column By: Jack Ballard | March, 18
He was a keeper of livestock and a caretaker of crops, a man respected in his community but viewed with less than affection by some. His communication with his sons was sparse, consisting primarily of orders and observations, seldom fostering interchange or engaging felt emotions or aspirations. He was my father, the one who taught me to hunt. But in an age where a premium is placed upon a child-centered approach and early success as a means of cultivating hunters, many would regard him as a pretty deficient mentor. Take my first elk hunt as an example.
Some months after my fifteenth birthday, he apparently concluded his youngest son was capable of elk hunting. There was no automatic age triggering an invitation to elk camp. An older brother was allowed the experience earlier than I. Simply achieving legal age to hunt was not enough. Somewhere in the mind of my father was an equation for assessing his sons’ maturity and deservedness. Though the particulars were not communicated to the participants, standards required reaching. Unaware of the specifics of those expectations, I was ecstatic when the invitation to elk camp finally came my way.
In our family, the social significance of elk camp was as important, perhaps more important than the hunting. It was the week of the year in which males of the clan congregated in a reunion more potently social (and occasionally profane) than the Memorial Day picnic that annually found more than 100 relatives converging on an uncle’s ranch yard to eat, decorate the tombstones of departed ancestors in a nearby cemetery, then eat some more. My first night at elk camp was spent in the company of my dad, two brothers, two uncles and a half-dozen older cousins and husbands of cousins. The men laid their heads upon pillows on cots in a wall tent heated with a wood stove. I slept for a few hours in a sleeping bag on the ground inside the nylon canopy of a camping tent that kept the frost at bay but not the cold. For what seemed (and probably was) half the night, I huddled in the bag in fetal position, shivering mightily, fervently awaiting any indication of activity in the cooking tent that would signal an acceptable exit from my frigid residence to the warmth and comfort of the domain of men.
Dawn of opening day found me in the company of an uncle who had agreed to allow his youngest nephew to tag along when he dropped into a heavily timbered slope behind the camp. Dad had a prized cow tag in his pocket and rode away on horseback with another uncle and some cousins. There were no “good lucks,” “goodbyes” or “be carefuls.” A couple of hours into the hunt, Uncle Tom and I parted ways for reasons I don’t remember. I blundered about in the timber, actually spotted a cow elk, then looped back in the opposite direction to hit the two-track a mile below camp in late afternoon.
When the men swung from their sweaty saddlehorses that evening in the light of a gas lantern, I held at the hitching rail and learned my father had not killed his cow. I, at least, had seen one, and well within shooting range, though my tag was only good for a bull. At dinner a kindly older cousin asked about my day. I proudly reported my cow sighting, though I couldn’t pinpoint the exact location when pressed for the details. In a very small sort of way, I thought myself an elk hunter.
To the modern father or contemporary hunter education instructor, Dad’s action on my first day of elk hunting would likely be viewed as selfish and irresponsible at best, dangerously neglectful at worst. I had scrounged up some matches from the cook tent and had a sandwich tucked in the pocket of my coat. As the riding party prepared to leave in the predawn hours of opening day, another uncle, a forest service employee who owned a compass and knew how to use it, offered some orienteering insurance in a single sentence. “You’re heading north, so if you get turned around, head back south and you’ll hit the road.” What kind of father or mentor leaves a kid in the big, wild woods with so little guidance?
In fact, the preparation for that dawn-to-dusk rite of passage as a stripling elk hunter had been occurring for years, though little of it consisted of spoken instruction. By age 10, I was allowed to roam the ranch and a neighbor’s property with a .22 rifle, shooting ground squirrels and rabbits, learning to recognize landmarks and familiar hills that would guide me back to the house by mealtime. I had watched my father kindle fires while mule deer hunting and was sure I could build one of my own. Was I prepared to gut a bull elk should fortune have so smiled on my youth? Probably not. But in relation to this task, I had also watched my dad divest many deer and antelope of their entrails with the casual efficiency of an expert. It was that unspoken instruction that allowed me to field-dress my first deer later that fall in the absence of any hunting companion.
Reflections upon my upbringing, upon that singular relationship between father and son that is so formative and sacred in American culture, have claimed many hours of my adult life. I’m confident a little more verbal interchange and physical affection between myself and my father would have smoothed many a rocky patch on my path to maturity. Should he have taken me under wing on that first day of my first-ever elk hunt? Answering that question brings up an age-old issue in mentoring: At what point does the teacher curtail his or her direct influence to foster the personal competence of the learner?
It seems fair to conclude that my “abandonment” on that brisk October morning was actually a compliment. My father was obviously confident in his kid’s ability to fend for himself, and I remember nary a hint of worry or relief when he found his boy safe in camp at the end of the day.
I sometimes contrast his approach with interactions between myself and my own son at elk camp. This past fall he was able to make the hunt after a multi-year hiatus. Though a 22-year-old, competent adult, I had to remind myself to back off on bombarding him with last-minute instructions, safety preparations and the like.
Cross-cultural studies have shown children learn from their elders in very different ways around the world. The same certainly applies to the mentoring of the next generation of hunters, and in the final analysis it seems a mistake to assume that there’s only one way to develop a hunter.