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A long view on the value of mentoring

My dad was as stoic as a cornerpost. He could certainly be animated, but when it came to hunting and guns, he was serious, severe, and solitudinous.

Because he was my mentor, the person who introduced and personified hunting to me, I grew up thinking that’s what hunting was: lonely, serious, and grim. When it came time to introduce hunting to my own kids, I approached it in much the same way, scolding my twin boys to quiet their loud footfalls and to quit having so much giggly fun.

I’m a little more easy-going now, but it’s natural to teach others in the same manner that you were taught, whether the topic is cooking a breakfast or driving a car or hunting a deer. But in my case, I think the learning environment that I grew up in – in which hunting was something that happened alone, and with the weight of expectation and judgement heavy on every outing — kept me from thinking about how I might make it a more social, participatory activity. And that mindset kept me from what I think is the natural progression as a hunter – to teach other hunters.

I’m hardly alone. The solo, serious hunter is an American architype, personified by Daniel Boone’s wilderness treks to the cold-camping fur trapper of the American West to the backcountry bad-ass depicted across so much social media these days. Their feats may be heroic and impressive, but they’re hardly welcoming.

I spent a good deal of this week thinking about that dichotomy – the hunters’ personal journey vs. the group activity – as I hunted pronghorns near my home. I hunted alone, the way I had for most of my decades as a hunter. I like my own company, and I cherished the solitude, away from phones or kids, just as I welcomed making my own choices without counseling my companions. But after a couple days, my hunting felt a little empty. What was missing was someone to share the experience with, the teamwork and collaboration that goes into planning a stalk or judging an animal or celebrating the kill when the plan comes together.

This is what mentoring is, simply sharing the experience. You don’t have to have a curriculum or even a game plan. Just welcoming someone on a hunt – whether it’s yours or theirs – creates the medium for mentoring, which is as easy and natural as sharing ideas or gear or a special place with someone else.

The surprising thing is that the teacher is likely to learn at least as much as the student. As for my own father, I’m learning more about him all the time, even though he’s been dead for 9 years. The stoic man I thought only wanted to stalk alone introduced hunting to many of my neighbors, years after I was out of the house. One childhood friend told me a few years ago about how my father had taught his kids how to shoot, and then invited them to our farm to hunt. My father showed them where to sit for afternoon deer and how to rest a rifle on the cornerpost in order to make an anchoring shot. My friend said what he remembers most about that outing was the shadow of my dad in the afternoon sun, straight and tall and wearing a cowboy hat.

Mentoring: On Sharing Gear

I own a staggering amount of gear that I don’t use. I have lost count of the number of hiking boots and backpacks in my possession, and while I love to collect knives, the number of unused blades in my collection argues against ever acquiring another.

My wife would define me as a hoarder, but it’s more—and less—than that. I have too much gear because one of the traits that defines me as a hunter is the “you-never-know” syndrome. I got a new rain jacket because you never know when I might need a packable set. I got a Gore-Tex jacket because you never know when I’ll need my outerwear to breathe.

Then there’s the sheer variety of gear that an all-season hunter requires. I need one pair of boots for early season archery and another for cold-weather bird hunting. I try not to abuse this line to my wife, but I can justify almost all the gear in my closet by passing it through the you-never-know filter.

Over the years, I’ve done a decent job of passing my gear on to those who have needed it more than I. I’ve outfitted my kids in camo, guns, and optics, and I’ve given a fair amount of my gear to my kids’ friends and my own friends. But I have a lot more to give away, and I’m guessing that many of you are in the same surplus-gear situation.

You are reading this because you have more than a passing interest in becoming a mentor to a new hunter. You are ready to share your knowledge and experiences. I encourage you to extend your charity to your gear.

The duty-specific gear that hunters use may seem basic to many of us. But to a beginning hunter, gear requirements can be intimidating, and an effective barrier to participation. An accurate rifle. The right camouflage. A serviceable binocular. A hard-wearing backpack. Field-worthy outerwear. If you add up the retail cost of even a basic kit, you’re talking about an outlay of well over $1,000, and maybe double that amount.

You can help lower barriers by bequeathing some of that gear that’s hanging in your closet. Don’t fret about giving your best stuff. But—and I’m channeling my wife’s voice here—if you haven’t used a piece of gear for three seasons, it’s likely that you don’t need it as much as someone else does.

So give it away. Your handout will be a valuable hand up for a beginner. It’s a safe bet that every time your apprentice uses that bequest, they’ll think of you. And that’s a pretty good way to extend your influence even when you’re not in the field with the happy recipient of your gear.

McKean Minute: Mentoring 101 – Simple answers to complicated questions

Mentoring is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, like raising a foster child. And it’s the easiest thing you’ve ever done, like joking with your buddy.

I’ve heard both those analogies used to describe mentoring, but both seem to add an unrealistic weight of expectation to the experience.

As I’ve written in this space in the past, mentoring is a handmade thing, crafted between the participants. In that way, no two relationships are the same. But they do have some commonalities, and the relationship between a mentor and a mentee (note – the entire community of folks committed to this effort is struggling with how to describe the apprentice hunter. Is “mentee” really the best word? If you have a better alternative, would you let me know?) generally starts with some questions.

“Why do you hunt?”

“Why do we need hunting licenses?”

“What gun should I shoot?”

“How does a riflescope work?”

Some of those questions are the topics of entire books. They can be intimidating and complicated to answer, but any prospective mentor already knows the answers. And they’re just as singular and unique — and as simple — as the questions. Don’t overthink them.

Why do you hunt? It’s probably not because of some lofty abstraction such as the fulfillment of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation or because you feel obligated to help states manage wildlife. It’s probably because you like to eat wild meat. Or maybe it’s because you like to reconnect with nature in an elemental way. Maybe it’s because you feel happy when you hunt. Or because it is fun.

Be ready to explain why you use the specific gear you use. Be prepared to explain the basics of ballistics, and how a bullet or shotshell pellet kills. Explain why you aim for the vitals of an animal and why the direction of the wind is so important.

You may get some pushback and some even more difficult follow-up questions. Embrace them. That’s the sign that you’re getting through, and that your “mentee” is listening and learning. That, after all, is what a mentor should do – educate, teach, inform. And inspire.

The best evidence of inspiration is inquisition. And as the cat knows, curiosity kills not only felines, but all sorts of other animals, too.

One more thing. The hardest question you will ever be asked is this one? “Why are you interested in mentoring?” I cannot wait to hear your answer.

Take Him

If you give a boy a NERF gun, he will want to shoot it.
You’ll buy him the coolest NERF gun you can find, and then he will probably want some extra bullets and another gun, too.
Then, he will probably start asking you to set up his toy animals to shoot, or to play war with he and his friends. And even though you want to sit on the couch and watch the Cubs, he will insist, and his insistence will win.
Eventually, you will buy the boy a bb gun, and he will want pellets and some targets to go with it. Then he’ll want a place to go shoot it, and you’ll find him one.
And then, if you’re lucky, life as you know it will change.
Idle weekends at home will be few and far between. You will see more corners of your county than you ever thought reasonable. Your day off will be spent hauling gear and decoys and crappy old tents and crazy boys all over tarnation chasing whatever’s in season.
And your house will be a mess. And your truck will be dirty.
You’ll spend his teenage years freezing in a duck blind or burning to death on a folding chair at a trap meet. He’ll spend his teenage years gaining confidence and friends, and learning new skills, having fun and getting dirty. You’ll teach him what it means to be a man while he makes you feel young again.
And you will be there the day he shoots his first squirrel, his first rooster, and his first deer. And he will make you so proud.
And right before your eyes, your little boy will be transformed from the toddler who ran around shooting his sister with the NERF gun, into a hunter, a man.
When you give a boy a gun, you don’t give him a weapon. You give him a way of life – a talent, curiosity, dreams, and friends – a place to learn about life, room to grow as a person, and bravery, and drive, and memories.
And he will have all of these things, simply because you gave a boy a gun.
And took him.

McKean Minute: Make a Difference – Show Up

I coach middle school cross country. Most weekdays from late August through mid-October, I drop whatever it is I’m doing, lace up my running shoes, put a whistle around my neck, and encourage three dozen awkward, gangly kids who are not my own to run (and, some days, to simply walk) with purpose.

Most autumn weekends, I get on a yellow school bus and accompany the team to a race somewhere in my windy corner of northeastern Montana.

I started coaching because my own kids were on the team, and it was another way to be involved with their lives. What I realized along the way—at about the same time they did—is that I was doing a lot more coaching of other peoples’ kids than I was of my own.

What I also realized along the way, and am reminded about daily, is that coaching is not really about teaching my Glasgow Scotties about racing tactics, or accumulating team titles and individual medals. Coaching is about encouragement. And the foundation of encouragement is simply showing up. Many of these kids don’t have an adult in their lives who simply shows up, every day and without excuse, on their behalf. It’s a small but critical ingredient in coaching at any level.

I mention this not to impress you with my level of civic engagement, but because many of you who read this are attracted to the notion of coaching. Not middle school runners, but prospective hunters. Equal to your interest is your apprehension. How can you ever mentor people you don’t know? How do you start? And what are the expectations?

Mentoring is a little like sewing a quilt by hand. Or carving a chair out of a stump. Every new hunter is the result of hard and custom work, but that’s also what gives each of us our unique grain and combination of experiences. Where the relationship between a mentor and an apprentice goes is impossible to predict, but each one is handmade.

And every single relationship starts because the mentor showed up.

As this autumn unfolds, and each of us experienced hunters thrums to the possibility of the season, think about introducing someone new to your world. Don’t fret about where your path goes. But start somewhere. And then keep showing up. It makes all the difference.

McKean Minute: This dove season, take a newbie

The single most popular day for American hunters is Sept. 1, the dove opener in most states. In Texas alone, over 400,000 hunters are likely to be in the field, and you can almost hear the drawl-cussing from here as most of those hunters whiff their first dozen shots.

Missing is half the fun, because with early season dove, there’s almost always another opportunity. The other half of the fun is the company. Dove hunting is one of the most social activities you can have while wearing camouflage. Maybe you have a special memory of a dove opener with family or a group of close friends. There was probably as much laughing as there was cussing. As many excuses for poor shooting as there are congrats for making nice shots. And as much cursing of dogs as praising them.

If you’ve been following Powderhook, then you know one of our foundational principles is the notion of passing on outdoor traditions. And there are few better traditions that deserve perpetuation than a good dove hunt. So here’s my challenge to you: Invite someone new to your group this year. If you hunt with your kids, ask them to bring along one of their friends. If you hunt with a group of buddies, enlarge your circle to include someone new. If you hunt with your parents, ask if it’s okay to bring along a classmate who may not have the family tradition that you have.

The asking can be the toughest part, as any mentor can appreciate. But everything else is easy, from sharing your gear to showing where to set up, from showing how to read the acrobatic approach of a fast-closing dove, to demonstrating how to clean a limit of birds.

There are plenty of dove to go around. Make a new tradition with a beginning hunter. It’s one way to ensure that Sept. 1 remains a sort of unofficial national holiday for hunters well into the future.

McKean Minute: Make the Most of This Cruelest Month

Where I live in eastern Montana, February is a brutal month. Hunting seasons are over, the ice fishing can be slow, and we annually have a bout of soul-searching cold in February when the mercury dips to -30. And stays there for a week or two.

But I’ll trade a year of Februarys for a single August. For me, August is the cruelest month because it’s hot, dry, buggy, and I’m daily reminded that I need to be prepping for the fall, but I can’t seem to find the time to adequately do it.

August is the cruelest month because nothing is happening yet, but everything is about to happen, and I feel simultaneously like I have too much time and not nearly enough of it.

Let me explain.

The first big-game season to open in my neighborhood is for archery antelope, on Aug. 15. I don’t have a tag this year for pronghorn, but the approach of that date reminds me that I’m not shooting my bow nearly enough. So for the past couple weeks, I’ve been making time in the evenings to tune up my archery gear and my shooting eye. It’s been going okay, but where I live, the mosquitoes are ravenous and out of every 5-shot group, one arrow typically goes rogue. The blame is on the inability to hold my form as a mosquito drills into my flesh. But I also have a self-imposed rule that I can’t stop shooting until I can stack all my arrows in a space I can cover with my hand. And every skeeter-skewed arrow keeps me out in the bugs that much longer.

Sept. 1 is the dove opener, and I know I need to sharpen up the field skills of both myself and my dog. But it’s so hot that I feel guilty working my pup until late in the evening, at the very time I usually shoot my bow. I should probably wake earlier and get in some solid dog work in the mornings, but I simply don’t. I’d rather sleep in, even though I know I feel guilty about it.

Then there’s fishing. The landlocked Chinook salmon are biting on nearby Fort Peck Reservoir, but I can’t seem to find time to go. Ditto the walleye bite on the Missouri River. And I keep promising myself that I’ll break out my fly rod and throw some hopper patterns at big-river trout. But I don’t.

I need to shoot my deer rifle a lot more, and work up a new load with Nosler’s AccuBond and Hornady’s ELD-X bullets. I need to mount a new riflescope on my daughter’s deer rifle. I need to waterproof my hunting boots and fix a torn strap on my backpack. There’s a pile of hunting knives that I told my kids we’d spend a rainy afternoon rebeveling and sharpening.

Then there’s the big ticking clock, reminding me that my kids are about to return to school, but also that we haven’t gotten done all the summer honey-do’s around my homestead that I said we’d tackle this summer. I’m reminded that we haven’t camped together nearly enough. Or fished. In another month, my boys will enter their senior year of high school, and that clock ticks louder, reminding me that this may be the last August we have together.

I know that September will be here before I know it. And I know that August is the time to get all the necessary prep done. I want more of August. I want less of August.

Cruel. Indeed.

McKean Minute: Cat or Dog?

Are you a cat or are you a dog?

I’m not asking whether you crave catnip or bury bones in your yard—though you might do both. I’m asking you as a hunter what sort of predator you are.

The topic came up in an oblique way the other day as I admitted to a friend that when it comes to deer hunting, I’d rather be on my feet than sit a stand. My preference probably owes to the area I normally hunt, which is fairly open and populated by more mule deer than whitetails. But it also comes down to personal preference. I simply feel like I’m going to have more encounters with animals and convert encounters to success when I’m on my feet and on the ground.

My friend called me everything but a rich man. He just couldn’t understand how anyone would abandon all the advantages they get by being on an elevated platform—containing their scent, maintaining their silence, and having a vantage point—in order to shuffle about on the ground.

That’s when I called him a cat.

You have to understand that my buddy is the ultimate dog owner. His Labs are well-trained and well-honed hunting machines. He drives a big pickup, and there’s usually a dog kennel in the bed. Hell, my friend even looks like a dog, with floppy jowels and a nose that’s wet most of the time. But he’s clearly a cat.

Why? Because he’s an ambush predator. Me? I’m a dog. I’m a pursuit predator.

Think about it. If you’re a hunter who lays in wait, whether it’s a ground blind or a tree stand, you’re an ambush predator, behaving exactly like a leopard or a cougar or a ginger tabby. Yo

u maintain your silence and blend in to your surroundings. You wait for the right moment and then spring into action. You’re a cat. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I feel like I’m at my most lethal when I can spot an animal and then figure out a way to move into killing range. I make my own luck, playing the wind, hushing my steps, and keeping my profile low and hidden. If the animal moves, I move with it. And when I get my chance, I close ground and make my move. I’m a wolf. A coyote. A jackal. A scrubcountry cur. I’m a dog.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

So, I have to ask the question—no judgement here: Which are you, a dog or a cat?

McKean Minute: When Digital Goes Outdoors

I was describing Powderhook to a friend the other day in one of the simplest ways I could. “It’s using technology to connect people who want to know more about hunting and fishing with those who want to share their experience and knowledge.”

I could tell I wasn’t getting through, so I tried again. “It’s a digital mentor in your pocket,” I said, patting my phone for emphasis.

That got him.

“I thought the whole idea of introducing people to the outdoors was to get them out to put down their phones and disconnect from technology.”

His statement hit home for me, because for years that’s precisely how I’ve imagined we would recruit a new generation of outdoorsfolks. We’d convince them that the wild world beyond their smartphones was somehow more real, tangible, authentic, and worth their attention than anything projected by the pixels of an aluminosilicate screen.

For the record, I still believe that with every fiber in my sunburned body, that the real world—made of mud, sunsets, poison ivy, October frosts, venison backstraps, and honking geese—is what connects us to our ancestors and to our neighborhoods, and by extension, to our neighbors. Figuring out the natural world over eons and generations is what evolved us into hunter-foragers, then farmers, and ultimately into Snapchatters.

The future of conservation as we know it depends on the goodwill of the individual sportsmen. No other approach can yield the kind of numbers we need.

As technology has come to dominate almost every aspect of our lives, it’s a natural impulse to think that it’s disconnected us from nature. In many ways, it has. We all have examples of people who mistook an Instagram sunset for the real thing.

But just as we’re not likely to replace our cars with carriages or our microwaves with hearth-fires, we’re unlikely to put our phones aside as we stalk a deer or hike a trail. Instead, the smartest hunter-gatherers among us have figured out ways to use technology to be more proficient outdoorsmen and women. They’re using digital maps to find their way in the woods and to fetch weather forecasts that will shape their day. They’re making campground reservations online. They’re using digital apps to identify the mushrooms that will make their day and the ones that will make them sick. And they’re using their phones to record their experiences to share with people who couldn’t join them.

For the record, I’m not a digital native. My best days in the field did not have an on/off switch, and I’m happiest with the wind in my face, not a phone in my hand.

But if we’re serious about introducing more people to the outdoors and the profoundly human experience of hunting, then we have to use whatever tools we can to build connections. For modern humans, that means harnessing the power of technology to bring people together. That’s what Powderhook intends to do, by connecting people who want to know with those who do. And when I tell my buddy that it’s a “mentor in his pocket,” what I mean is that if we’re smart about how we use technology, it can help us achieve something that humans have been doing for thousands of years: when we share our experiences, we make the world both bigger and smaller at the very same time.

McKean Minute: Get Outside This Interdependence Day

You read both parts of that sentence correctly. The first part is easy to understand. Get outside. Go fish. Go camp. Have a picnic. Lay on a blanket and look up at the clouds.

The second part takes a little ‘splaining.

It’s Independence Day, America’s 242nd birthday. The Fourth of July. A celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a statement to our British overlords that the American colonies would stand alone as 13 sovereign states.

But I’d argue that as much as the declaration asserts independence, it also makes a strong case for interdependence. Those 13 colonies had to stand together, to rely on each other and to present a unified front in the fight against the world’s reigning superpower that culminated in the creation of America.

I mention this because I think outdoor recreation—the kind that’s come to define how many of us Americans celebrate our national holiday—is equal parts independence and interdependence. As humans, we crave the freedom we get from the outdoors, the ability to explore, seek, and traverse a world unbound by walls or wifi. But think about the best days you’ve had outdoors. They were probably made even better by the company of someone – your kids, your buddy, your spouse, or your parents.

A buddy’s first time ever seeing an elk on a camping trip in Yellowstone.

Now think of how you got juiced about the outdoors in the first place. It was because someone, maybe your father or a sibling or a good friend, introduced you to the wide, wild world. That’s interdependence. Even those of us who find solace in the solitude of the outdoors started with a dependency, being shown places and skills by someone who knew more than we did.

When this interdependency works, it’s self-perpetuating—just as national independence is. The Americans who came before you have given you these great self-evident truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If your pursuit of happiness is being outdoors, then perpetuate that great American tradition by showing someone else how to fish, camp, picnic, and lay under the clouds.