The first time we threw her, just a baby, on our backs and headed up the mountain to bear hunt. The first time we slid her first pair of ear protection over her ears and took a shot.
Although it is not the most traditional way to hunt, with a baby, it was what we did and have continued to do since that day, 10 years ago. Her brother was born a few years later; a fall baby, so logically three days out of the hospital he was packed up and headed for hunting camp.
A few more years and along came Number Three, completing our hunting party of five. Some challenged our sanity and perhaps, for a brief moment we did too. The odds go down when there are 3 small children in the field with us. The outcome may not always be what it was in our days of hunting before kids. We may not be able to go in as deep, stay as long or pull out the kind of animal we used to. The investment is great but we know that the return is greater; we are not only investing in the future of hunting, but also in the lives of our children.
As hunting is part of our heritage, so it will be part of our legacy.
Ten years seems like an eternity and yet, at the same time, it passes in the blink of an eye. Over the last 10 years that first little girl of ours has been on more hunts with us that she can count. She has seen the preparation and work that goes into it. She has seen the harvest and witnessed the loss. She has helped pack out meat and learned to cook from the yield. Through it all she has been filled with excitement, anticipating the day it would be her turn to pull the trigger.
As the year approached that she would turn the legal hunting age she started calculating the months. “Dad, Mom, did you realize that since my birthday is in March I technically won’t have to wait until fall to hunt! I can shoot a bear this spring!” We shot a glance at one another. We realized the time was approaching faster than we could have imagined. And she was ready.
“Grab your gear” we called out to the kids. “Load up the truck!” With little hands full, they hoisted one another into the back as they have many times before, eyes bright with adventure. “You guys know the drill. When we pull in, no slamming doors, no talking, everybody grab your packs and a bucket and we’ll head up. Mom will wait back a few yards with the younger two. Taitym and I will sneak in and check things out before you guys come up.”
They all shook with anticipation, knowing perfectly well how to execute this drill they had practiced so many times before. I pushed away a tiny hand as it tried to sneak in and grab a ‘treat’ out of the bait bucket. “That’s not for you.” I whispered as I lifted her onto my back, grabbed the buckets and started packing in.
When we arrived at our spot it was time to work; our little tag holder working the hardest. She loved the labor of it all; implementing the tips and tricks daddy and mommy taught her over the years and the fun traditions we have made together. She loved counting yards and clearing shooting lanes.
Laughter was heard through the hills. Together. That’s how we do things.
As we wrapped up the evening we knew this was just the beginning of the long road ahead. The back and forth and the ins and outs to this place had just started. Each time the same; kids loaded and up the hill we went. Each time, when the coast was clear she would run in and grab the cam; scanning for images of something that gave hope. Time passed and our patience was tested.
Then, one afternoon we heard “Guys! Look!” Image after image of a huge brown bear! “We have one coming in!” she beamed.
Excitement built as we admired the beauty and size of the animal.
“Check the time.” we told her. She looked back down and as she read it aloud. Hearts sank. He had come in past dark each time.
She has seen her father and I over the years experience the disappointment that so often comes with our sport, but this was her first time feeling it herself.
“Now what?” She looked at us with disappointed eyes.
“Now we keep doing our job and wait. We work and we wait. That’s how it is done.”
And so we waited. We waited through ballet recitals and baseball practices. We waited and worked, back and forth to that spot until finally, one day, with only a week left of season, after scanning through image after image of that big black bear coming in at night there was one picture of a little tiny blond bear mulling around...right in the middle of the day.
She flew to her feet! “LOOK! That’s him! I knew it! That is my bear.” She sighed. “That is my bear.”
The next day I baked baseball cookies for the big game her brother had that evening. Our huntress and her dad made a fast trip up to our spot to get everything lined out for the weekend hunt; their plan was to rush in, out and back in time to be in the crowd cheering on little brother as he played. She is his biggest fan.
As I pulled into the field early, the phone rang. “Mom! I saw him. He was there when we went in! My bear! He is so beautiful! MOM? Do you hear me?” She was gasping for air with excitement, and then, “Is Colson ready for his game? We are on our way! Tell him we can’t wait to watch him; he is going to do great!”
My head spun trying to make sense of what she was saying. The bear? It was there? Why are they coming home? Without it? “Hand the phone to daddy.” I said.
When he answered, the questions flew and the story unfolded: As they left the truck, daddy strapped on his pack and pistol and grabbed his girl's hand to head up the hill. He was so focused on hustling her up that mountain in order to get back for the game that he never glanced back to see the rifle sitting in the case in the backseat. He always double checks to make sure the kids have their gear before they head out. The last thing out of his mouth as we shut the truck doors is always “Do you have your gun?” Not this time. It was so out of character I believed there was something greater behind it, unknown to even him in that moment.
Up the hill they ascended.
As they made the final steps in they caught their breath and looked around. There was her bear happily enjoying the sun and the feast around it, completely unaware of their presence. She and her dad's eyes met with excitement. Daddy acted quickly, his hunting instinct in full gear: find a good rest, a clear shot and get her ready. Nothing. The angle was horrible and the shot was one she couldn’t possibly make. And the gun? The gun?! In the truck. He looked down at his pistol and then at her. "No way," he thought.
“Let’s just hang out and see what it does," he said. As they watched, her excitement built. “Do you want me to sneak out and grab the rifle?” he asked. “No.” she replied quietly, her eyes glued to the creature.
Soon the bear sauntered off, allowing them to get in and make their drop.
“It’s ok dad! We need to get to the game!” she whispered “Let’s go!” They descended down the hill, emotions muddled together: He was frustrated. She was thrilled. “We will be back for him!” she assured. “All of us. Together.”
As he told this story over the phone, I couldn’t help but feel encouraged. Tonight was never meant to be the night she harvested her bear. There was a greater plan and the gun left at the truck was a part of that plan. A plan not yet known to any of us.
At the end of the night the game was won, the cookies eaten, and a few more stains were deposited onto the baseball pants. High fives were given and stories exchanged between brother and sister. “I am kind of glad you didn’t shoot it, Taitym” her little brother uttered, “because I wanted to be there with you.” “Me too.” She replied with a smile. “Me too.”
The next evening brought the weekend. As we dropped camp and started into her spot I was thrown back to the decade before when we first questioned our sanity; when we first started packing babies into the mountains to hunt. I reminisced of all the years since. The memories blurred my eyes.
Now, 10 years later, she carried the gun, her hand in her daddy’s. I packed the youngest on my back and guided her brother from behind up the side of the hill.
As we made our final approach I held back with the younger two while the spot was checked. When we got the signal we quietly crept in and got everyone settled. My finger took its permanent rest at my lips reminding the kids to be quiet. Our little shooter situated herself so she had the best shot when it was time. The wait began.
We were 28 yards from where that bear would come in: two adults. Three kids. Twenty-eight yards. Those numbers felt impossible.
Entertainment and snacks were pulled out of the pack in increments to keep the younger kids quiet. Our little huntress sat watching as her daddy and I prayed. Minutes felt like hours.
Then I heard her, so faintly. “There is a bear," she said, quietly, under her breath. “What?” “There is a bear.” She said very matter-of-factly as she started to position her gun.
In just a matter of seconds we were up and looking. We grabbed the other kids and made sure they could see it: the blond bear. That little bear, just our huntress' size, just her color, had positioned himself perfectly for a shot. He hung out as though he was waiting for her. I looked at her finger. Why wasn’t she squeezing? SHOOT! We yelled deep within ourselves. She watched.
“If there is any doubt, if there is any question, don’t ever pull the trigger,” we have told her repeatedly. I knew that was playing in her mind, this child of mine. This child, so patient and thoughtful; always analyzing, never rushing in; cautious yet brave and bold. She was searching within to make sure there was no doubt. And while she was searching, that little bear started to walk off.
My heart sank.
I heard her dad whisper to her “Its ok, we can just watch. You don’t have to shoot him.”
“What? No, Daddy, I am going to shoot him. Just wait. ” She was so confident.
We waited. We prayed.
Then he walked right back in and positioned himself perfectly for the second time. Silence. What was she going to do? Within seconds the gun went off...and the bear dropped.
The boy screamed in excitement. Our littlest shouted out, “Does this mean I can talk now?”
Daddy’s tears of pride pooled in his eyes while mine poured down my face.
Our hunter sat quietly, processing it all.
Soon, a few tears started to fall down her face as she looked to us, “I don’t want it to be over. I don’t want to go home. I love it.”
We smiled as we put our arms around her.
She was a hunter.
As we made our descent to the animal the kids chattered with excitement all the way. Once again laughter could be heard throughout the hills as the story was retold from every family member’s angle.
As we grabbed hands to give thanks I looked down at our feet circled up together.
I gave special thanks for forgotten guns and plans greater than ours.
We were now in a race against rain and daylight as we dressed the animal, packed up and tried to make our way out before dark. While we loaded, the energy started to die down as exhaustion set in. “Daddy, can you just take the bear to the freezer and we can stay at camp? We don’t want to go home.”
He looked at me questioningly.
I turned around in my seat. There they were, our three little ones. Dirty, wet and exhausted. Adventure had filled then up and worn them out.
I grabbed each of their blankets and handed them back as their eyes started to fade.
“No way.” I told them. “We come together, we leave together. We are a family.”