I watched Dad as we trudged along the old haul road back to camp. Years ago it was all I could do to keep up with him. Now, I found myself slowing down so we could walk side by side. Along the way he would stop and point to an old oak, rock or maybe a certain ridge and then recall a hunting adventure from years past. It gave him a chance to catch his breath and rest his knees but it gave me something more important.
Dad and I have always hunted together but over a lifetime there were periods that saw little action in the woods. Work and other obligations always infringe on the things we enjoy the most.
Once, along the trail as the road ascended a steep grade, Dad stopped and leaned the old rifle against a tree and then sit down on a big sandstone rock. He was noticeably tired. I reached him the water bottle and then sit on the ground at his feet. For a long while we said nothing, just sat there watching the sun slowly descend toward the horizon.
Hunting season, like the day, was quickly drawing to a close and I wondered silently if Dad’s legs would carry him through next year’s hunt. Or, fearfully and briefly, I worried about the possibility of something worse. When I was still too young for girls I lost my Grandfather who’d been my outdoor mentor and sometimes-hunting companion. I can vividly remember many of our outings but I am not sure I can recall the last time we hunted in concert. But I am sure that back then I never expected a hunt to be the last.
“Fall is my favorite time of year.” Dad said breaking the silence. “When the leaves start to turn, I always know it won’t be long until I’m in the woods.”
“Me too.” I replied helping Dad to his feet, as he looked up the path he wrapped his hand around the rifle that looked as tired as he did.
“Camp is not far now Dad. Just over the ridge and across the creek.” I said it just the way he had said it to me countless times when I felt too tired to take another step.
“I’m OK. Really. Just in no hurry to get back.” With that we started up the trail.
Cresting the ridge I could see the light shinning through the cabin window. As always Mom would be out by the fire wondering if the shot she’d heard had been ours. We stopped again for a moment looking down into the little valley. Smoke rose from the campfire and trailed off down the creek just above treetops. Like familiar ghosts. I thought of friends whom I had shared hunts and campfires with and how they were called away much too soon. Then, I had expected us to prowl the timber forever, never once considering that the most recent or maybe the next hunt might be our last.
I started to step off toward the cabin and Dad put his hand on my shoulder. Like he was reading my mind he looked me in the eye and said: “Some of the best memories you will ever make, you’ll make in the woods hunting with friends and family. Always make sure you have time for it.”
You never know which hunt will be someone’s last. You never know which hunt will be your last. It could be the whitetails your son and you chased last fall, the bear a close friend and you will follow this spring or the turkey Dad called in for you three years ago. Hunt often, hunt hard and do it for the fun. Approach every hunt as though it was your last and remember the details: The musty smell of the forest floor, the whisper of the wind high in the oaks, the laughs and the smiles. Because; last hunts don’t tell you when they’re coming.
In memory of JG – my best friend’s father