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McKean Minute: The Greatest Treasure

I have a couple of heirloom rifles that I wouldn’t sell for all the farms in Iowa. One is a Winchester Model 1892 chambered in .25/20 that my dad took in trade from a Hunkpapa Sioux when he was a ranch hand in South Dakota. Its serial number indicates that it was made in 1899, and I often wonder all the things that rifle has seen: the end of open cattle range, the first generations of reservation life, scabbards on the flanks of dozens of good horses.

The other rifle is a Remington Targetmaster .22, a single-shot bolt action that was my first gun. Before that, it belonged to my grandfather, a red-dirt Mississippi hick who was the smartest kid in his town, so smart that his teachers paid for his first years at Mississippi State, where he got a masters degree in engineering and later a PhD. He worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority, powering the big hydro dams that electrified the Southeast and put wire and lights in his parents’ farmhouse.

But I’d trade both those rifles to have Scott Hamilton riding shotgun again. Scott was one of my oldest and best friends. He died last weekend at his home in Austin, dropped dead in the shower after a strenuous hike.

Though we lived in distant towns and saw each other at most once a year, the accumulated experiences and shared memories were like inertia, pushing us to the next plan. Most of those plans involved some sort of road trip. Outside of my family, I’ve spent more time in pickups and covered more miles of open road with Scott than anyone. It was nothing for us to drive 500 miles for a burger and a beer in some dive bar.

We hunted together every chance we got, and our plans were to meet in northern Wisconsin, where Scott had a cabin, for deer season. I was already savoring our evenings, pulled up to some North Woods bar, a cheeseburger and a frosty Old Style either celebrating the success or soothing the disappointment of the day.

Friends like Scott aren’t gifts, they’re made every day. While there’s nothing greater than meeting a new friend, there’s also nothing like the easy pace and conversation of an old friendship. It’s like the wood on an old rifle: smooth and worn, with a few nicks and scratches earned through honest use, that takes your hand and holds it, ready to lead you on your next adventure.


McKean Minute: The Hourglass Dilemma

The world is evenly divided into those who will nod knowingly at what I’m about to say, and those who will have no idea.

“I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had.”

That’s both a quotation and a statement of reality. It’s a quote from my dad, and his dad before him, an aunt or two, my neighbor, and the clerk at the vet clinic. But it’s also a description of my every waking day, and has been for the past couple years. It’s the best way to declare, without complaining about, all the aches and pains that come with aging.

I’m not over the hill – not by a long shot. But a decade ago I was ignorant of these little physical gripes. Now, they’re part of the landscape. I mention this not to solicit sympathy from you, my dear reader, but to inform my outlook of the year ahead, and the years beyond that. And maybe your approaching years, too.

Every new year is full of resolve, which manifests as resolutions, generally pithy phrases that promise, or at least imply, some sort of improvement. Of lifestyle. Of habit. Or of personal commitments to eat more greens, or to get to know your brother-in-law better, or to stop scratching yourself in public.

My commitment this year is both simpler and far harder to achieve, given the arc of time and its toll on the human body. I resolve to spend more time exploring. I mean that metaphorically, by reading and inquiring more I can explore other worlds without leaving my own. But I also mean that literally. I want to move my feet across places I’ve never walked before. And that gets back to all those little hurts in the unknown places of my body.

One of the certainties of all life is that it dies. One of the certainties of hunters is that we “age out” of the activity that defines us. We’ve seen this represented in statistics that track participation—measured by buying hunting licenses—in the blood sports. Demographers reckon that when the human body reaches about 65 years old, it stops hunting.

I intend to be one of those erratics that skew statistics and confound demographers. I intend to hunt well past age 65. But in order to do that, I intend to explore this year. And the next. I intend to keep my body trained to hike, my eyes peeled to see animals, and my instincts sharpened to react to all the changing variables of a hunt.

But I’m also aware that I’m doing this as a defensive, rather than an offensive, gesture. This is the hourglass dilemma. We will never know how much time we have left, how much sand remains in the top of the hourglass. As long as we’re ignorant of the quantity, we spend it recklessly. But as soon as we’re aware of the grains sifting through the neck and accumulating in the lower bulb, we become cautious, self-conscious, and timid. And sedentary.

I do not intend to be any of those. I intend to hurt, to complain loudly and often about my physical pains, and to beat you to the top of the next hill, if only to have the first view of whatever’s on the other side. With me?


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.


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.


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