Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Month: October 2013

mentrix

My first day hunting was with a friend who many in the outdoors industry would call a mentor. However, I didn’t think of it that way. It wasn’t until years later that we were asked to mentor a young hunter whose mother wanted to provide her son the opportunity to go waterfowling that I wondered about the word mentor and whether her son would think I was one. We spent the morning in the marsh together after a day at the gun range, and he shot his first pintail on the wing. Nothing about that day felt like mentoring any more than falling in love feels like a relationship.

“The Old Man knows pretty near close to everything, and mostly he ain’t painful with it. What I mean is he went to Africa once when he was a kid, and he shot a tiger or two out in India, or so he says, and he was in a whole lot of wars here and yonder. But he can still tell you why the quail sleep at night in a tight circle or why the turkeys always fly uphill.”

The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark

What I’ve learned from an old duck hunter wasn’t taught to me in a day. But, all of it was expressed in the single moment that captured my attention. My first time duck hunting I missed my shot at a pair of widgeon (I had aimed at both of them) after a long crawl through the nastiest swamp filled with rotting salmon, spider webs, and shrews. My friend reached down into the wet grass and picked up my spent shell and held it up to my nose. “This is what fall smells like to me,” he said. He didn’t need to say anything else.

A friend’s son with his first duck, a pintail he shot on the wing.

A friend’s son with his first duck, a pintail he shot on the wing.

The people in my life are not automatically valuable to me because of their role (aunts, uncles, sisters, cousins, bosses, co-workers, or teachers) but because of who they are and what they share. Sometimes a defined relationship provides a reason to know someone, but it doesn’t necessarily provide the value. The term mentor is said to have come from Homer’s The Odyssey, but the character was an old friend of the king’s who failed at guiding and nurturing him (the qualities of a mentor). Interestingly, it was the goddess Athene, who took the form of Mentor and who guided and nurtured the king’s son. I don’t know what this has to do with the magic of last light or the sight of a gun dog perched at the end of the blind staring at the sky. I could take a friend’s son along with me hunting, but it was up to him to find something to love in the field.

While instructing at a Delta Waterfowl Youth Education Day, one of the participants stood out from the rest. They all said they wanted to go hunting, but this kid had gone before and wanted any chance to go again. We went hunting.

While instructing at a Delta Waterfowl Youth Education Day, one of the participants stood out from the rest. They all said they wanted to go hunting, but this kid had gone before and wanted any chance to go again. We went hunting.

So, if I wasn’t being mentored on hunts or later, mentoring hunts, what was happening? Why did the word mentor bother me so much? Because I love the outdoors, I question the words we use to describe them. When a fly fisherman refers to a particular lake as a fishery, I ask myself what about a lake reminds me of a fish factory where fish are bred and caught for an occupation. I never have liked indoor language for the outdoors. The regulatory vocabulary that calls fish and game the resource and hunters and fisherman a user group takes the blood out of what so often is a sacrament. I’m not dreaming about a fishery or huntery but lakes, streams, mountains, and fields. Although it makes me smile when river guides refer to their boat as the office.

The word mentor is just not a very outdoorsy word.  It’s not a sexy word. It’s a word that belongs in the business world, in the therapist’s chair, in plot dynamics, or in the classroom. It was re-invented in 1699 by a French educator who focused on the training aspect of education. It’s a word that makes me feel 100 years old and bookish. When I read the word mentor in literature about hunter recruitment, I can’t put it in the same sentence with “the grouse flushed wild.”  When there’s a young person or a beginner out hunting with me, we’re just hunting. It may not sound great on a parental consent form, but that’s what it is. And, it’s enough.

My hunting partner, Gunner, and I spent the day hunting grouse and sharing hunting stories in the cab of the truck with a friend's son

My hunting partner, Gunner, and I spent the day hunting grouse and sharing hunting stories in the cab of the truck with a friend’s son

The proliferation of mentoring programs in the outdoor arena has a focus on safety and can include guided trips, seminars, motivational speaking, coordinated events, and educational materials. New hunters are able to experience hunting in a “controlled environment.” Some of these programs cite the need to get youth outdoors and away from video games so that they may develop a relationship with nature. Then, the programs, by design, replace the danger and life-blood of a legitimate hunt with a pragmatic activity and rhetoric. The safest mentoring activity may well take place in a video game format.

At an educational field day, an instructor congratulates a student on fine shooting. These kind of courses are excellent in providing a basis of skill and understanding, but there comes a point when the student leaves the classroom and enters the field with all the responsibility it entails.

At an educational field day, an instructor congratulates a student on fine shooting. These kind of courses are excellent in providing a basis of skill and understanding, but there comes a point when the student leaves the classroom and enters the field with all the responsibility it entails.

Hunting with a partner instead of a mentor puts me on an even level, which best represents what happens between a veteran and a new recruit. The responsibility of handling a firearm requires equality. While an expert re-lives his early days, a beginner awakens to possibility. Life is hard enough without warnings and admonishments from authority figures; far better to share the journey, learn from each other, and forget for a few moments the liability terminology of pseudo-parental relationships.

My hunting partner is always the one to insist we go a bit further or stay a bit longer. It’s in this extra time I wouldn’t have spent that everything happens. The chemistry of a good hunting partner is such that you can follow them to places that don’t really exist: the Neverland of the hunting world that is different to every person that finds it.  Sitting in a duck blind at last light, you turn to your left–or your right–and the person on the bench next to you is your favorite person in the world. The word mentor and mentoring programs fall short in describing how this relationship forms or is sustained.

I might call my hunting partner a mentor today, if I liked the word. What I would rather call him is my hunting partner. It’s a relationship that does not get much press, and it’s one that is not often the subject of self-help books or therapy sessions (even if you’re Dick Cheney). The modern hunting partner relationship is not one that is celebrated by any anniversary or categorized by any census, but it is an important partnership in the life of any hunter. A hunting partner brings an extra set of eyes and ears and skills. They are doctors, attorneys, cooks, professional gun smiths, taxidermists and sometimes designated drivers. They can be eight year old boys or girls.

turning point

Although I followed him into the mountains, it was not always with certainty. He ranged so freely and cut such a wide swath across the open valley–flattening the distance of a summit and whipping down rocky terrain without pause–that I often wondered if he overran the scent he was supposed to follow. We got a GPS collar that would track him for seven miles and still worried we would lose him, as other hunters had lost their dogs in this same country that swallowed itself in sloughing mountainsides and glacial lakes draining clear to the ocean. How could I trust him not to get lost and to instead find white-tail ptarmigan, I wondered, if he sometimes pointed song birds and sometimes, in his haste, passed over lowland willows and grouse?

Winchester & Whitetails1

We were six miles into a valley when my hunting partner slowed from chest pains. He’d been having them all morning, and they had no relation to exertion so we knew it wasn’t a heart attack. Our plan was to follow the valley as it curved westward into a basin and then go over the top into the next valley in search of white tails, the ptarmigan inhabiting the highest elevation of the three species. We watched Winchester run up the rocky side of the valley in a straight line. “Please don’t let him find birds up there,” I thought. And just as I thought it, he stopped. He was 600 vertical feet above us.

Winchester & Whitetails2

“You go ahead,” my hunting partner said. His chest pains would slow him so he would make his way up behind me. There was no getting out of it. We had to honor Winchester’s point. I kept my eye on him as I zigged and zagged my way up the rocky mountainside. His body was ridged. Setter folks say Gordon’s are the most loyal of the setters, Irish setters the most affectionate. English setters have these qualities in part, but they will not spare them for a bird. It took me twenty minutes to reach his point. It was twenty minutes of trust between us as I rushed and he held.

As I walked past him, he never looked at me just as he never looked back. His focus was on the bird, as it should be. The bird’s head reached up at my approach, and I remembered to anchor my feet. With my back to the valley below, I leaned forward into my shot and watched the bird drop as twenty or more other birds scattered white into the rocks a hundred yards above us.

Winchester & Whitetails3

I held Winchester back. My partner was still a hundred feet below us. It was a chance for me to catch my breath but Winchester barely breathed. He sat beside me with blood in his eye. He didn’t whine like the chocolate labs sometimes do in the duck blind. It wasn’t patience, just drive that cooled like steel beside me. I knew not to pet him or offer him water. We would just wait in methodical silence in the same way he hunted. He was still hunting.

My partner’s chest pains didn’t stop him from proposing we continue upward. He let Winchester go, and 200 yards above us, he found the birds again. This time his point cut one of the most beautiful silhouettes I’d ever seen on a mountain. Like the elk or the caribou making a stand, his posture held a mastery over a place and time. “You go ahead,” I told my partner. “I’ll follow you with the camera.” Winchester was his dog, and they shared a drive that could not acknowledge the distraction of a torn carpal pad or chest pains so long as there were birds and the pain did not stop them completely.

Winchester & Whitetails4

Together, they took two birds. When each bird fell, it glanced off the rocks and rolled, hitting rocks and bouncing all the way to the valley floor some thousand feet below. Winchester pointed a third bird below us, and we began our descent, figuring we would end the day early with these few birds after this last point, find our birds in the valley, and possibly stop by the hospital on our way home.

Winchester & Whitetails5

The next bird fell into a ravine, and Winchester found it. He was not a retriever and, in fact, had only retrieved one or two birds in his three years of hunting. These were birds we had no hope of retrieving ourselves. It was as if he knew. He had begrudgingly brought each bird to the farthest edge of our reach and dropped it with disinterest. But, he would pick up a bird, just to hold it in his mouth, never damaging it. He held this bird that way and I snapped a picture before he whirled around. He didn’t have time to drop it and was on point again with the bird still in his mouth.

My partner took aim, and I took a photo of something that I had not ever seen before. This dog, I thought, could be trusted. I should never doubt him when he passes over grouse or has a passing interest in song birds. He knows what he is doing. He is hunting the birds we are hunting. He is doing it even when we are not. He is following a scent that is so strong, it completely masters him so that nothing else matters. It didn’t matter if he had a bird in his mouth already. His owner didn’t care that he was near exhausted with pain. The two of them looked about as reverent as I could ever hope to be, and the birds flushed wild.

Winchester & Whitetails6