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Family

Jeff Varvil

An Alaska hunter meditates about the importance of family and outdoor memories in the development of young people into mature, responsible adults.

 

The two-rut now defunct logging road had long since been abandoned by anything that remotely resembles an automobile. Not that it was ever a great trail anyway; at least not in ways city folk would measure a great trail. It was too low and swampy in some spots, too rough to really walk without twisting an ankle in others. Too hilly here and no parking to speak of except on a slanty gravel hill off the highway.

Then there was the creek we had to cross to get in there. A two by four served as a makeshift bridge. But to my Dad, my brother and I, it was the best trail ever to be cut through a patch of woods since Lewis and Clark. It was our 100-acre woods where all was right and the world’s troubles never entered.

You could never really see it from the highway anyway, the trail that is. It was cleverly left about a hundred yards short just to keep the local traffic down to a minimum. It was a DNR grouse habitat project many years ago -- at least that’s how I remember it being told to me.

 

Now it’s overhanging branches and new growth popular trees hide any scars left from the clearcutting crews that once tore through our old oak forest. What once was a maze of fresh clover ATV trails now resembled a new growth wasteland with trees entangled so thick you could not walk through them. Great if you’re a woodcock, not great if you’re a human trying to navigate it.

I shake my head in disgust thinking of my father’s reaction so many years ago when he first saw the clear-cut. He was not mad as much as generally hurt, almost as if losing an old friend. It would take me years to understand this emotion and I am not sure if he has ever really gotten over it. It sounds funny to think of a spot of land like that. But so many memories lie within the land itself. So many memories of just him and his boys together. A little peace of him died with that forest and hunting would never be the same, at least for a long time, at least until last year.

Dad drove for the customary half hour down the highway with a barely audible country western station in the background. I dozed off, which by the way was also customary. My Dad always said I had a lever on my arse connected to my eyelids. As soon as I sit down my eye lids close. From my perspective, it was a 12-hour flight and I had only gotten in a few hours before. From Dad’s perspective, I would have slept anyway. I woke when the old jeep slowed down and popped up just in time to see Dad pulling the rig over to put it in four-wheel drive to get on the little dirt road. Our two by four has been long replaced by a culvert and a small bridge.

“Progress” He says.

I shoot a smile at Dad as we switch places and I take over the jeeps controls.

It’s a cold October morning and the headlights of the old Jeep cut through the thick fog as I crawl along just fast enough to hear the small trees rubbing the old girl’s undercarriage. The grass is knee high and there are no signs that anyone has been in here for quite some time.

The right headlight light is a little loose and therefore jiggling allowing me to catch an occasional flash of objects in the woods. It was like having an independent spotlight with a mind of its own. It was a rental vehicle that Dad found for me at a local rent a wreck joint. He bargained with the poor fellow until he got him down to $100 for the entire week. I’m sure the guy thought the old man was nuts for wanting the ugliest rig in the fleet. But coming from Alaska I need a rig to drive and not worry about scratching.

Upon picking up the heap the guy smiled when he asked me if I wanted to buy the extra insurance. I shot him a smile back and without missing a beat said, “Hell, yeah, I’m going to $^%$ this thing up!”

“Just kidding” I said. “Relax, it’s not like I’m going deer hunting with it!”

As we approached the first corner of the old trail not one hundred yards off the highway, ancient memories pour back into my head. I built my first ground blind near that thicket. Dad was so proud of me. This was one of the first places I began to explore the woods on my own without my father standing by my side so many years ago. It was a right of passage, so to speak, for a young man in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

At fourteen I really never wandered more than about a couple of blocks off the trail for fear of getting lost. No GPS’s back then. I had only a compass to guide me. Had I known how many roads ran all around me I would have walked for days! For all I knew back then it was endless forest where a young man would be lost for days in a cedar swamp. Still though, it was independence and when I found my first deer rub and scrape without my Dad first pointing it out, there was a certain amount of pride it gives oneself. Its not quite the same is it -- shooting a deer out of another man’s stand. It leaves a fellow with a bit of a hollow feeling as if you have cheated the system somehow.

A large mound of dirt catches my eye and I remember shooting a nice buck somewhere in that mess on the edge of a tag alder thicket. I drug the 9 pointer all by myself to the edge of the road just so Dad could see it when he topped this rise on his way back to the truck in the evening. I waited for two hours for him to come over that hill. The smile on his face told the story. I’m not sure to this day who was prouder. Looking back, I think we, as parents, know we have succeeded when our children succeed with whatever they do. Nowadays if they manage to stay out of trouble, get a decent job and contribute to society we are happy, at least I am or will be as the jury is still out on my kids as they are still too young.

I bottom out on an old birch root and I am snapped back to present day as the one good headlight comes to rest on a new rub on a sapling along the road. I smile and exchange glances with Dad as the words come out of my mouth almost unconsciously. “They’re still using the same trails”.

“Yep” my father reply’s as a warm smile tells me he’s once again in the game. “Let’s go check it out Garrett!” Dad says to my now 5-year-old boy.

Dad had waited a full year for this moment. It was exactly one year ago that he did it with my first boy Josh now 13. Now he had even a little more patience. A lot more time and the hunting was certainly secondary to the time we were all spending together. I guess patience is the key to parenting. My father in law was the king of patience. He would sit down with the kids and spend hours on end explaining even the smallest details of things. He would lie on his back in the grass with Garret on his belly, as they both would stare at the clouds overhead, pointing at shapes and making imaginary animals.

The thing is kids just like to talk and to be heard when an adult takes the time to listen, well, they become a kid’s best bud. Garrett was eager to learn and yet to young to retain much, the perfect student for my Dad.

I hear it said that we as humans are better grandparents than parents. It is true of my family, both of my in-laws and my own parents. My Dad was always a little short with me. A little busy in the day-to-day grind to explain things, except here, in the woods. Of course it is not a grandparent’s job to scold, they just speak and kids listen. They don’t speak as often as parents; maybe there is something to be learned in that.

Oops, off track again, regardless we were all back in our old haunts and anxious to explore.

I park the rig and get out my G.P.S. and satellite photos. My father gets out the .410 just like I have seen him do a thousand times before; first uncasing the weapon from the soft genuine imitation leather case, breaking the barrel and checking it for obstructions and then gently pushing in a shell. Then he leaves the barrel broke, bent over his left arm while watching me plug buttons and read coordinates, all which he finds very monotonous since he always seems to know exactly where we are.

He humors me by politely nodding as I show him how the new gadget works. He likes the crow’s view photos best and I smile believing I am somehow contributing. I’m off like beagles on a rabbit’s trail following the bucks scrape and rub line. Dad hangs with Garrett and I can hear him muttering something about rubs and scraps. Garrett soaks it all in like a sponge thirsty for the old man’s knowledge and just enjoying someone talking to him like a grown up.

I return 20 minutes later and my Dad is just finishing Garrett’s orientation by saying “And your father knows better than to follow this buck any further into the woods, because number one this deer is just rubbing his antlers on the road, number two he probably did it in the night and number three, if that buck is back there, now he knows there is some one after him.”

“But he won’t find no more rubs back in those woods!”

I smile coming to that conclusion myself after the walk. The highlight for Garrett is just being able to pee in the woods.

We spend most of the afternoon scouting somewhat familiar territory. The clear-cut changed the tree line but the overall lay of the land is of course the same. It has been 16 years since I moved to Alaska and although I truly enjoy hunting there, whitetail deer hunting is a passion of mine. They are by far one of the most challenging animals to hunt in North America.

This spring I took a beautiful brown bear with my bow and it was nowhere near as challenging as taking a mature white tail buck. I return every year, to hunt these magnificent animals, and to of course spend time with both my parents. In the end we set up three tree stands in areas I felt would produce deer in different situations.

One of them did and I harvested a beautiful mature 8 pointer. I made an easy shot, if there is such a thing in deer hunting, and a double-lunged deer produces a good blood trail. I then backed out of the area and made the call home for Garret and my Dad to come help.

What a joy it was to watch Garrett trail his first deer. His nose was to the ground right up until he bumped into its tail. He was so surprised he began jumping up and down yelling, “I found him, I found him.”

Dad and I shared another smile and no words were required.

Moose hunting will starts in Alaska on the 10th of August and as of this writing is in four days. It is hard to concentrate on moose when I know I should be in the woods scouting my deer. I will again fly home and hunt during early October. With God’s blessing I will again accompany my Dad and my boys into the woods.

We as sportsman lead busy lives; please slow down sometimes and just appreciate the little things you have, while you have them. Bring a kid into the woods or into a local stream or lake. Spend time with your family. We really don’t appreciate things until they are gone from our lives and whether that is a chunk of woods or a loved one, when they are gone a piece of you disappears with them.

Fortunately, the world keeps moving forward and new forests will grow and the young replace the old. In the end we are judged not by how much we own or how much money we have, but instead we are judged by whom is left behind to judge us. The next time you are out having a great time with your family. Just stop what your doing and say “Remember this moment, this is a great day.”

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 

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