This piece was originally featured in the spring 2021 edition of the Backcountry Journal.
My father called my older brother and me into the room and told us to grab the blue notebook from the counter. He shakily clasped his glasses and opened the spiral revealing a list of the guns he owned. My brother and I both thought the conversation was going a completely different route, so we openly expressed: “What the hell, Dad? We thought this was going to be a serious conversation.”
“You have to keep your priorities straight,” he confidently stated.
He traced his finger across the page leading to the name of the new owners. On the top line of the list were the words “BROWNING A5” written in the distinctive all caps handwriting my dad possessed. I followed his finger across the page to see my name listed. I choked back the tears, feeling a deep sense of gratitude for 22 years of life spent with this man, learning what it means to be an ethical outdoorsman.
My entry to both the outdoors and the hunter’s ethic results from my family’s history and my father introducing me at a young age. Every hunting trip, every harvest, every wounded deer taught something new about the pursuit of wild animals and more importantly about myself and my own personal hunting ethics.
Regulations and laws are set in every state, but outdoorsmen and women are guided equally by their personal beliefs and values. My father’s teachings now guide the work I do with the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point BHA collegiate club and the wildlife ecology and management degree I pursue.
In the early stages of my hunting career, I desired seeing deer during every sit and was frustrated when I didn’t. Years afield and many conversations with my old man altered those desires significantly. My dad spoke of hunting as a therapy session, leaving the city lights and noise in the rearview mirror every weekend to escape the stress of work and the modern lifestyle – something I didn’t fully understand until years later.
He lies on the bed in front of me, I look into his eyes staring intently back at mine, tears welling. We hold our gaze for a minute or two allowing the tears to meander silently like streams between the contours on our faces. The eyes I stare into hold countless hunting and fishing stories, reminding me of the campfires we would make every night at deer camp: sitting there, beer in hand, reminiscing, pointing out different constellations and talking future aspirations.
My father was diagnosed with stage four bladder cancer last September. He battled and beat it the first time around but recently discovered cancer had once again compromised his body
and began spreading rapidly up one leg and into the other parts of his body. The pain compounded resulting in near immobility. You begin to shape new perspectives on the frailty of human existence when you see the life being sucked out of the strongest man you know.
Every visit home from college inevitably ended up with me downstairs rummaging through my father’s gun safe. One gun had always caught my eye – that old Browning A5. This stunningly
beautiful piece of machinery has a deep-rooted tradition, passed through generations of hunters’ hands. My grandfather held this gun through many adventures in the swamps of central Wisconsin, before it eventually found itself within my father’s grasp on the Mississippi River during the peak waterfowl migration.
On the afternoon of October 28, I slowly unzip the tan gun case. As I unsheathe the gun from its case and grip the stock, my hand melds with it, making us one. My hands the key that unlocks the memories and stories held within. As I balance the gun in my hands, I feel my dad gripping my hand in a firm handshake as if signaling his last goodbye. I open the action and delicately place a 3-inch shell inside. I press the release button and the action closes with purpose. With an hour of shooting light left, I approach the pond with sounds of mallards and geese emanating from its dark, tranquil water.
Small sheets of ice cover the edges of the pond, where I see some mallards sitting, preening their feathers and awaiting the dusk trip back to their roosts. I silently crawl through the marsh
grass, allowing my hand to sink into the wetland mud, feeling its heartbeat reverberate into every inch of my body. Time starts to slow as I close the distance. I feel my heartbeat in my throat and the adrenaline begins to slowly course through my body. I slowly lift my head above the grass and see a drake and hen swimming away, sensing imminent danger. Now or never.
I rise above the marsh grass revealing my presence and instinctively shoulder the Browning. The mallards erupt off the pond, wings beating in unison with my heart. I pull the bead left,
centering on the drake and pull the trigger. The bird folds as the No. 2 shot hits its mark. The echo carries across the field adjacent, and I hope that my dad heard it from miles away. My body floods with emotion, and I instantly tear up holding the gun close to my chest. I wade into the cold water and approach the duck. I grasp his warm body and pull him from the water. I admire his beauty and thank him for this moment and allowing me to share this moment with my dad. As I make my way around the pond, the sunset catches my eye as the reflection bounces off the ice and calm water. I snap a picture capturing the beauty of this moment and tell my dad, “This one is for you, Pops.”
At 6:15 the following morning, my father passed away.
Many moments I break down and cry. I seek solace in knowing that in 22 years we made countless memories in the outdoors, drawn closer because of these experiences. But I still struggle knowing that I will never share these experiences with him in person again. I grasp hope knowing that his spirit resides in me as I continue my journey through life. I struggle knowing that I will never hear his voice again. I struggle knowing that I can never give him a call to seek his advice or hear any more hunting stories around the campfire. Despite all of this, I feel his presence. Every sunrise and every sunset, I feel him next to me with his arm stretched around my back, squeezing my shoulder, stoically remarking, “God is a damn good painter, ain’t he?”