In the last week I’ve been handed several subtle reminders of outdoor activities. I’m thinking about going deep-sea fishing one afternoon on spring break, a friend is setting out to hike the Appalachian Trial and my father reminded me of my first deer that I got a few years back. Little conversations to be sure, but they were powerful enough to remind me just how fun each of these activities is.
I know when we think of sports, we hit the American big three first: football, basketball and baseball. I myself go for hockey and lacrosse. Still others jump for golf, tennis, soccer or swimming. Yet rarely do we gravitate to those outdoor few; those outdoorsman activities that seem to be lost on a majority of the most recent generation that would rather stay in and watch reruns of Game of Thrones and eat half a bag of potato chips.
For those of you who haven’t been fishing, that’s surprising to me. Heading up to goalie camp in Ontario every summer, from the time I was 7 to just before I started high school at 14, that was my favorite things to do. A few friends and I would pack our kayaks with food, drinks, poles and tackle boxes and paddle out into the middle of Gull Lake, where a few rock formations made up small island chains we could claim as our own, spending the twilight hours fighting mosquitos and laughing at one another’s misfortunes as the big catch would continuously find ways to elude us.
This is Muskoka territory, cottage country named after the First Nations chief of the mid-1800’s. If you find yourself in Gravenhurst, you’re either going fishing, playing some puck or both. Weber’s on Highway 11 is a world-famous burger joint and a favorite spot of foodies passing through, but other than these options, there isn’t much going on in this quiet, central Ontatrio district.
For those fishermen, the name of the game is walleye. Pike were meaner and tougher than their tastier counterparts, though they merit mention as well. Large-mouth bass were in good supply and a chunk of hotdog, a worm or two or a smaller fish were all preferred bait. We amateurs would spend hours out there on Gull Lake, a narrow offshoot of larger Lake Muskoka. I honestly don’t remember if we ever caught very much – we were too busy in our own little world, devising private nations and the adolescent pipe dreams that were suited for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Time seemed to stand still on the lake and fishing was the key to this universe.
What did stick with me, though, were the sunsets. God, they were beautiful. Pink and purple, orange and red, the Canadian sky was a canvas for the divine, and as night fell, we were overtaken by a serenity that I’ve rarely felt since. It’s been nine years since I’ve been on that lake with friends whose faces are beginning to fade, but that feeling of peacefulness and joy is impossible to forget.
Hunting, too, is a patient waiting game that brings you in tune with nature, though it has the power to drain you physically as well as emotionally. Bird hunting is one thing – the frigid, frost covered mornings, the dog holding fast as you and your group get into position, spreading out yards apart to maximize coverage and ready to spring for several quail or pheasant if more than one surprises you. Birds are small and weigh very little against the conscience. When you kill something bigger, that’s when gravity weighs a bit heavier on you.
I killed my first deer in November of 2011. After waiting nearly three hours in a half-fallen sycamore tree, a snort broke the silence hanging over the cold air. Two does had entered the riverbed about 100 yards downhill, and they were starting to make their way up towards me. As I watch and wait patiently, there’s a tap on my shoulder, and it’s my father. He was coming to check on my progress and just as he was about to whisper to me, he saw me raise my rifle. The two of us waited for what seemed like an eternity as the both deer meandered on towards our tree. They were obscured by brush most of the way, and my dad was growing impatient. He began to nudge me, urging me to take a shot before they saw us or caught wind of our smell. In my amateur mind, I knew better. I waited for the bigger of the two to come into view, and between two oak trees it turned about to give me a clear shot of its broadside. Between breaths and between heartbeats, I slowly applied pressure to the trigger. The 1895 Mauser engaged, and a clean shot dropped the 180-pound doe.
If you’ve ever killed something bigger than yourself, then maybe you’ve experienced this moment. It’s brief and fleeting, but for those few seconds it’s hard to shake. As I saw her tail wag a few times and a final few breaths leave her nostrils, an overwhelming guilt washed over me. My heart was pounding in my ears and the testosterone pumping through me was something else, but for those few seconds I felt a profound sadness. Not half a minute went by and that feeling gave way to a near euphoria at the prospect and a clean kill on my first ever shot hunting, but that momentary pause was important for me. It reminds me, to this day, that while the sport is fun, it carries with it a counterbalance and a reminder that you’re taking the life of a creature bigger than yourself.
After gutting it and dragging it uphill for nearly a mile to where we could pick it up with a four-wheeler, we iced it down, loaded it up, and took it to a processor. We donated nearly 50 pounds of that deer to Kentucky homeless shelters, which, more than anything, made this experience a worthwhile one for me. I still have the shell of that shot I fired, and though I haven’t bagged a deer in the last couple of times out, it still remains one of the most intense and awesome moments of my sporting career.
Yes, you read that right. Sporting career was an intentional phrase. Enthusiasts and amateurs rarely consider it because of the recreational nature of their pursuits, but hunting and fishing are sports through and through. I never belonged to a league or club, or had fans of my work that would watch me play, but these manly and worthwhile endeavors were some of the most fun I had, and fragments of these experiences rank up there among some of the ones that I had in an ice rink or on the turf.
It’s a shame more people don’t give these hobbies a try. Fishing is relatively inexpensive, can be done while multitasking and is simple to learn. Hunting requires a more delicate touch, gun training (depending on what state you’re in, rifles might not be legal to use) and decent property, but is still a worthwhile activity if your situation can support it. In an age where consumerism and media constantly invades our lives, it’s important to take a step back and enjoy the outdoors. Little moments like that first kill or a beautiful sunset have stuck with me so far in my young adult life and will continue to do so with each passing year.