My longtime friend Bud came through town the other day, on his way home with an 8-week-old pointer riding shotgun. We greeted the pup like a new member of our extended family, which in many ways he is, and will become.
As I visited with Bud, talk turned to all the other dogs that have shared our lives, and I was a little surprised to recall all the firsts that occurred in Bud’s company: my first tundra swan; my first successive limits of Hungarian partridges; my first hunting dog, a rescue Lab cross who hid under my bed the first time she saw a gun but developed into a talented retriever of anything with wings and a cackle, thanks in part to Bud’s encouragement.
This is graduation season in my world. Not only do I have a pair of strapping sons who matriculated from their high school in the past weeks, but I’ve received dozens of graduation announcements from departing collegians, high-schoolers, and even a couple of audacious middle-schoolers.
Most of my replies are of the free-advice variety, offering good wishes, profound wisdom (write home, brush your teeth, pay your bills) for future citizens, and challenges (take chances, sleep outside, don’t brush your teeth). But a few special recipients get an additional tool to carry into their future: a pocket knife.
Inspiration for the bladed gift is the outsized role that knives have played in my life. We have a rule in my family: on the 10th birthday of a McKean, you get a bicycle and a pocket knife. If you wreck your bike or you lose your knife, the second (and third, and fourth) ones are on you. Since my own 10th birthday, I’ve disabled plenty of bikes, and I’ve lost more knives than I care to admit. But I’ve never not had a knife in my life.
I’m looking at my current pocket pal now. It’s a scarred and abused and well-loved folding lock-back. It’s made by Ka-Bar, has hand-worn orange scales, would have had a 3-inch drop-point blade had the terminal ¼ inch not been broken off prying a stuck pellet out of the breech of a pellet gun, and it wears the marks of a good decade in my company. I’ve gutted countless fish, grouse, and deer with that knife, which holds an edge longer than I’ve held many jobs.
It’s sharpened sticks for campfire meat, sliced steak at fine restaurants, cleaned my toenails, and cut cheese, rope, baling twine, and apples for my kids. The thing about this knife -and all good knives – is that it’s just as capable of doing all those things for the next decade.
So, for those kids who are elevated in my esteem, they get pocket knives this season. Some of their future friends will come and go. They may take jobs that don’t last. They will wreck bicycles and cars. But a good knife will take them a long way into the future. And even if it cuts Spam instead of steak, it will link them to the past and whatever is next.
Andrew McKean wrote this for Father’s Day 2010, the first without his dad, Mike, who died the preceding August.
To say I lost my father is a form of linguistic denial, like saying I misplaced him, or that I’ll find him like a favorite pocketknife in an old pair of jeans.
My father is not lost. He is dead. I learned as a newspaper obituary writer to avoid euphemistic references to this most final fact. He did not “pass away” or “expire.” He did not “go to his reward” or “depart this life” or “go to meet his Maker.”
He died. And this is the first Father’s Day I haven’t had what I now realize is the exquisite luxury of calling him, both of us pretending that I was phoning to discuss the weather, or calf prices, neither of us once mentioning what he considered a cynical holiday engineered to sell greeting cards and cheap tools.
My father didn’t suffer what he considered mass-market frivolity. He would have been baffled, and even a little offended, if I gifted him a Father’s Day tie or an electric razor.
Instead, he preferred to simply talk, about too much or not enough rain, about his grandchildren, my job and when I was coming home on my next visit. I didn’t get to make that last trip. Dad died in late August, sudden as a thunderclap. The news reached me as I was hitching a tractor to a brush cutter, like I had helped him do so many times as a child.
I’ll call this Father’s Day to the abandoned farmhouse where I grew up. I’ll dial the number to the old rotary phone on the wall of the kitchen where my father died. And I’ll wait with a disbelieving suspension for him to answer, for his rich voice to fill the crackling void, before the sharp metallic jag of the automated operator jars me from my fantasy: “You have reached a number that has been disconnected…”
My father is not disconnected, just as he isn’t lost. But it’s small moments like today when he is found, however fleetingly.
When most of us think of a mentor, we picture an elder.
Maybe not a white-bearded sensi, but someone older and more experienced than we
are. That’s natural. We hope to gain knowledge by synthesizing the experiences
of those who have passed this way before.
But not all experience is linear, or can be counted by
years. As you are considering mentors in your life, don’t just look forward to
those with more experience, but also sideways to those who have other types of
experiences from your own. And don’t hesitate to look behind, to mentors who
are younger and have a different take on life and how to live it.
It’s graduation season for families across America, mine included. It’s a time to celebrate accomplishments accrued during the first mandatory stages of school, to recognize the milestone that separates children from adults, and to prepare for what comes next, whether that’s college or a full-time job.
But there’s another passage that’s worth recognizing this season: the departure of young hunters and anglers from the field sports that may have defined their early years.
It’s a trend that demographers have noted for at least two generations: that participation in hunting and angling declines or even stops during the college years. There are lots of reasons for the drop-out: involvement with school and collegiate priorities, residence away from home (sometimes out of state) and traditional access to the outdoors, difficulty possessing guns and sporting goods on campus, and involvement with peers who may not have a similar background in the field sports.
I’ve been reporting on these trends for years, but now that my twin boys have graduated high school and are looking forward to starting college in the fall, the departure from the field traditions that defined much of our time together is suddenly personal. And it grieves me, almost like losing a member of the family.
The bruise started a couple months ago, as the deadline to apply for special moose, sheep, and mountain goat licenses loomed here in Montana. What if one of my boys drew one of these coveted tags, but wasn’t able to go hunting because of collegiate responsibilities? Instead of risking it, I’m purchasing preference points this year, in the hopes that they’ll take up hunting where they left off once they earn college degrees.
Then I consulted Merlin’s schedule at the University of Michigan, where he’ll enter as a freshman in the fall. He gets only 4 days for Thanksgiving break. That’s not enough time to travel home to Montana, hunt deer during our traditional holiday hunt, and get back to school. So I’m looking at the first season in a decade without my buddy to plan, hike, and make meat with.
His brother, Ellis, will be a little closer to home. He’s attending the University of Montana. But he’s on the Grizzly cross country and track teams, which means he won’t have a ton of time to return home for hunting openers.
Will my boys slide into that morass of used-to-be hunters? Will hunting become a cherished memory of their youth? Or will they take a pause from the field sports for a year or two, only to return to them with renewed intensity, as I did after I graduated college? I don’t know. But I know that I’ll be looking for places for Merlin to hunt around Ann Arbor, and encouraging Ellis to meet fellow hunters on his track team. I’ll keep their guns oiled and their knives sharp. I’ll keep buying them hunting and fishing licenses, and looking down the road for their approach, steady young men who are good shots, keen woodsmen, and who may be eager for fresh venison to balance their cafeteria diet.
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.
Outdoor recruitment, retention, reactivation and access from the creators of Powderhook.com