Resilience

You know that feeling when you start looking over your shoulder wondering, “where will the hit come from next?” That feeling has haunted me for the better part of six months.

“I’m fucking heart broken… You must be hurting. Sorry man”

“Had a tent, then a camper, then an addition on the camper, then grouse camp palace. So, just part of the evolution I suppose.”

“I like your style. Glad to be a part of it man. Regardless of what the sleeping arrangements look like.”

“Glad we got what we got from it over the years. Tent and fire if we have to, not hunting is not an option.”

“A-fucking-men”

You know that feeling when you start looking over your shoulder wondering, “where will the hit come from next?” That feeling has haunted me for the better part of six months. A series of unfortunate events, none of which I can control. Large. Small. Some important. Others the quintessential little things, the “you’ve got to be effing kidding me” things that accumulate like dozens of paper cuts in the same spot.

My truck has been on the fritz since the end of October. Two torque converters, and this past week an oil pump. The check engine light came back on as I pulled in the driveway coming home from my mechanic. 

The freezer portion of our refrigerator bit the dust in November, I replaced every part and sensor I could to no avail. The chest freezer in the garage took on double-duty. Then, this weekend I took the first bite of cereal and had that funny gut feeling of “something isn’t right here”. …Cereal should not have room temperature milk. 

And then, the news that prompted the above exchange. My northern Wisconsin grouse camp as I know it is done for. This year’s snowpack too much for the old trailer’s roof to handle and in it went. 

I say “my” grouse camp, but it’s mine by invitation and gracious hosting only. But in my mind it will always be “mine”, not in the possessive, but in the notion of it. My place to go to hunt grouse, to cook breakfast for my friends on slow-start October mornings, to stare at the stars and feel the northern cold curl around my neck as the dog does her business one last time before turning in for the night. So many little sensory memories. When the dog’s gone, it will be her place for eternity too.

A student asked me once, where is your sanctuary? If you could pick one place, where would it be? Without hesitation that camp was the first thing on my mind. 

I count on that place and those people. The moment I point the truck south at the end of a camp weekend my mind is fixed on the next iteration. When I lived closer, that was damn near every weekend. A six week cycle of driving, hunting, quick grocery runs, and laundry. Muddy trucks, tired skinny dogs, work that could wait, and memories in new cuts and old ones. Now, I live 15 hours away and the trip is a once a year event. One weekend to cram it all in. The anticipation, the planning, the skinny pedal getting overworked on the way there and then reluctantly depressed on the way home. 

I had a moment this weekend over the lukewarm milk in my cereal. Enough. I’d just like a win. Maybe even a truck I can count on, a refrigerator that works to keep cold what little we were able to scrounge from the grocery as panic set across the land, and if I’m lucky, work that has a happy ending once in a while where I don’t feel like every e-mail that lands in my inbox is another potential kick in the teeth.

Thankfully, my wife was there to talk me off the ledge as I contemplated hurling the mixture of Life and warm milk in front of me at the now extinct refrigerator. It will be OK.

And then the grouse camp group chat. “She took all she could and collapsed fully. Not fixable.” My stomach dropped, for my friend and his camp, the place that molded him into one of the best hunters and anglers I know. “Holy shit, I’m sorry”, the only thing I could get out along with similar sentiments coming from the other two camp regulars. 

He could complain, woah is me, on and on and on… instead he comes back with the ultimate Bill Belichick, “Sucks, but is what it is.” And the conversation shifts, “Grouse camp from a wall tent this year?” Resounding yes. More good news, the liquor cabinet was spared (priorities people) and then the jokes are rolling. “Save the oven so Jerry can burn the bacon in the new place.” “Make sure to include a remote, soundproof bedroom for the snorer.” “You think insurance will swing for the commercial grade commode?” And then the offline text above… “not hunting is not an option.” It will be OK. 

Resilience has been on my mind a lot lately. I don’t just think on it, I ruminate on it. Stare off over my coffee, or beer, or bourbon as the sentiment runs laps in my brain, zoning out on long drives where I stop to rewind the podcast or music in the background because I missed entire segments. When I say lately, I mean months, lately. September to present, lately. Constant running narrative, “Do I have it?” “Maybe I’m not.” “Other people handle these things just fine, what’s your problem?” “Build a bridge, Mike, and get the hell over it.” Internal dialogues can be the worst.

And now, everyone is talking about resilience. A global pandemic will do that. I still think on it, too. I worry about my family and friends with underlying conditions, I worry about the economy, what this means for all of us in six months to a year.

But, I also watch as the world puts effort into connection in other ways. Instagram challenges (I’m now up to 50 push-ups a day), text conversations about life, goals, and ideas where no previous relationship existed besides the expected scroll past double tap ‘heart’. The increased time at home, the opportunity to invest in relationships, and the ability to watch that investment grow leaps and bounds in real time, skyrocketing upward, the inverse of the economic markets, like a big middle finger to the doom and gloom. There are certainly moments, like the warm cereal, where the tank is near empty and it seems resilience is an ephemeral idea. But then, there are moments when big things happen and perspective makes all the difference.

Lean in to those moments. Lean in to the investment. Embrace the Suck (give this a read from Allen Crater while you’re at it). Think on it. (Rob Kinney throws some heat on this very topic) Take a minute and think on what you have to be grateful for. Think on what you can do to help. We’re all in this together. (another worthy read by Chad Love) And we are collectively more resilient than we can fathom. 

It will be OK. 

Will it be easy? No. 

Will it be different on the other side? Yes. 

There will be beginnings, and endings, and continuings. 

“Tent and fire if we have to, not hunting is not an option.”

It’s Coming

It snuck up on me. I had shoved my hopes and impatience so far down that I actually hadn’t recognized it for what it was.

It rained into the mid-afternoon, poured, deluged really to that point where you crank the wipers so high you worry they will fly off out of control. The rain eventually let up, to the joys of those preparing for the party, and the sun shone through while everyone was busy fussing and primping. This wedding would have sun shine, big clouds, and a strong breeze keeping the humidity at bay and the water on the lake softly rolling. My suit, the corona in my hand, and distraction of good company belied the underlying importance of the earlier storm and the reprieve it brought from the typical August hot & humid.

Bleary eyed and obligingly I woke to her soft whine. The old shorthair, still holding on despite the departure of her hearing and a few teeth, needed an early morning bathroom break. Standing there in the orange wash of the garage flood light with a liver pendulum in my hand I felt it. My fresh buzz cut heightened the sensation as the cool air put a grip around the back of my neck and a near shiver ran down my spine despite the long sleeve T I wore. Still hazy, I half recognized it & half brushed it off.

The old girl must have sounded the alarm to her comrades, I returned to a bedroom very awake. Stepping out for their morning routine, a bit earlier than normal for a post-wedding Sunday morning, I found myself thinking of standing at the tailgate feeling that same chill and knowing that 5 minutes of weaving in and out of high stem density will have me enveloped in warmth quickly. While it only dropped to 60 degrees, it felt like the mid-40s. Who knows what the weather holds for the next few weeks, but I’m taking comfort in knowing I weathered the sticky parts, most of them anyway, where a short run has the dog panting hard and my shirt drenched in sweat. The first cold front came through. And with it came the flood of excitements, anticipation, and the motivation to start the preparation. It’ll be here before we know it.

It’s coming.

I don’t have time for that.

Too much lately… too, too much.

The dog is an asshole in the house. Tethered walks, no matter the distance, are no match for her unending gas tank. I’m tired… and simultaneously have a burning desire to spend some time with the wind and sun in my face and a dog zooming over uncovered ground.

It won’t happen any time soon, though. Nesting season looms and the endless suck of a paycheck will occupy my time until then. With any luck we’ll get out for a run after the group training day over the weekend, but that’s only mildly satisfying. Park at the same spot, run the dog over the same tired ground she’s run on several times a week each spring and summer. No mystery, no adventure. Same ol’ same ol’.

I’ve found myself lately really questioning what I take on, and what I don’t have time for anymore. I’m on the edge of getting to where I want… seems that way anyway. The slog to a lighter load is about 4 weeks away. Too far, but manageable.

I go to work, doing something I mildly enjoy, winding my gears just enough to not be mundane, something I’m mildly good at. Not great, but good enough. It’s anomaly in my generation to view work as a means to an end, or it feels that way.  Most don’t talk about anything but their new next best thing, how much they love it, and thinking about how they can show everyone on Instagram how awesome things are.

Maybe they are that awesome.

But if you gave me a choice between a sunny 25 degree morning with a slight breeze and a dog yawning in frustration at my side before release, or sitting in my office working on “the next best thing”… I’ll take the dog and the wandering, every time.

I’ll come back just long enough for the time and money to go back out again.

Hunting Matters: Judgement & Social Media

Editors Note: I wrote this after reading a post over on MeatEater.com, the first in what looks to be a series of upcoming essays, labeled Hunting Matters, on hunting, conservation, and cultural issues . The topic at hand was social media, etiquette, and interfacing with non-hunters. I highly recommend it, check out the post HERE. This isn’t necessarily a response, and certainly not a rebuttal, but more my thoughts and experience with social media as it relates to hunting. 

Growing up in the Northeast, vacillating between Massachusetts and Connecticut, I dread the usual Monday morning question, “What’d you do this weekend?” At a time of adolescent insecurities I always hesitated to add one more judgmental opportunity to the lengthy list my peers already had to choose from. “I went hunting.” Three simple words became forged in my perception as something to guard, to only trust with those close to me.

I shied away from the debates, tired of explaining why my Grandfather, Dad, and I spent the weekend “killing Bambi.” I learned this pursuit made me an outsider. And so, I built a habit of coming up with something else, trying not to stand out, like every other teenage kid, wanting to blend it.

This is a habit I carry with me to this day, despite relocating to the much more (overall) tolerant point of view on hunting here in Wisconsin. It is also hard to completely hide as an adult, the plethora of conservation organization stickers on my truck give it away to those in the know. And, as I mature, I care much more about authenticity than I do placating acquaintances.

My biggest hiccup, however, is social media. Having started college with the advent of Facebook, I learned, quite quickly, that people go there to form their judgments long before meeting or even speaking to you.

Recently, I’ve taken to it as a platform for advocacy, but still tentative. My posts more about conservation and promoting stewardship and rights organizations like BHA, RGS, PF, and others. I can count on one hand the number of photos I’ve posted involving game, and never a grip & grin. The photos so public “worthy” it would meet even the most stringent publication criteria.

Despite my trepidation on Facebook, I do however maintain an active Instagram account that centers around what I’ve placed in the short “About Me” section, New Englander Living the Dream in Wisconsin; Dogs, Food, and Outdoor Adventures. Even those words were carefully chosen, hunting noticeably absent. But if you look at my feed you will not miss that I hunt, from the photos of my bird dogs to the filtered shots of ‘what’s for dinner?’ highlighting whatever wild game we’re eating that night. It’s a cat and mouse game of saying it, but not.

I often debate about posting things. My “followers” consisting of real world friends from every generation of my human experience, and total strangers, at least in terms of meeting in real life, who share my passions. Over the four years I have been on Instagram I have found a common bond with many people, all outdoors and hunting minded, and I find myself with a sense of belonging. And, for once, a desire to share. I still make sure its tasteful, and aim to promote the positives, but, it is still far more than I would have shared in the past. The amalgamation that comprises those tuned into my feed presents a unique opportunity. It bridges the gap.  I have found a like-minded, supportive network, and I am able to promote a hobby. A way of being and interacting with the world to some of my peers who, otherwise, may have never thought anything of it.

The funny thing is, despite all of my worry, my insecurity and concern over judgement, I have never received a negative comment from any of my non-hunting friends. They may just scroll on, they may not like my post, but every now and then I see a username next to the little red heart symbol I never would have imagined would be there. And I smile.

For all the judgement I was worried about, and all the preconceived notions I had about how people would take it, I fear that I was the one with prejudice all along.

Hunting Matters, Conservation Matters. And I’ve learned that if those things make you happy, post away. The happiness and emotion conveyed transcends the subject. The cultural divide between non-hunters and hunters is smaller than we think. We should be making this less about battle lines and attitude. We should be promoting our story without fear of judgement, and without judgement of those we have not shared it with, yet.

Enough.

Our last day ended with my brute of a wirehair curled up in the passenger seat, wrapped in my Woolrich licking a busted nail, worn raw at the quick, while I sat in the drivers seat, watching the sunset, and trying to come to terms with a season cut shorter than I’d like. Nine more months until we can do this again?

Over the last five years I developed a purposeful restlessness who’s worst enemy is sitting still. So I’ll spend the next month or 2 tying flies, writing, and hopefully running the dog in some productive cover, fully expecting the sideways glances as she casts by, “What gives, no gun?”

Maybe that’s one of the reasons we all love this so much. The nine months spent waiting, and dreaming, and preparing.

Some would say four months is plenty, perhaps most would. But for the handful of us who spend stolen minutes in the office plotting out new spots to check out and guarding our weekends as if we’re surrounded, figuring out creative ways to say no to the second cousins baby’s birthday and the wedding of a college buddy whom you haven’t spoken to in years, the end comes too soon. The fires still burning.

It burns in the dog, too. The crusted snow may have gotten the best of her today, but if given the option of a tomorrow before the gun her answer would be abundantly clear. And so it goes. We’ll rest up, heal up, and spend time mimicking the real thing for the next nine months while we work diligently to lower the flame to a manageable level.

She’s sprawled out on the couch now and is running in her sleep, and I choose to think she’s running toward the blaze of autumn, full out, poised for her best season yet.

Patience, I remind myself. Soon enough.

 

 

Good and Cold

Note: I wrote this about a year ago. I’d been toying with the idea of this blog for a while, Every now and then opening Word and spilling out some thoughts. Given the wide 10 I saw on the drive in this morning and the impending snow, I thought it appropriate to share. 

I can feel it as soon as I step out the door with the dogs for their nightly routine, the chill wraps around my unguarded neck almost immediately. I can’t help but open my mouth and blow steam like a child fogging up the car window. It’s here. It’s good and cold. I’ll be sick of it in February when the seasons are closed, but they’re open now, and the best is upon us.

My drives are now, more than ever, focused around scanning the landscape and yards for cruising bucks, and the skies for flocks of ducks seeking open water. My upland hunts begin with the frustrating ritual of finding what gloves I can wear to warm my frigid digits, yet still get one in the trigger guard, only to shed them after 30 minutes of following the Dog. And She loves it. She isn’t panting after an hour and gives no thought to breaking ice on retrieves.

The full parking lots of October openings are behind us. The eagerness now worn off for many, vehicles sit idle and unwarmed in the driveway, owners mumbling over morning coffee about the weather.

This isn’t for fair weather fans. They don’t deserve it. Mallards are pooled up on any open water they can find. Coveys are merging for warmth. The antlered ones are thinking of their genetic survival instead of their surroundings, or if it’s cold enough they’re focused on filling up the tanks after burning them dry with lust.

The time has come. It’s here. The peak of the seasons. The hunting’s good, and cold. And we’ll be out enjoying every minute of it.

Camp

Restless. The dog and I. The bags are packed, unpacked, checked again before stuffing everything back in. I even cleaned the gun again, not that it needed it from the last time I passed oil and swab through the barrels. Anything to keep from idle hands. She keeps looking up at me, pacing. Looking out the window, through to the next room and out that window, too. She knows… we both have this sense of hurryup nervousness.

“Work” is a sham. I click through e-mail, checking it back to unread… the silent acquiescence. It’ll wait ’til Monday.

The truck backs into the drive and we start loading up. The dog is standing at the screen door barking. Something not in her normal repertoire. It’s the high-pitched, “Hey, look at me. Don’t you forget me!” bark. If the door wasn’t heavy I fear she’d burst through it.

One last task; stop and water the grass. OK, kennel. And in a flash shes battened down and peering through the grate with purpose. Time to go.

The leaves are coming down, the mornings frosty, and the thunder of wings and the twitter of feathered knuckle balls await, Grouse Camp.

Nerves

It’s been simmering in my core for the last three weeks or so. That knot of apprehension, the growing seed of uncertainty, the lovechild of exciting possibility and dread. Every few hours, when I have a free moment from the distractions of real life and work, it boils up. Rising into my chest and shortening my breath until I re-focus on something else, telling myself that Saturday is too far away to be this bothered about it now.

——–

My start in dog training, and introduction to NAVHDA, began as the proud owner of a 10 week old puppy. The man who owned her sire called me up and said “We’re training tomorrow, I’ll pick you up at 5:30.”

I left that training experience in a sense of bewilderment… I remember thinking, “you’re telling me my dog can do ALL that? Seriously?”

And from there, the benchmark was set. They were training for the Invitational. And in my head I set a goal. I would run there one day, too.

———-

It’s silly really. It’s a Utility Test, not a life and death decision or event. She’s already run it once, and I know she can do a prize worthy version of the work. But can she show up and put forth a Prize 1 effort? Can she (we) qualify? How much do I put in or take away in that equation… So much uncertainty.

It’s too close now for the “too far away” excuse to work. Tomorrow. Bright and shiny and 90 degree high, tomorrow.

I’ve learned a lot in the three and half years since that first training experience. I grew, and so did the dog. She’s been great to me anywhere I’ve taken her, and she’ll continue to be, hopefully, for many more years to come.

I guess… At the end of the day tomorrow, does it really matter? Will she care about the new numbers next to her pedigree? High or low? Will she know we will, or won’t be going to Iowa next September?

Or will she be curled up on the front seat, enjoying the air conditioning, and dreaming about a cool breeze, golden leaves, and standing stock still, waiting for the sounds of the gun.

Perseverance.

Pushing forward, one foot in front of the other, through briars, over downed logs, and weaving through tomato stakes, the pull is easily felt. Chasing the rush like a junkie, one more point, one more thunderous flush, one more flash from the gun. Before you know it, darkness has fallen and so begins the trudge back to the truck.

It’s easy, really. We don’t even think about it. I know of no one who does the math on effort and funds exerted chasing birds. It’s not even a thought.

Lately, I find myself restless. I’m running a race and constantly wondering if the finish line is around the next corner or over the next hill. I try and focus on what’s in front of me, work no one else will do. Wondering where’s the pull? what’s pushing me forward?

I’d rather have the briars.

But it’s necessary. The bank account says so anyway. So I do it. Looking around the bend and over the hill. Fidgeting in my office chair waiting for the opportunity to get the next fix.

Stagnant

If pressed, I would argue that the next 6 weeks are the absolute worst in the 52 week calendar for the American bird hunter/dog person.

Heat, humidity, and time form the trifecta of terrible.

Heat and humidity make simple and enjoyable tasks just downright annoying, and the already annoying ones that much worse. It introduces an otherwise unacknowledged variable into anything done with the dogs. Ruining my happy places… not cool, madame weather.

And time… This is the crux of it for me. Already annoyed, the season opener is not close enough for excitement and not far enough away to put it at the back of my mind and pretend to forget it. I can see the finish line off in the distance, but looking at the road ahead there are still a few heat hazed hills to climb.

September will be here soon, the finish line for the race to October one downhill slope away.

But for now, pardon my irritability as I begrudgingly continue the sweaty slog towards fall. What else am I supposed to do?