Many Americans are not aware of the true wealth they possess through their shared ownership of our Public Lands and Waters. These wild places provide us untold benefits even if we do not ever realize it. Besides the things outdoors enthusiasts enjoy like wild places to camp, hike, fish, hunt, watch animals, and just “get away from it all”, our public lands and waters hold numerous natural resources like grasslands, timber, minerals, and oil, which ultimately benefit all of us via the various revenue streams they provide. These “hard assets” can be much easier to calculate, however, than the “soft benefits” to our individual psyche, and collectively to our identity as a nation. But the soft benefits should never be ignored, especially as we become an increasingly urbanized culture.
In the ten years or so since I have gotten involved in hunting and fishing, I have come to know the mystical powers of the outdoors. Somehow nature has the power to present the exact salve for the wound that won’t heal, no matter what it is. If you’re lonely, you can find other creatures all around you. If you’re tired, you may find energy in the pursuit of a big buck, or you may find rest at the base of a shade tree.
When you are mourning, you may find the echoes of a lost friend’s voice, and comfort that you can, indeed, carry on.
In early 2015 my fraternity brother Cole called with devastating news. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. His liver was functioning at about 25%. He was so matter-of-fact when he told me he’d be on chemo the rest of this life, but it felt like the walls began to close in on me. My friend was going to die much too soon.
Seeing him dealing with his illness caused me to examine my own life and to try to reprioritize some things. Getting together with the core group of guys each fall was still a fun time, but I began to want something more from the time I spent away from my family. With my closest friends, I wanted to share experiences that went deeper than sitting around a fire, drinking beer, and talking about old times. By the Fall of 2017, I had convinced a couple other guys, including Cole, that we should plan a western hunt for the following year.
Cole had grown up hunting and had his own hunting property in northern Missouri not far from where he lived. I had started hunting only fairly recently, after my own children had shown interest in it. He was always confident in his abilities and had great hunting stories, while my stories were about the way we bumbled around in the woods while I was trying to teach my kids to do something I didn’t even know how to do. He had said several times that he would take me turkey hunting, but I always took it as nothing more than an off-hand remark—the kind that was made as more of a nicety than an actual invitation.
With newfound urgency created by Cole’s illness, and my desire to have more meaningful adventures, I found the courage to ask if he’d take me, and thankfully he said yes.
By the time the Spring turkey season of 2018 came around, Cole was very sick. So sick that he had been in the hospital just a few days before we were scheduled to go. And even though I told him we didn’t need to go, he insisted on taking me. He wasn’t going to miss a chance to be in the turkey woods and to be with one of his friends. It was very typical of the way he lived once he knew he was dying. He wasn’t going to lie around and wait for the Grim Reaper to show up.
I drove up after work on a Thursday and we went to his farm, and despite the fact that his pants would barely stay up for all the weight that he’d lost, and the lack of energy from the chemo and not wanting to eat, we hunted. On the morning of the second day, we awoke to the sound of gobbles in the distance. We were dressed and out of the camper like frat boys running to the beach on the first day of spring break. We located the birds and closed the distance. By 8:25 AM, Cole was taking my photo with my first ever turkey. We slowly hiked back to the camper and he coached me through dressing the bird. When I chose to leave it whole, he mocked me, saying the legs and thighs weren’t worth the effort. But I was intent on enjoying the whole bird, and I did, and he was wrong. They were great.
Cole sat in the shade of the camper while I worked, and with my attention diverted we got into some deep subjects. There’s something about not having to face another man while sharing your darkest fears that will help put your soul on full display. I’ll remember that morning for the rest of my life, for the push and pull of joy and sorrow as I drove back home, alone.
A month after the turkey hunt, just as we learned that we had drawn our antelope tags to go to Wyoming that fall, Cole let me know the doctors had done all they could for him, and there was no way he would be able to make the journey. He passed on September 17, but not before living every last day as hard as he possibly could. A few days later, as we laid him to rest in a rural cemetery, I stood and stared blankly at the surrounding hillsides. I spotted trails where deer most likely came into the cemetery. I knew he was in a better place, but that didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.
As turkey season approached this past spring, I could not find the fire to go out and hunt. Every time I thought about it, all that came to mind was the hunt I had with Cole and the way we soaked in the spring air that weekend, just enjoying being alive. A big part of me just wanted to make that the last time I ever hunted turkeys. It didn’t help that work and family life was incredibly hectic and the thought of having time for myself, even a morning for a hunt, just didn’t seem possible.
Midway through the season, an open morning presented itself. I decided if I was going to hunt, I was going to challenge myself and visit some place I hadn’t been. I wanted to follow Cole’s lead and live hard while I could. If nothing else, I could enjoy being away from civilization for a while and perhaps out of cell phone range. I had been thinking about visiting a nearby national forest, but when I started map scouting, I spotted a state conservation area I hadn’t ever noticed before. As I looked at the aerial photos, I found an area far away from any roads, separated by some thick, hilly country that looked like it had potential to offer both solitude from other hunters and a good zone for a strutting tom.
With that discovery, my mind was made up. I would wake at 3:30 AM, drive somewhere I had never been, hike for an hour in the dark, and set up for the first time with the hopes of at least hearing a turkey. It was everything I needed at that moment.
The hike in was harder than I thought it would be. The trail made an odd turn and in the dark, I decided to trust my map that said a trail should be there, instead of my eyes that said the trail turned. I spent 30 minutes or so going totally cross-country, down and back up until I suddenly rejoined the trail I had left. Eventually I made it down to the place I wanted to hunt. I set up one hen decoy, found a good hide, and waited for the sun to rise and the woods to wake up.
I made some very sparing calls, and as I did so I recalled the way Cole had mocked my attempts at calling the previous spring. I was no better now than I had been then. Even so, I heard the first gobble from the roost at 6:15, and about five minutes later I saw the culprit about 100 yards away, on the other side of a small creek. I made one or two more soft yelps and then shut up and let the decoy do the work.
The turkey crossed the creek and then disappeared into some brush. I watched intently and could barely make out his movements. He was totally silent as he moved. In fact, he only gobbled a couple of times before I spotted him and never gobbled after I saw him. Eventually, he stepped out about 50 yards to my right. As soon as he was clear of the brush, he went into full strut. It was something I had never seen before and I was mesmerized by it.
I could tell immediately that he was a jake by the uneven shape of his fan. My heart dropped just a little, even though jakes were legal to take, because I really wanted a mature gobbler after shooting a jake the prior year with Cole. But I trained my shotgun on him and followed him in as he closed the distance on the decoy. Eventually, though, I decided I wasn’t going to shoot him and just watched for a couple minutes or so as he harassed my decoy. At first, I was content to just have the experience that was unfolding in front of me.
As I sat stone still and silent, however, the magnitude of what I was experiencing overcame me. I had taken what I learned the year before from Cole and applied it to a wild public place I had never been before. I hiked through the woods, over a mile from the road, in the dark, gaining and losing hundreds of feet in elevation, and set up a decoy and called in a turkey, all by myself. And I could hear Cole whispering to me, asking me when the heck I was going to pull the trigger. So I carefully raised my shotgun, took aim, and fired. It only took one shot this time, and I had my first major public land animal.
The elation that I felt will be a familiar feeling to anybody who has struggled to find game, who has hiked off the beaten path in search of success, or who has experienced loss and fought to come through to the other side. I’ll admit to shedding a quick tear, but then turning to the work at hand and feeling the immense pride that comes from hard fought success. That feeling stayed with me in the days and weeks that followed, as I crossed the anniversary of my hunt with Cole.
Our wild public lands and waters are a treasure where any of us can find that same pride. I’ll be forever thankful for the opportunities they afford me to get away, to find solace and reward, to recharge batteries even as I deplete them through the effort it takes to find this reward, and to hear the voices of those who have gone before me. I have found the best version of myself in these wild places.
This opportunity is available to any of us and it doesn’t just exist in the more well-known and well-publicized places. My backcountry that day was a 4000-acre state conservation area, well off the beaten path, yet familiar and important to the people who go there to find their version of the backcountry. These places large and small are ours and they are worth protecting and fighting for. That’s why I am proud to say I’m a member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.