Leaning into the stiff wind, I grinned as Hugo and Rigby, the odd couple whose purposes in life are nearly opposite, charged into the inclement weather. To look at him, Hugo’s single coat of long, silky hair might suggest he wouldn’t do well in the cold. He seems to love it, and for Rigby, the nastier it is, the better he likes it. That might have something to do with keeping his enormous body cool while running up mountains.
Cinching up the stampede strap on my hat, I looked back at Christine and said, “This is going to be great.”
Peering out from the layers of hat, scarf and zipped-up collar, the cold, hard rain, the type that is near frozen and would soon be snow, she said with a grimace, “Maybe for you and the boys.”
Since childhood, following my dad’s footsteps into the farm and outdoor life, the weather held a lofty place in our thoughts and day-to-day life. All directed on how to accomplish the day’s work regardless of what nature threw at you.
When my spirit was set loose to roam the country at will, hunting, trapping or just being out, there were lessons to learn. Dad gave me a small aspirin bottle filled with kitchen matches and a small tin Band-Aid container filled with cotton balls covered in Vaseline.
Off we went into the cold, unbeknownst to my mother, who would not have approved of Dad’s methods, to a nearby shelterbelt. With our hands, we raked up a nice pile of dead twigs, leaves and cones at the base of an old pine tree. In moments, with the help of the cotton balls and a match, the pile became a miniature inferno, warming the tips of my frozen fingers.
“You’re probably going to get yourself in trouble with the weather if you keep hunting and trapping, and generally tormenting your mother,” Dad said.
He figured it best to show me some things to avoid or get me out of trouble, lest I die and really make my mother angry.
Rare were the times when Dad said more than a few words; the few times he did stuck with me, and this time was one of them.
“Nature isn’t your friend, it isn’t your enemy, it just is. You cannot beat it, and you cannot fear it. Respect it, and respect yourself. Slow down, think about what’s being thrown at you. Embrace the opportunity to be a part of it. You are responsible for yourself and your behavior in your outdoor pursuits. No one is going to hold your hand or be there every time you misstep. Try not to tell your mother too much; she’ll just worry, and there is no percentage in that.”
About a year later, on a Sunday afternoon, the wind howled through the old farmhouse where we lived. Dad was watching football, and Mom tried her best to ignore it. I couldn’t stand it; there were things to be seen out there, and looking out of an upstairs window, I could see two shelterbelts in the distant northwest, near a crick I frequented. The only restriction I had in my travels was being able to see a shelterbelt and thus being able to seek shelter.
We were experts in the art of dressing in layers, long before it became vogue. It wasn’t technical; just put on as many layers of everything you had. The garment was determined by what could fit over the last one. Everything was cotton. It is difficult to spend a half-hour getting dressed while attempting to avoid your mother’s inquisitions. Do it often enough, and you get pretty good at it, and I grinned as I put the last layer on — Dad’s old army field jacket that reached to my knees but had lots of good pockets — grabbed my Winchester .22 rifle and slipped out into the storm.
The plains country had a fair number of jack rabbits. Long-legged and long-eared, they would burrow into snow-filled holes left by badgers. The chink in their otherwise perfectly snow-camouflaged armor was black tips on their long ears that would pop up when alerted. Their next move involved them jumping out of the hole and bounding away in enormous leaps.
Finding the big jacks never gave me much trouble, but hitting them as they bounded away hadn’t worked out well. Having seen my dad do it several times, I wanted to prove I could too.
Wind-driven snow pelted the exposed parts of my face, stinging in the way that brings me to life, at the start of an adventure. A half-hour later, a big jack rabbit popped up, and despite my attempts to end his flight, disappeared in the snowstorm. Following the track from bound to bound, I forgot my whereabouts, and when I looked up, the storm had cloaked my part of the world. I couldn’t see a shelterbelt.
I took up a brisk pace on my back trail, hoping to find cover before the wind and snow obliterated my tracks. When a tree line appeared through the storm, I instantly felt safe.
Stepping into the shelterbelt seemed cathedral-like. The treetops high above formed a roof of sorts that broke up the snowfall, and a wall of chokecherry bushes made for a windbreak. It took a few minutes to build a pyramid of dry sticks courtesy of the big pine tree that would serve as a backrest.
One match, and the cotton balls instantly lit the small pile of sticks. I had my shooting iron, knife and hatchet, and except for the chocolate chip cookies in my pocket, snatched from the kitchen counter, I could have been Daniel Boone, and I couldn’t have been happier.
A lot is said, and promoted to the extreme these days, about what one must have to be a successful hunter — the best guns, the best optics, all sorts of equipment, a change of clothes for every possible weather encounter, the physical strength and endurance of an athlete, and on and on. I don’t buy any of that.
Over a lifetime of hunting, the key is being able to embrace the environment you find yourself in and make do with what you have. Attitude will take you places that money, equipment and gym time never will.
When Christine, the boys and I got back to the truck cold, wet and somewhat snow-blind, all our tails were wagging. Christine said with a smile, “Scary as it is, I think I might be starting to understand, I wouldn’t ever want to miss these times.”
That’s not to say our attitude didn’t take a turn for the worse while we shoveled the 18.5 inches of snow nature dropped on us on Nov. 1, reminding us again that nature simply doesn’t care.