Finally, at 2 a.m. we put our packs on and began packing out my first bull. We’d spent hours looking for him, then hours butchering, and now finally we had hours of hiking ahead of us, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the wilderness, without a trail. Most people would look at this situation and think, “What crazy people would do this?” The answer is: someone who has a deep passion for elk hunting, a connection to the mountains, and an incredible father.
As I shined my light up ahead all I could see was my 60-year-old dad with a 90-pound pack, cruising up the mountain. I stopped for a few seconds to try and process what had happened that day. I killed my first elk with a bow and my first bull ever. An exhilarating and incredible day to say the least. I thought about all of the past years and the near misses, the blown opportunities, the close calls, the bad weather, the miles hiked, and the time spent with my dad. I should have been snapping out of this daze, now was not the time for reflection after all. I should have been trying to catch up with my old man! But I couldn’t help it. A lifetime of his influence washes over me…
I would imagine that my hunting story started in much the same way as yours. My dad first took me hunting when I was just six years old. In fact, we can still find the aspen tree where we carved our initials and the year: 1988. That year started a tradition that has not just endured but thrived. A tradition that I’m not sure either of us could have envisioned. A tradition that has led us into the mountains of Colorado to hunt elk every September since that first hunt — nearly 28 years and counting. I feel like I’ve already spent a lifetime hunting elk but in reality I still have a lifetime of hunting left.
My dad is truly an incredible man: driven, dedicated, hard-working, and a true family man. He’s owned a lawn sprinkler business for the last 35 years and spent every year working outside, under the sun and in the dirt. Even at age 63 that work ethic hasn’t waned, not even a bit. As I sit here typing this, we’ve just finished a five-mile run in 90-degree heat in the foothills of Denver. Sure he spends more days hunting than he did when he was younger and now he’s a babysitter extraordinaire for my own kids, but he deserves it. From a very early age, I can remember spending time with my dad. I went to work with him as a toddler; I helped change the oil in our cars; I worked in the yard with him. Some of my first toys as a kid were a set of screwdrivers and a hammer.
When I was young, I thought I was learning those skills from my dad. But as an adult, I don’t change my oil, my yard won’t ever be featured in any magazines, and I don’t get excited when there are household projects to do. I’ve realized over the years that what my dad was actually teaching me was how to be a good man, husband, father, and person. And what better location for those lessons than the Colorado wilderness during elk season. Of course my dad was also having a great time!
Hunting is truly an incredible adventure and unfortunately one in which too few people participate. Hunting connects us to our forefathers and our history. It reminds us of the simple things in life. It forces us back to the roots of what it means to be human. Sitting around a campfire, or listening to an elk bugle, or chasing a bull through the aspens isn’t just fun or exciting. It’s a necessary part of the human existence. Hiking for hours upon hours, tired and exhausted. Running out of water and relying on your own intestinal fortitude to keep going. Hunting forges bonds between people and nature that can’t be forged anywhere else. But now hunting has to compete with sports and video games and apathy, and oftentimes that’s a losing battle.
That’s what makes my dad so incredible. He didn’t just take me hunting or introduce me to the wilderness or buy me my first bow. I didn’t just hear my first bugle with him or camp under the stars for the first time with him. What I did with him was develop a deep passion and love for hunting. That’s the distinction. There’s a difference between having experiences and truly experiencing. We didn’t just “go hunting,” we experienced everything that the wild has to offer. My dad taught me how to let the sound of the bugling elk touch my soul. He taught me to have great respect for the animals that I kill because it is through them that we have a connection to the land. He didn’t teach me how to shoot a bow. He taught me how to let the bow be an extension of my hand. He taught me to embrace the cold and snow and wind and rain. He taught me that those are just obstacles to overcome. Because of this I don’t just go hunting. No, I love hunting.
I love the feeling of the first rays of sun on a cold morning. I love watching a herd of elk effortlessly move across the landscape. I love listening to the sound of the wind through the pines. I love waking up at 4 a.m., pulling my boots on, eating a cold granola bar, and hiking all day in search of elk. Okay, maybe I don’t actually love getting up at 4 a.m. but you know what I mean. I love the feeling of killing an animal and I love the feeling of coming home empty-handed. I love knowing that I gave it my all, that I put the time in before the season to be prepared, that I shot my bow and trained. Then I know if I don’t notch my tag, it’s only because it wasn’t meant to be.
Throughout our years of hunting together there have been plenty of ups and downs, near misses, close calls, and missed opportunities. We’ve always hunted hard, backpacking for a week or more through the wilderness, eating freeze-dried dinners, and filtering water wherever we could find it. We’ve honed our bugling skills and our ability to judge the wind; we’ve worked incredibly hard at our craft. But many times the season would end and all we had were stories. While it was difficult to understand why our hard work hadn’t paid off, it was important to learn from our mistakes and make the effort to be better next year. These lessons are great for hunting but are even more important and applicable in real life. The lessons learned in the elk woods are many, and they are easily translated into everyday life. Your patience is constantly tested while hunting; your will and strength and desire to succeed are always being honed. We’ve all had disappointing hunting trips. We’ve all heard the sound of rain or snow on the tent and had to decide whether to sleep in or get up and hunt. We’ve all been miles from camp as the sun went down and had to hike back in the dark. We’ve all run out of water, or gotten lost, or twisted an ankle. But we always endure and keep moving forward.
Like hunting, life has many of the same challenges. There are times when we lose a job or a loved one, when we can’t pay the bills, when things aren’t going our way. But it is how we face these challenges that truly define who we are. When hunting you have to stay positive and have faith that the next mountain will hold that bull, that the next bugle will be the one. In life too, it is imperative that we stay positive and continue our forward momentum. We must have the faith to know that the next opportunity that knocks will be the right one. To many people, hunting is just some guys going out in the woods to shoot a gun and bullshit each other. It’s a travesty that people don’t truly know what hunting is about and what it teaches all of us. Hunting is more than an outdated or antiquated activity. It is an art form that needs to be cherished and shared and passed down from generation to generation.
As I sit and write this, my wife is putting our two kids to bed. Being a father myself has caused me to think even more about what my own dad has done for me. What kind of dad will I be? Will I ever live up to his stature? Can I raise healthy, happy, and well-adjusted children like my parents did? Can I pass along the hunting tradition that my father instilled in me? Can I overcome all of the negative influences that my kids will see and teach them to love the wilderness like I do? Can I teach them to love the simplicity of bowhunting while also appreciating the difficulty? These are questions that I continuously ask myself, but it’s my hope that in 30 years I can tell stories about the hunting trips that I went on with my own kids.
My daughter caught her first fish just last weekend, and the excitement on her face was a joy to see. She was intrigued by the fish, calling it cute and beautiful but also wanting to cook it and eat it. So we did. It is in these little moments that I picture my own father telling a three-year-old me about trout and streams and fishing. That is how traditions are passed down, and as that fish came out of the water I felt like I was participating in something far bigger than an eight-inch trout.
As I grew older and had to make my own life decisions, I began to see more and more how hunting, and more importantly my dad, has influenced my life. I have spent literally thousands of hours hunting with my dad, and throughout that time, unbeknownst to me, my dad was helping mold me into the person I am today. Maybe he didn’t even realize everything he was doing, but I hope he now realizes how important it’s been to me. At age 34 I realize I still have a long road to travel before I can begin to compare myself to him. But that’s okay because I have confidence in the knowledge that I’ve learned from an incredible man, and if I am always striving to be like him I know that I will succeed. Maybe I won’t be exactly like him, while we share many characteristics we are in fact different people. I am my own person and will make my own decisions in life. I will have my own ups and downs and my front yard will probably never be as nice as his. But it is because of him that I have been a good husband and it is because of him that I know I will be a good father and it is because of him that I will pass on our hunting tradition to my children.
As I think back to that 2 a.m. hike with that bull on our backs, I am struck by the symbolism of the moment. It’s the middle of the night, it’s cold, and we’d been working hard for hours, but we persevered through it and we persevered through years of hunting failures. Now in the wee hours of the night, we shared the excitement of our success. Sure it is my bull, but it wouldn’t have happened without my dad. Little did I know that this bull had been in my sights since I was six years old. This bull symbolized the years we’d spent together in the woods, but it also confirmed that there were still many years left. Just as there were still many miles to hike. I look up and see my dad ahead of me and realize that he is still leading the way. He is still teaching me how to become a better man, husband, and father. I finally snap out of it and eventually catch up to him. But only because he stopped for a moment to turn and check on me.