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Hunting and fishing are generally self-interest sports where much time is spent alone seeking solitude and inner peace along with meat for the freezer. Most sportsmen are heard to say, “I can’t wait for deer season,” or, “I can’t wait to go to Moosehead,” as they plan and anticipate their next outing.
I am as guilty as anyone for investing copious amounts of my free time tramping the woods and fields, alone, in search of game. I can honestly say that in nearly 50 years of roaming the woods I have never spent a bad day “out there,” no matter what the conditions. It’s not easy to explain why a fruitless day in the woods is as satisfying as a successful trip, but if all I get out of my day is a chance to hike away from the conflicts of civilization, have a few cups of tea along a quiet stream and maybe see some fresh deer tracks or flush a grouse or two, I count it as time well spent. It never occurred to me that sharing the experience could be just as satistfying.
It’s easy to become introverted when you rise at 4 a.m. and don’t return home till well after dark. I take my sporting challenges seriously, and they conspire to consume my time, thoughts and energy all season. On many trips I have lived and hunted alone for a week or more and, other than the occasional fast food jockey or gas station attendant, I may not see or speak to another human. I always found what I was seeking and generally kept it to myself.
So, when I recently came home from a successful, satisfying hunt, I was a little shocked to see the teenager next door showing an inordinate amount of interest in my bag of squirrels and the gear I’d used to take them. Justin had been a “crack” baby, abandoned by his addict mother and raised by his grandparents. Growing up he was often slow, belligerent, unpredictable and defensive, but any time he saw me come home in my muddy boots and camouflage he’d shuffle over and shyly admire my deer, turkey or other game and ask me about my trip.
He was into Goth clothing and music and spent most of his time riding dirt bikes and playing video games, so I thought he had nothing but a curious interest in what I did, but when I finally took the hint and asked him if he’d like to go hunting with me, he broke into his best Gomer Pyle smile and said, “Yes!”
It was not easy convincing his grandparents to let him go along.
“Guns?” they asked, with a look of doubt and panic. It took a while, but I eventually convinced them to give it a try.
For starters, I enrolled Justin in a hunter safety course, which he passed easily (astounding, considering the difficult time he had had in school). I told him that if he aced the course I would buy him a shotgun, and just before the season opened I took him to Wal-Mart and let him take his pick. We spent a few weeks at the range learning about his new Winchester, going over chokes and shot sizes, leads and maximum ranges, and then we were ready for his first squirrel hunt.
Justin was awkward, uncertain and often reclusive at home or at school, but in the woods he seemed to be a different kid. Curious, quick-witted and clever, he had no trouble learning the ways of the local squirrel population and soon began to wander off on his own to the next ridge or valley. He would bring a huge backpack full of snacks, water and gear, and when the squirrels weren’t active he’d set up shop and have himself a picnic.
His home life was strictly regulated and often very tense, so I made sure he knew that he was safe and welcome in the woods. He enjoyed carrying his own shotgun and packing his own food, and he took it all very seriously. He learned to walk quietly, watch and listen, and when he saw or heard a squirrel he’d hunker down and put on a long, silent stalk that was amusing and pleasing to watch.
The kid loves to hunt because, for a time at least, he is free to do as he pleases without the pressure of supervision or competition. He is finding out what I liked about being in the woods and he has come to love it as much as I do.
Hunting is mostly a waiting game, and sportsmen who can sit quietly and patiently for long periods of time are the ones who are most successful. Despite his unfortunate emotional handicap, Justin can do it as well as I, and not once has he ever asked to quit or go home early out of boredom. By chance and good luck he’s found a way to enjoy inner peace, a break from his never-ending world of anxiety and stress. I doubt that he’ll ever be completely free of the demons left to him by his mother’s addiction, but at least now he knows there is a place where he can relax and be himself beyond the confines of complicated rules or restrictions.
I am not a psychologist and don’t pretend to know what the future holds for Justin and other kids like him, but the change in his demeanor when he enters the woods is obvious, though not surprising. What he finds out there is what’s brought me back every season for close to 50 years. It has kept me going through some pretty sad and lonely times and I hope it will do the same for him.
If you know of a Justin, or any child whose situation or personality could be improved by a day in the woods, make room for him this coming season. As you plan your 2009 hunting trips, remember what it is that calls you out there and find a way to share it. You may not change the world, but you may help change one kid’s mind about life and living, and that is definitely worth the time and effort!
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