Hunting With My Father
July 17, 2019
I shot my first elk in Colorado during the first rifle season in 2016. It was a five-day season, and I had a cow tag. I took off work unpaid to hunt all five days. Four friends and I set up a wall tent at the end of a long forest service road, next to a trailhead that gave us access to miles and miles of road-less country. We woke up before the sun every morning and hiked in over two miles to get to where we thought the elk would be.
We started spotting elk on day one, and over the course of the hunt I found myself stumbling into more elk than I had ever seen before. On day two I stalked a calf through the woods until I spooked it and it slipped out of sight. About an hour later I was nearly trampled by a herd that was fleeing from another hunter. The third morning, I followed the sound of a bugling elk into some thick timber until I walked straight into their wallow. I came within 30 yards of the bull and about ten cows, not knowing I was that close until all at once they crashed out of sight in every direction. They were gone before I even knew what to do. Later that day, I shot at a cow while she ran away from me, only to find that my bullet was absorbed by a thick aspen tree. On day four, I shot again at a cow in a steep, deep ravine, missing that shot because it was farther than I had any business shooting. I had committed instance after instance of head-slapping, sigh-inducing errors. It was a true novice’s hunt.
By the late afternoon on day five, I had squandered as many chances as a reasonable person could hope for. My buddies and I had hunted hard, and I was exhausted. By that time our group had dwindled to two hunters: myself and my friend from college, Mike. Two others had gone back to work. The fifth, Mike’s dad, decided not to hunt the last day. On that final evening, Mike and I settled in on a hillside overlooking a large meadow to watch the sun set. Our rifles were loaded, but we did not expect to shoot them. We both leaned back and dozed off.
After about an hour, I heard a cow call that stirred me awake. As if in a dream, I watched two tan forms run from the woods into the meadow directly in front of me. The lead cow stopped in the meadow, completely unaware of our presence. In a dramatic whisper, I alerted Mike while simultaneously leaning forward and pulling out my range finder. The cow was standing exactly 200 yards ahead, broadside and at a flat trajectory. I leveled my rifle and squeezed the trigger. Even for a novice marksmen like me, it was an easy shot. I chambered a new round and found her again in my scope. By that time she was on the run but I could clearly see a red dot right where her lungs would be. She ran downhill and to my right, crashing into a stand of willows. She never came out the other side.
A few weeks later, third rifle season in Colorado opened on a Saturday. I missed the first day so that I could be with my father, who was ill. I drove up to meet everyone (the same guys from the elk hunt) early Sunday morning, with a buck tag in my pocket. As I pulled into the driveway of the house we had rented, we loaded up right away and headed to our usual spot.
I drove in with Mike. We parked at the base of a large hill covered in sagebrush but with the occasional patch of aspen trees or dark timber. We made a simple plan: hunt straight up the hill, abreast but about 100 yards apart, and until we reached the top.
We had walked about 200 yards when we hit the first stand of aspens. It was small enough that we would straddle it with our formation. As Mike passed along the opposite side, a mule deer popped out of the trees 40 yards ahead of me. Through my binoculars I could see a modest rack of antlers. A pulse of adrenaline immediately overcame me. As I laid my binoculars down and unslung my rifle, the buck started running up the hill and to the right. It stopped 150 yards away. I had shooting sticks with me, but in my frenzy I had flung them to the ground instead of setting them up as a rest. I knelt, shouldered my rife, centered on the vitals as best I could, and took the shoot. The buck kicked and then bounded up over a shelf so that I could no longer see him.
Immediately, I went up to where the buck was standing when I shot. I saw blood and tracks, and followed them up the hill until I saw him lying in the sagebrush right in front of me. More due to luck than skill, I had made a clean vitals shot. He was not a record-breaking animal by any means, but still I was elated. He was the first buck I ever harvested.
Most people cite childhood trips with their dads as they reason they got into hunting. For me, things were a bit different. My Pop was certainly an adventurer and an amazing travel companion. But he was not a hunter. He was a gentle man, and guns and violence did not sit well with him. In fact, my uncles tell a story that illuminates the very moment my dad proved to the world that he was not born to be a hunter.
It was sometime in the 1970s. My dad and his three brothers went deer hunting. They decided on a drive tactic. Three of them would crash through the woods and scare the deer in the direction of a fourth person, who waited in a predetermined spot to catch the herd. Since my dad had never shot a deer before, my uncles graciously set him up to be on the receiving end of the drive. So, Pop hiked up the mountain, found a nice log to hide behind, leaned his rifle against a tree, and sat down to wait for the action. As he laid down under the log, he quickly fell asleep.
Shortly thereafter, he was stirred from his slumber by a small herd of deer jumping over the log that he slept under. The drive had been a fantastic success! My father came out of his slumber lying on his back, eyes facing the sky, watching the bellies of deer fly directly over his head. It was like he was counting sheep, only the sheep were deer, and he was supposed to shoot one of those deer. That was the point of the whole endeavor.
“Did you see any deer?” my uncles asked once they caught up to him.
“Did I see any!? I could have reached out and touched them!” he exclaimed.
My uncles’ disappointment is understandable, but they eventually got over it. Whenever they tell this story, they laugh with adoration as they remember the look on my dad’s face, but they always end by saying that was the last hunting trip they ever took him on.
40 years after that failed deer drive, I sat with my buddy Mike at the edge of the meadow watching the sun set on the final day of my elk hunt. By that time, my dad had been fighting terminal esophageal cancer for about five months. The aggressive chemotherapy was taking its toll. The man that I had idolized and adored my whole life was fading in and out of clarity, and deteriorating quickly. A fog had draped over him, and his lucidity was becoming less frequent by the day.
My dad loved being a father, and he told me so frequently. He was my little league football coach all the way through the eighth grade. He gave me guidance through my breakups, losses, failures and mistakes. He occasionally dropped some money into my bank account whenever he noticed I was low. And on top of everything, he had showed me how to have a good adventure. Over the course of my life, we travelled together all over Central America. We went SCUBA diving, deep-sea fishing, riding horses and zip-lining through jungle canopies. We tried strange foods, drank beers and talked about life. As I grew up, graduated college and started working, we evolved from being father-and-son to also being great friends. Truly, he was the best father I could have asked for.
We never hunted together, even though just before his diagnosis he had noticed my growing obsession with hunting and fishing, and had started warming up to the idea of coming with me one day. Looking back at that hunting season in 2016, I can’t help but imagine that while he was in one of his last foggy moments, he was looking through the haze at me sleeping in the elk meadow. I imagine him reaching his hand through time and space to smack that cow elk on the rump, prompting her to run into the field in front of me. I then picture him gently rustling my hair to wake me up at that same moment. I think of him doing the same thing a month later, pushing that buck out of the aspens and setting me up for an easy shot. Of course, I can't say for sure whether Pop had anything to do with me shooting that elk or that buck. But I also can't say for sure that he didn’t. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.
He died the day before Thanksgiving, two weeks after I shot the buck.
Though my father and I never had the chance to hunt together, I wonder if, as he tiptoed into the Ether, he poked his head through to be with me while I was in those woods. I think he knew how badly I wanted those hunts to be successful. He must have used his final moments of omniscience to clap those animals on their tails and stir them from their hiding spots. In his own generous nature, I think it was his way of saying “Here you go, son. But you'll have to take it from here.”