I grew up in a suburban town outside Boston. There weren't many opportunities there for a kid to learn how to hunt, at least as far as I could tell. The fact that no one in my family hunted was another hurdle. Dad's love for nature stopped at the view through his binoculars. he had no interest in taking any of the birds he loved to watch out of the woods and onto the dining room table. My uncle hunted (still does) and one of Dad's best birdwatching buddies used to hunt 40 years ago - back when eastern Massachusetts still had some wild places to roam.
Between the two of them, Uncle Alan and Bob filled my head with enough stories to start thinking nefarious thoughts about the waterfowl and upland gamebirds my Dad and I would traipse around after practically every weekend. But actually doing something about the itch that was keeping me awake at nights seemed impossible. Hunters were so few and far between in my part of the world that I can remember the very first time I saw one. Dad and I were out birding. It was early fall and there were a couple of guys walking toward us down the trail. I looked through my binoculars to see if they were birdwatchers and was shocked to find they were wearing camouflage and carrying bows and arrows. I had been thinking about hunting for some time before that moment, but seeing real hunters actually scared me. What were they going to do? Would they be angry at us? Would they shoot us accidentally?
Actually, they just said good morning and walked on by, but my father's prejudice against hunting punctuated the moment in my mind. "Assholes," he muttered after they had gone out of earshot. So you can see, I had a long way to go to get to where I am today.
Some years later, the promise of a hunting trip with Uncle Alan forced my Dad to set aside his ill will and apprehension. To get a hunting license, I had to pass the Massachusetts Hunter Safety Test. There was a training course that consisted of four evening classes. I was 14 or 15 years old and Dad had to take it with me. After the classes, I received the highest marks on the test and Dad was second. I'm not sure it changed his attitude one bit, but I'll be eternally grateful to him for going through it with me.
The anticipated hunting trip never happened, and it wasn't until I left for college in the middle of Ohio that I had another opportunity to finally answer this call I'd been hearing for the better part of a decade. In Ohio, I was surrounded by guys my age who had grown up in a hunting culture. I knew some of them woke up early, before classes started, and shot ducks in the nearby swamps. One night, my RA enlisted me and another guy to help him drag a deer out of the woods that he'd shot with his bow (looking back on it, that buck may end up being the biggest deer I'll ever see, alive or dead). I remember he was still in camo and facepaint when he knocked on my dorm room door. he was shaking with adrenaline and his speech was slurred, almost like he was drunk, but he wasn't. he was stone cold sober. I have since experienced the same phenomena after a successful hunt.
I talked to my uncle about this new opportunity around me and he sent money for me to buy my first gun - maybe to make up for the hunt that never happened, more likely to get my foot in the door with this tribe of hunters. The Remington 870 Express in 12 gauge is still a vital tool to my hunting exploits, but alas, I never used it in college. Partying took center stage in my life for most of my college career, and hunting resumed its back seat status.
It wasn't until 2002 - I year after Sue and I had married - that I finally had my chance. Sue was working for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission as a waterbird biologist and her supervisor was hosting his annual end-of-the-field-season party for all of the researchers in the region. As I was led around the house for introductions, I stopped cold in the television room. There on the wall, hung the shoulder mount of beautiful whitetail buck with 10 points. Flanking him were the skulls and antlers of two other fine bucks. I was smitten again. I managed to make all the way through the party before I approached Dave, our host. I pointed to the deer on the wall and said what I'd been longing to say to someone for the better part of 20 years, "Will you teach me how do do that?"
To his credit, Dave didn't bat an eye. "Sure. You wanna try this fall?" That started a mentorship that evolved into a friendship that lasts to this day. Dave loaned me an old 30-30 lever action rifle with open sights and taught me to shoot. He invited me to hunt as a guest on his hunting lease in eastern NC and helped me process my first deer. Later, when he'd bought property of his own, he opened it up to me to hunt deer and turkey any time I wanted and it was on his Jones County farm, under his tutelage that I developed many of the skills as a woodsman that I have today. I finally had the mentor I needed to kick open the door to a lifestyle that has become my passion, and for that, I feel lucky, privileged and grateful.
Which brings me to the point of this story. There are other folks out there who need hunting mentors - just like I did. Many of them grew up in similar circumstances, or maybe are only recently enchanted by the idea of harvesting their own meat in an effort to extract themselves for the industrial food chain. In recent decades, the number of hunters has fallen precipitously across the U.S. Why? Because the growing population cries out for more land to develop; more tract housing, more strip malls, more roads and bridges. Because it's so easy to become lost in cyberspace, that kids don't go outside anymore. Because we have become dependent on the industrial food chain that packages up meat that's jacked up on steroids and hormones into nice, cheap styrofoam and plastic packages. We've forgotten what real meat tastes like.
Meanwhile, state fish and wildlife agencies are scrambling to reinvigorate the ranks of hunters. Why? Because hunters provide more dollars for conservation than any other group of outdoor users. Without the funding that comes from license sales and the tax on hunting gear, state and federal efforts to protect wild places and conserve it for public use would shrivel up. They need hunters as much as we need the lands they protect and preside over. But even more than that, hunting is a critical chapter in the evolution of man - perhaps no longer essential to our survival in the literal sense, but an important heritage that should be nurtured and preserved. In my mind, it is impossible to recreate the intimacy and honesty that ethical hunters share with the environment. They've had some success. Though the number of hunters in this country remains at an all-time low, recruiting figures indicate more women than ever are taking it up, and their presence is most welcome.
Holly Heyser writes and excellent blog that often reports on women in hunting called Norcal Cazadora. Check it out if you haven't already.
So I have pledged to do my part. The NC Wildlife Resources Commission has initiated a hunting mentorship program and I have signed on to introduce someone new to this amazing way of living within the landscape. It was easy to sign up - just go to the NCWRC Web site and follow the links. I'm already planning to take and old friend out this fall as often as he cares to go and teach him what I know. It's the least I can do for the pursuit I care so much about.