track, and watch the wind. If the world was right, and I had a better sense of time, I would have written this back in November, just before Black Friday and the retail mayhem that lights the fuse of American gift-giving.

But I’ve never been very good with time. Neither have I been very good at gift-giving. But I’m really good at lighting fuses…

The best thing about this particular gift list is that it’s timeless, just as the knowledge and confidence that your mentor poured into you is timeless. So, if you don’t use it in what’s left of this year, you always have next holiday season. But it’s just as valid for Valentine’s Day, or a birthday, or September 1, which is the unrecognized national holiday for hunters as the gateway to fall.

Before I divulge the gifts every mentor wants, I want to commiserate. Just like the other avid hunters in your life, your mentor already has everything he or she wants or needs. Right? You observed that as she was gifting you surplus backpacks, or he was giving you your first rifle. But this roster is designed to both surprise and delight, and to fill those little needs that your mentor probably has, but would never divulge.

So, with all those caveats and qualifications, please, give away. If not this giving season, then all the ones that follow.

Powderhook App – FREE

This most necessary gift is not only evergreen, but it’s free. It’s an invitation to join the Powderhook app, and connect with other apprentices, other mentors, and a whole community of folks who think—and even more importantly, act—like your own mentor.

onX Digital Map Subscription – $119 annually

Next to Powderhook, what better gift can you give a hunter than the gift of bearing. An annual premium subscription to onX provides state-specific maps that detail public-land boundaries, private landowner names, and overlays like hunt-unit boundaries, CWD areas, and even the dates of forest fires, so you can target elk and deer in succulent green-up areas. Make sure you buy a subscription to the correct state!


Ka-Bar’s Dozier Folding Hunter Knife – $29

This is the do-everything, hard-wearing, multi-purpose knife for any task. It’s also a raging bargain, and if your mentor taught you anything, it’s how to shop for a bargain. You can get this blade with black, or red, or orange handle scales. You can get the clip point or the drop point. But whatever variation you choose, you know this is an honest blade. That’s more than you can say for most of your friends.


How To Hunt Everything hardcover book – $24

I’m obviously biased here, since I wrote most of this book, but it’s a handsome compendium of nearly every huntable species on earth, including a few your mentor probably hasn’t pursued. Whether he or she dreams of hunting Africa, packing in to a Canadian big-game camp, or pursuing a grand slam of grouse, there’s tons of information here along with some magnificent photography.

Leather Cartridge Pouch – $30

Maybe your mentor warned you against stuffing your pockets with loose rifle shells. They can clink and rattle when you move, creating more noise than you want. You can show him or her that you got the lesson by gifting them this beautiful pouch that holds 5 rounds of their favorite centerfire cartridge. A slot in the back fits belts up to 2 inches wide so that that extra round is always at their fingertips.

Whiskey Glass Set – $19.69

I don’t know if it’s true that whiskey tastes better in a fine glass, but it certainly doesn’t taste any worse. This 6-pack of non-leaded crystal stemless glasses will look good behind a bar or on the tailgate of your pickup at the end of a long day of hunting. Hopefully, you’ll be right there with your mentor when they raise a glass to toast the thoughtful gift.

Otterbox Elevation Tumbler Mug – $25

The other end of the drinking day, and utility, this mug is a simple reminder of the early mornings and road trips you probably shared with your mentor. There are no shortages of insulated tumblers on the market, but this one gets our nod for its elegant design, excellent lid, and finger-grabbing handle. It comes in stainless steel, but we like the powder-coated colors for extra distinction. Like your mentor.

Conservation Group Membership – $35-50

This is one that’s hard to find on Amazon, but it will put more ducks on the marsh, more deer in the woods, more elk on the mountain, plus more acres to hunt well into the future. It’s a membership in your mentor’s favorite conservation organization. Sign them up for a year—most basic memberships run less than $50 per year, and include a regular magazine. Your gift, in their name, shows your mentor that you get the big picture of conservation, and our collective responsibility to pull on the oars.

Lifetime Hunting Licenses – $various

What better forward-looking gift can you give than many years of hunting and fishing. Many states offer these lifetime hunting licenses. Get one for your mentor. You won’t have to say—or give—another thing as long as you know each other.

Camp Chef PRO90X Three-Burner Camp Stove – $320

Whether it’s for making camp coffee at the trailhead, crawfish boil for the buddies, or grilling burgers for the family on the back deck, this heavy-duty propane stove will produce the BTUs. There’s nothing fancy about it, just three durable burners on a stand that will hold your biggest pots. A cast-iron griddle works great for burgers, bacon, or backstrap. And it’s a reminder to your mentor that creature comforts come in all sizes and types. Maybe it also gets you invited on his or her next deer hunt.

McKean Minute: Past, Imperfect

I literally drip with nostalgia. When I recall a particularly poignant moment, or approach a tender memory, my eyes well up and my nose runs. I’m a sucker for tradition, heritage, and cemeteries. Maybe that’s why I majored in history in college. I love learning about where we’ve come from. And I often speak in the past tense.

For the record, I’m not proud of this. My kids laugh behind their hands when I tear up, and my wavering voice has caused me to pause many a private conversation and public presentation while I regain my composure. That’s not to say that I spend my life looking in the rear-view. I am optimistic, hopeful for the future, and cannot wait to rise every day to greet what’s coming.

But neither am I embarrassed by my wistfulness.

Memorializing our ancestors is one of the qualities that elevates humans from hominids. Wild animals may use their memories as a tool to help them avoid being eaten tomorrow, but biologists call that instinct, not nostalgia.

My personal past snapped into hard focus this week during a trip back to the rolling hills and hardwood draws of northern Missouri where I grew up. I was back to see for myself if reports of the return of wild bobwhite quail to the area are true, but I also reconnected with classmates, their families, old childhood haunts, and the fields and brambles who made me who I am.

Walking the field edges where I shot my first wild quail as a kid, visiting the cemetery where my father is buried, and driving the back roads where I learned everything from grain-truck airbrakes to country girls immersed me in memories. When I drove past the farmhouse of my youth, now owned by an out-of-stater who locks his gates, I had a physical reaction to the accumulated years I spent there, and the weight of the years since I left. I sputtered and misted up. And drove on by.

Maybe that’s the point. It’s important for us to revisit our past, to spend physical time in the places and with the people who forged us, because faded memories require periodic polishing. But it’s unhealthy to remain there, always looking backward, whether with fondness or regret.

The future is equal parts exciting and terrifying precisely because it’s unscripted. Will you do things you regret in the coming days and years? Sure. But it’s when you can look back on them as memories, however imperfect, that experience crystalizes into legend. Legends that you’ll pass forward long after your own memory sputters and dims.

McKean Minute: Outdoor Classroom

Thanks to my dad, I am a wind Nazi. I can tell you from the warm comfort of my bed, by looking at the tippy-top limbs of the ash tree out the window, which way and how fast the wind is blowing. When I’m hunting, and I feel the wind shift to my back, so that it lifts those gossamer neck hairs, I know my approach is doomed.

I’ll walk 10 miles out of my way to get the wind right on the approach on an elk. And I’ll wait days for the right wind to stalk into the badland catacombs where the oldest, smartest mule deer think they can hide.

My father was a shoe-leather hunter. He never climbed a stand in his life, but he managed to kill some doozie Missouri whitetails. He watched the wind, moved surely and silently, and he taught me the same lessons, though he never uttered a word of instruction.

It’s how we learn, and probably how human hunters have learned since we wielded clubs instead of Creedmoors. We watch, we notice, we absorb, and we repeat. It’s become fashionable for folks trying to pass on knowledge of our natural world to host “outdoor classrooms” for wide-eyed and squirmy students. But the best learning is done in the quiet, by seeing a veteran move, act, and react.

I was reminded of the silent scholarship the other day as I watched my daughter, 15 going on 50, stalking a bedded mule deer. I knew we would be inside his alarm perimeter by the time we popped over the prairie ridge, so I sent Iris by herself. She had a good idea where the buck was bedded, and as I waited below the ridge, out of sight of the buck, I marveled at all the skills that Iris deployed, skills that I may have demonstrated at some time in our hunts together.

She unslung her rifle, so that the barrel wouldn’t stick above the horizon and betray her approach. She deployed the spring-loaded bipod with ginger care, so its legs wouldn’t snap. And, just before she dropped to her stomach for the final approach, she tucked her binocular inside her vest, so it wouldn’t drag in the snow and dirt. She belly-crawled to the lip, using a clump of sagebrush for cover. She got behind her rifle, and she waited, slowing her breathing to a steady cadence.

I was anxious, just as I always am in the final moments of a stalk. But my daughter’s calm, sure approach soothed my jangled nerves. She had this. She must have seen me pull off just such a belly-crawling, ridge-topping stalk a half dozen times. She never hunted with her grandfather, but he’d have done exactly what she did. I never hunted with my grandfather, but I can almost picture him, in Levi’s, hobnailed boots, and a lever gun, making just such a stalk on a South Dakota buck.

The shot surprised me, but the result didn’t. The chick of the bolt working, a second shot, and then my girl looking back down the hill at me, utterly surprised and flushed with the experience and the relief.

“He’s down, Dad.”

Of course he is, kid. Of course he is.