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McKean Minute: This Thanksgiving, Be Grateful for Your Memory

A friend of mine, his body atrophying from time and cancer, looked me in the eyes and testified: “If you have your health, you have everything.”

Another friend, widowed and alone, once told me that the secret to happiness was having a family nearby.

And yet another acquaintance once pronounced that to be wealthy was to be free. “The people who tell you that money doesn’t matter? Those are the people who don’t have any,” he said.

On this Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my health. And my family. And if I’m not rich, at least I’m not wondering how to feed and house myself.

But as I enter an age where it’s an increasingly perishable commodity, I may be most thankful for my memory.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately, as I’ve chased deer and elk around this state. About memory and instinct, and how they’re similar and vastly different.

One of the silent pleasures of hunting is anticipating the actions—and reactions—of wild animals. And then having your hunch either confirmed or rejected by their behavior.

Normally, an animal’s reaction is an expression of its instinct. When a whitetail catches my wind and runs to cover, it is obeying a primitive, hard-wired command to flee. More interesting to me is watching an animal’s learned behavior. When that deer runs for cover, and then takes a left and returns to the field because it knows I’m simply cutting firewood instead of hunting, that’s an expression of its memory.

That’s an important distinction for us humans, too. We do so many things instinctually—yawning when other humans yawn, for instance, or blushing when embarrassed or aroused. Those are gifts from our ancestors. They’re common to all us humans.

But memory is something far different. It’s handmade from our own, individual experiences and perceptions. No one else shares it, or can really even experience it except through our own insufficient accounts, related through stories, histories, and remembrances.

That’s why memory is so precious. When we go, so goes this entire parallel, invisible life of the mind that will never again be replicated on this earth. So, this Thanksgiving, be thankful for your memory. And simply remember. Remember all the great, awful, awkward, happy, remarkable, mundane ingredients of your day, your week, your hunting season. Maybe some of those memories will make you blush.


McKean Minute: Words Matter

In the A-frame blind erected out of angle iron and gypsum board, guide Evan Stabolitis waited until the sandhill cranes were almost touching the red dirt of Oklahoma’s Red River Valley. Then he blared, “Kill ‘em all!”

We followed our shotguns out the roof of the blind and proceeded to obey his order.

Back home in Montana earlier in the fall, a buddy described his bowhunt for a bull elk.

“I snuck over the hill and there he was, feeding away from me. When he turned, I stuck him good.”

Listen to hunters even for a little while, and you’ll pick up on some curiously conflated language describing the end times for the animals we love to hunt.

“Whack ‘em and stack ‘em.”

“I let the air of out of him.”

“I sent one through the ol’ boiler room.”

“Let him have it!”

These are all pretty aggressive descriptions of killing an animal, and those of us who have done it enough to understand that the violence we inflict on animals is quick and humane when we make good shots hardly hear the words. We understand the action. We are killing an animal in order to feed our families and manage a public resource.

But those words are pretty heavy for a beginning hunter to hear, more like a gangland killing than a respectful hunt. I was hyper-aware of that last year, as I took a succession of new hunters into the field for their first experience of intentionally taking the life of an animal. And I noticed that my own language describing the experience softened.

I didn’t use the euphemism “harvest” to describe a kill. But I did use more descriptive language to describe the final moments. Instead of telling my apprentice hunter to “shoot him through both lungs so he’ll die quickly,” I said, “Hold just behind his shoulder, about a third of the way up from his belly.” Instead of saying “you need to break his leg so he doesn’t jump the fence onto the neighbor’s place” I said, “Put your crosshair right on the point of his shoulder and gently squeeze the trigger.”

Should I have been more clear that the bullet they sent would make a mess out of the animal? Should I have used more colorful terms to describe the violence they were about to inflict?

I don’t think so. It’s a heavy obligation for a beginning hunter to learn to use a gun safely, and to understand the awful power of a centerfire rifle. It’s even more intimidating to ask them to know and follow the litany of hunting regulations and to be able to identify legal game and effective shot placement. If they become repeat hunters, they’ll grow to understand the effect of their shot. And once they do, they’re free to use verbs like “whacked,” and “sluiced,” and “greased” to describe their actions.

But until then, the one grace we can give beginning hunters is gentle language to de-escalate the gravity of their actions. If they send their projectile well, they’ll have a huge vocabulary to describe everything that comes next.


McKean Minute: Solo Flight

It was this week a year ago that my son became a man.

There are plenty of moments that a father can point to with the same conclusion—captaining a team to an unexpected victory, or the sudden acceptance of responsibility, or a first date. But my boy earned his man card by killing a deer all by himself.

If that sounds underwhelming, or undeserving of comment, it’s because you don’t know the details, or the context.

I have identical twin boys, and in nearly every measure of appearance and behavior, they are congruent. They’re responsible, honest, reliable, and funny. And they both grew up as hunters. In my home state of Montana, young hunters are required to be accompanied by an adult until they are 15, and the eldest (by 9 minutes) of my sons showed an early aptitude for solo hunting. Even before he turned 15, he wanted to strike out on his own, to explore the next ridge, and to make his own luck.

My younger (by those same 9 minutes) son was equally happy to stay by my side, to collaborate on strategies and to rely on me for decisions about where to hunt or when to shoot. I was equally happy with his companionship, because he’s such good company, and if I can brag just a bit, an exceptional shot.

But every time his brother dropped over a distant ridge, or left me a note on the kitchen table letting me know where he was hunting and when he’d be back, I was reminded of myself. My most memorable hunting experiences—indeed, the experiences that minted me as a hunter—were when I was alone, with no one to turn to for advice or decision. I reckon I became a man as a teenaged hunter, left alone to live with the results of my decisions.

So, I was both apprehensive and excited when my then-17-year-old younger son told me, a year ago this week, that he was going to take his rifle “for a walk,” and that he’d see me after dark. I wasn’t surprised to get the text, several hours later, that he had killed a deer.

“Buck down. Might need help,” was how the message read. I took my time responding. I recalled my own first solo gutting session—all the blood and all the indecision about what comes out of the body cavity and what stays in—and my first drag-out. And how my memories would have been dulled if I had to share them with my father.

By the time I got to him, Merlin had the buck gutted and dragged out of a coulee onto a bench where we could easily drive to it. Only we didn’t. We each grabbed a leg and started dragging. As we pulled, I found myself sneaking short looks at my son, admiring the line of his jaw and the determination in his eyes.


McKean Minute: Only A Doe

The stalk was perfect, right until it wasn’t. The group of mule deer does and fawns blew out of the snowberries like a flock of quail.

My buddy looked at the rapidly disappearing butts and black-tipped tails and sighed dismissively. “Who cares. It’s only a doe.”

Only a doe?

Only a doe can teach you the finer points of stealth. Only a doe can pick you off at 1,000 yards despite your best efforts to stay concealed. Only a doe has a nose that can detect scent particles in vanishingly tiny concentrations. Only a doe can produce the bucks with the headgear you measure and memorialize. Only a doe can make a fool out of hunters both ordinary and accomplished.

Only a doe, you say?

Only a doe can hold her ground while the rest of the herd slips over the horizon. Only a doe can stamp her feet and cause a riot of white tails and alarm snorts. Only a doe can starve herself to feed her fawns. Only a doe can manufacture rump roasts and backstraps and succulent venison shanks. Only a doe can lead the way to safety, winter range, and spring fawning grounds, not once but every season for her lifetime.

Only a doe can be the most surprising and satisfying trophy of your season. But only if you respect all the trip-wire senses and elephantine memory that built her. Only a doe.


McKean Minute: On Expectations

I’m a sucker for a wide-eyed beginner. Show me an angler who doesn’t know a blood knot, and I’ll swim the river to show her the ropes. Bring me a hunter who doesn’t know where to start looking for gear, and I’ll let him borrow mine.

Maybe that’s the inclination that makes me so open to being a mentor, which can be defined as anyone who has the inclination to share their experiences with someone less experienced. It’s deer season here in Montana, and for the last several years the ritual has opened with a couple days devoted just to young hunters. Kids get a week’s jump on the rest of us, and the only conditions—besides having a valid license—is that youth have to hunt with a non-hunting adult at least 18 years old.

This youth season is tailor-made for mentoring, and through our local sportsman’s group, I’ve helped facilitate a number of mentored relationships. I’ve been handing down gear to a neighbor whose parents don’t hunt, and asked him if he had anyone to share the youth hunt with. When he said he didn’t, we hatched a plan to meet up.

First, we looked over his gear. He needed a rangefinder. I had an extra. He needed a headlamp. I had an extra. Same with bipod, rain gear, and a backpack. They’re yours to keep, I told him. If you upgrade or find you have no use for them, just pass them on to someone in need.

He picked whitetails over mule deer for the first day of the 2-day youth season, so last week we headed out to a chunk of ground that routinely holds deer, and sometimes some pretty good bucks. The trek into the cover was great, with some tutorials on crossing fences, staying quiet, and muzzle control. The wind was right, but I showed him how to check it and what to do if it switched. We used his new rangefinder to range various distances where we were likely to see deer. We talked about deer behavior, and their habits of bedding in the daytime and coming out of cover to feed in the evening.

And then, right on time, deer started feeding out of cover. We looked over a couple little bucks, and then it occurred to me: what was he looking for? A fat doe for the freezer? A young starter buck? An ear-wide 4-point fed out of a line of trees. How about him? I asked.

“I’m sorta waiting for a 6×6,” my apprentice said. I may have snorted. “So am I!” I returned. We watched a number of other deer, including some smaller bucks, mostly within range. Then it was time to go.

On the way out of the field, keeping our profiles low and our scent blowing away from the herd so we wouldn’t ruin the spot, I thought about what had just happened. Are my expectations unnaturally low? Or are his perversely high? I don’t know, but while we both enjoyed the experience, I also wondered if he was setting himself up for the sort of disappointment that older, more experienced hunters need years to put in context. Would his inability to achieve his goal turn him off to hunting in a few more years?

I still don’t have an answer, but my apprentice went out with another neighbor the next day. They chased mule deer.

“Did you fill your tag?” I asked him. “No. We saw some good ones, but nothing I wanted to shoot.”

I think he’ll be just fine. He has the right gear. The right advisors. The right places to hunt. My only hope is that he also allows himself to immerse himself in the experience without being so hung up on the outcome.


McKean Minute: Get Ready for the Greatest Month

Sure, September is cool. There’s the dove opener, and screaming bull elk. There are the month’s archery deer seasons that open like so many fortune cookies. Some folks have early waterfowl opportunities. If September has a mascot, it’s the grouse.

But the greatest of all months is October. In my country, pheasant opener is fast approaching, and antelope rifle seasons are close behind. Montana’s rifle deer season opens late in the month, but it’s easy to be distracted by the migrating waterfowl that are pouring south.

The greatest attribute of the month may be its killing cold, frosts that should finally end the tyranny of mosquitoes that make it either impossible or extremely uncomfortable to spend an evening in a deer stand or kicking around for prairie or forest grouse. With frosts also come the turning of leaves, and the quintessential sight of October might be a yellowing leaf fluttering down on a buck coming into range, or a rooster rocketing out of curing cover.

We might see our first snowfall. Did I mention all those geese and ducks, cupping onto ponds and lakes that will be frozen in another few weeks? Brown trout and brookies are running, and any fish with an appetite and a sense of the future is feeding aggressively as the water cools.

Go head, tell me why October is so wonderful in your area. Or, if you dare, tell me how wrong I am, and why February is your most favorite of all the months.


McKean Minute: The Long Run

Thirty-five years ago this month, I was a college freshman, a farm kid who had no business attending the liberal arts college where I ended up. I hadn’t been assigned a single paper in my small high school, and based on the amount of writing that confronted me, I was sure I’d flunk after my first college semester.

Another thing I had never experienced at my high school: cross country. I had run track fairly successfully, but we didn’t have cross country at my school, which is why I had no expectation that I’d run in college.

But if you’re a runner, you run, and on my first days on campus, I spotted several runners who looked a lot like me: skinny and scared. On a whim on a sunny September afternoon—largely because I was procrastinating over a late paper—I decided to join them, which is how I became a college cross country runner for the next four years. My teammates became my best friends, then and—a full generation later—now.

But the glue that held everything together, from the team to my sanity, was my cross country coach, Will Freeman. My freshman year was his first year of coaching the team. Will was a lot like me – a country kid who didn’t take the indulgences of academia too seriously. He had a gravitational pull on me that told me that no matter how hard the classes got, no matter how long the papers, or how stressful college can be, he’d be there every day, a whistle in his mouth and a stopwatch around his neck, encouraging me to run just a little faster.

I’ve long since left college and made my way in the world. I still run. I still am connected to my college teammates. Will is still there, still coaching another round of skinny, scared college kids. But this is his last season. He announced this summer that he’s retiring from coaching, and last weekend 35 years of runners converged on our alma mater to celebrate his career and his impact on us.

I ran the alumni race, not because I wanted to—five miles at collegiate race pace is not comfortable—but because I wanted to run for Will one last time. It occurred to me, somewhere between miles 3 and 4, that I’ve always run for Will. I wear a whistle and a stopwatch and coach my own teams because of Will.

You can’t know these things, but I hope some of the skinny, scared kids I encourage to run just a little faster will look back with fondness on their experiences, and realize they also run for Will.


McKean Minute: Beyond Sportsman – Terms That Describe All of Us

I’m not especially “woke” in the contemporary term, meaning hyper-aware of the inequities of our culture. But I’d like to think that I’m sensitive to the things that divide us, and more interested in working on ways to unite Americans rather than ways that segment and differentiate us.

As a writer, I’m also aware of the power of language to perpetuate divisions and either include or exclude people based on terms. Take the gender-specific term “man.” As in, “anchorman,” or “midshipman,” terms that originated around the reality that only men were involved in the tasks described. That’s happily not the case any longer, but our terms take time to catch up with the times.

Which is why I think it’s time to rethink our use of the term “sportsman” to describe hunters, anglers, and other members of this outdoor-loving tribe to which I happily belong. I have a teenaged daughter who is every bit as capable in the field as any adult man I know, and while she’s never once balked at or mentioned that the term “sportsman” excludes her, as her father, I don’t think it describes her adequately. Several of my buddies in my hometown started a conservation organization a couple years back. We call ourselves “Hi-Line Sportsmen,” but the most active and capable members of the club are women, and I don’t want our name to give the idea to a girl or woman that they’re not welcome to join us.

The origins of the term “sportsman” go back to the early 1700s, as the notion of hunting and fishing for recreation and enjoyment started to displace the idea of both activities as ways to prevent starvation. And the code of conduct that governed the activities gave rise to another term: “sportsmanship.”

I’d hate to abandon that notion that hunting and fishing has a higher calling, but I’m casting about, as it were, for another term to describe all of us as well as what we do. I suppose we could settle on the unsatisfyingly bland term “sportsperson,” but that seems lazy to me. Or maybe we’re “sports,” but that term seems sort of flimsy and frivolous and doesn’t get at the live-taking (and life-giving) gravity of what we do.

I’m gravitating to the term “chaser,” which borrows from an even older tradition, a gender-neutral Middle English word that describes our pursuit of wild animals, and echoes the French term for hunter: “chasseur.” It doesn’t quite describe our pursuit of fish, but it gets closer than another candidate: “stalker.”

Or maybe we look for a term that describes where we exercise our inclination to hunt and fish: outside.

Are we “outies,” like a collective belly button? Or are we “outsters,” which might also describe a fringe political party?

I’d love to hear from you. Can you propose a term that is inclusive, descriptive, and durable enough to last longer than this current political moment?


McKean Minute: The Secret Language of Sportsfolk

I have been trying to take a day off to fish all summer, and despite the season and the reason, I haven’t either made or found the time to go nearly as often as I want.

That changed this week. My buddy Joe called to say that conditions looked good tomorrow, and could I join him on our local walleye lake, Fort Peck Reservoir. I could have found good reasons to decline, but on both cellular and psychic levels, I needed a day of fishing, so I accepted.

Joe is a long-time walleye and northern pike predator, and he spends more days on the water, in all seasons, than he would admit to folks outside our circle. But for those inside the circle, he’s the guy you want to fish with. He knows the spots to fish and the gear to use, and he’s pretty good company, besides.

Continue reading McKean Minute: The Secret Language of Sportsfolk

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