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.

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