Real Hunting

This story was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of Backcountry Journal.


By Gary VandenLangenberg


With a natural love of animals and a curiosity for all things wild, my oldest son Forest grew up like many of you. Our yard and the cattail filled ditch behind our house was his arena of exploration and discovery, he and his younger brother Lake constantly flipping over our landscape stones looking for worms, pill bugs and other creepy crawlies.

When Forest was 5 years old, I arrowed a nice whitetail doe on a small piece of public land near our home. After a short sprint, the doe went down. But instead of recovering her right away, I decided to head home to get my wife and kids to share the experience.

As I led my family through the woods to my stand, Forest managed to catch a small wood frog. He was mesmerized by that little frog and was so proud to carry it with him.

We soon got to the shot location. I showed the kids the first sign of blood, and they quickly worked out the trail and found the doe. After saying a prayer, we posed for a couple pictures with the deer, and of course, Forest had the wood frog in his hand front and center.

I field dressed and dragged the deer back to my truck, and while helping Forest get buckled in his seat, I noticed a terribly guilty look on his face.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Forest’s bottom lip began to quiver, and tears were welling up in his eyes. He pleaded, “Don’t take it away, Dad. Please!”

Not knowing what the problem was, I gave him stern look, and he pulled the poor little frog out of his pocket.

“Please, Dad, don’t take him away!” Forest begged.

The cutest thing ever, I could hardly keep a straight face. I calmly explained to him how the frog belonged in the woods and that it wouldn’t be fair if we took him home and kept him in a cage. Forest understood, but it still wasn’t easy, and tears flowed down his cheeks when we turned him loose in a nearby puddle.

Over the following years, we continued to share outdoor experiences, and Forest quickly grew into quite an outdoorsman. He hunted and fished at every opportunity and never tired of it.

In the spring of Forest’s 11th year, we noticed some small lumps on his neck. We brought him to the doctor to get it checked out and received the devastating news that Forest had leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, which would require over three years of extremely aggressive treatment, with the first year being the most brutal. Forest’s treatment began immediately with an artillery barrage of chemo, steroids and other medicine combinations.

Along with his hair falling out, the chemo made quick work of Forest’s muscles and sapped him of his strength. In only a matter of weeks, he needed assistance to walk and was already missing the mobility and freedom most kids take for granted.

In the first year of his treatment, Forest needed 37 blood transfusions, endured dozens of spinal taps, long hospital stays, regular spells of vomiting and countless pills of all types. This disease and the medicine to treat it had devastated his body, stole his freedom and threatened to crush his spirit.

During one of his long hospital stays, I was helping him shuffle down the corridor for some physical therapy when we noticed a big buck on the front of a brochure at the nurse’s station. We asked the nurse about it, and she explained that a ranch donated “hunts” to kids who were in the Children’s Hospital. She was certain Forest would be eligible and could help make the arrangements after his treatment was further along and his immune system recovered.

“How can they say they have 100-percent success rates?” Forest asked. “What if you don’t see a deer or you miss your shot?”

Never one to dance around the tough questions, Forest said, “So, what’s the deal with this?” tapping his finger on the brochure.

“How can they say they have 100-percent success rates?” Forest asked. “What if you don’t see a deer or you miss your shot?”

I explained to him that these deer were not wild but were raised, fed and kept inside a fence, so you would have no problem seeing deer and if you missed or wounded one, there would be no issue getting additional shots if necessary.

“Well, that’s not hunting,” Forest stated.

“You are exactly right,” I agreed. Sometimes the simplest conclusions are the most accurate.

While it’s very generous of the deer farm to offer opportunities like this to kids who are going through tough times, this type of artificial hunt just wasn’t for us.

It did however plant the idea in my head that when Forest got his strength back and his immune system had recovered, we would do a real hunting trip.

I researched some options in Western states and in the following weeks we sent for preference points in Wyoming to hopefully open the door for more opportunities when we would try for our license.

Fortunately, Forest’s treatment progressed as planned and nearly one year after this nightmare had begun, he graduated to the “maintenance” phase of his treatment. This would last an additional two and a half years and consisted of chemo pills every night but considerably less IV chemo through his chest port, allowing his body to slowly recover.

The following winter he was consistently feeling well, and his immune system had been holding steady, so we took a gamble that this would continue and applied for mule deer tags in Wyoming. My brother, brother-in-law and each of their sons rounded out our group application. My dad also planned to join on the adventure and help guide the young men, scout and enjoy camp.

When a few months later we received the good news that we were successful in drawing our tags, I stressed to Forest how important it would be to build up strength in his legs, since the hills were going to be steeper and much bigger than anything we had in our part of Wisconsin.

Forest took right to his conditioning. Every day he would march up and down our stairs trying to beat the number of reps he had done the previous day.

We hit the rifle range often, and Forest became an excellent shot with his bolt action .270.

Our long-awaited hunt finally arrived, and Forest was feeling very well considering what he was going through. His larger infusions of chemo were spaced out perfectly. He would have a nice break prior to the trip but would need to get another big dose as soon as we got home.

During the long road trip west, I explained to Forest and the other boys that this was an easy to draw unit with lots of hunting pressure. It meant we would have to look for areas far from the roads and places that might be overlooked by other hunters. But if we worked hard, stayed ambitious and kept a positive attitude, we had a great chance at success.

True to my assumptions, our area was full of hunters taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy our national forests and BLM lands. We set up our tents and made a comfortable camp in a nice aspen grove with good access to many different areas of public land to hunt.

The following day provided the opportunity to scout before the season, and luckily, we managed to find a few deer to get us excited. We also discovered unique rock formations and had a great time climbing around enjoying the midday sun. Turning in early that night, we could see our breath as we snuggled into our sleeping bags, anxious for what tomorrow would bring.

Forest and I clicked off our headlamps, gazing upward at the Milky Way arcing across the sky while taking a break from our opening morning climb. We had gotten an early start to allow extra time for our slow pace.

“This is awesome, Dad. Thanks for taking me out here. I’ve never seen a sky like this,” Forest said as he tried to catch his breath.

“I’m happy to do it, bud. It’s an incredible sight.” I subtly turned my back to Forest and wiped tears out of my eyes. I had never been so proud in my life – what an amazing kid.

“Janis Putelis from MeatEater says don’t pass up on the first day an animal you’d be happy with on the last day,” Forest said, “but I think I’m going against that advice for now.”

We made it to our lookout point as the rising sun began to light the hills. I had found this spot while studying maps prior to the hunt, checking out areas of public land and access points. It was close to the road, but there was a steep climb right off the bat leading up to a basin that was only partially public land. I was hoping that the scattered nature of the public land and the initial climb would keep things quiet for opening day.

A couple does and a forkhorn appeared shortly after first light, and we quietly whispered the pros and cons of taking the small buck so early in the hunt.

“Janis Putelis from MeatEater says don’t pass up on the first day an animal you’d be happy with on the last day,” Forest said, “but I think I’m going against that advice for now.”

We watched the buck for at least an hour, and I must have asked him 10 times, “Are you sure you don’t want to shoot this deer?”

He was certain of his decision, and we watched the deer feed over the far ridge and out of sight. Soon after, we spotted three very nice bucks coming up the draw from private land and headed right towards our position on the BLM land.

The bucks were slowly making their way up towards us when suddenly something spooked them from below. The larger two bucks bounced away from us, paralleling the private/public fence line out of sight, but the other four by four jumped the fence and ran up the draw continuing in our direction.

Forest’s rifle cracked loudly, and he hit the buck but not too well. Before he could get another shot off, the buck limped over the ridge and out of sight.

We quickly collected our gear and hustled up to where we had last seen him. This deer was wounded, and it was our responsibility to make every effort to finish him off as quickly as possible.

We briefly spotted the buck again as he disappeared over the next fold in terrain. Fortunately, he seemed to have relaxed and was walking slowly. We quickly ran up to peek over the next edge, and luckily, he was still within range. Forest made a beautiful shot under pressure and put the buck down for good.

Walking up on that buck was an incredible feeling. Forest gave me a big hug, and we then knelt to say a prayer for the deer, thanking him for the hunt and for the meat he would provide our family.


After a few pictures, Forest insisted that he take the lead on field dressing. He had seen me field dress whitetails at home, but this would be his first time on knife detail. Listening closely to my instructions, he did a great job working his way through the process.

He was determined to carry out a share of the meat as well, and no matter how many times I offered to help, he would have none of it. For him, this wasn’t a challenge compared to what cancer and its treatment had put him through. Gasping for air, sweating through his shirt, he smiled ear to ear the entire hike back to the truck.

Truly a blessing, equally as much for me as for Forest, it was an amazing week in the Wyoming mountains with Grandpa, uncles and cousins away from the distractions of civilization. We enjoyed incredible sunsets, cooking over the campfire and cold nights in the tent, listening to coyotes yapping and elk whistling out bugles.

Unlike shooting animals at a game farm, there was nothing artificial, staged or phony about Forest’s hunt or his success. Forest’s experience involved real discovery, real awe, real learning, real ambition … determination, hardship, patience and the real sense of accomplishment and joy that can only be found by real hunting.


Gary VandenLangenberg is a BHA member from Green Bay, Wisconsin. He enjoys his time outdoors with his wife Jenny and their children Lily, Robin, Forest and Lake.

About Gary VandenLangenberg

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