We're going on a bear hunt...
...and we won't see anything.
This past week, I took my oldest son, Hendric (age 8), on his first ever hunting trip. In Arizona, the youngest a person can actually hunt is 10, so H was just with me for the experience. Since black bear is an over-the-counter tag that is open for nearly 3 months over the fall/winter, it seemed like a pursuit that would give us lots of time to be out there together whenever schedules permitted. The fall is also the season of kids sports, extra work and family duties that pile up as the holidays draw closer, and so I knew we weren't going to be able to spend long stretches of time in the field.
Last week, Hendric was on fall break, and I had Friday off, so I took a half-day Thursday so we could head up north, camp overnight, hunt Friday, and be back Friday evening so he could get a good night's sleep before his basketball game Saturday morning (like I said, it's a crazy time of year). Having had zero time to scout for bear, I took an old tip from a friend of a family member, compared it to Google Earth and thought, "that looks like it might be a good spot." And with that as our guide, we headed out.
As soon as we left the main road, I realized just how little experience my son had in the outdoors. As long as he's been alive, he's had access to my in-laws' cabin up north. And while that's been a huge blessing to our family, it means the closest he's ever been to camping is a well-maintained dirt road and sleeping in a tent directly outside a cabin with plumbing, electricity, and a TV. As soon as we started down a road that actually required 4-wheel-drive and was hard to keep track of with all the overgrowth, he was in awe of the bumpiness and adventure of the ride. We picked a camping spot based on the fact that it seemed like a terrible idea to go any further on the ever-worsening road, and began to set up.
We had been in the wilderness all of 5 minutes when Hendric jumped up and proclaimed he had just sat on a cactus. Sure enough, a small prickly pear near our tent had escaped his notice, and he had literally sat on it. Of all the fun dad jobs I've ever had to take on, pulling cactus spines one at a time out of your son's bare butt cheeks is up there with one of the most bizarre. (For the record, this would be one of three encounters he'd have with a cactus over the next 24 hours..."watch where you're going" is the most repeated lesson he learned on this trip)
After getting camp set up, I knew any hope of hiking out to do some glassing before dark was long gone (it takes a while to de-cactus your son's butt). So we built a fire and got dinner going. The most quintessential camping meal I could think of was hot-dogs roasted on a stick over the fire, so that's what I came prepared with. What I did not realize was that an 8 year old with no experience cooking over a fire could find a way to lose FIVE hotdogs in said fire. I kept trying to coach him to slow down, change his set up, hold it a different way, and somehow the dog always dropped right into the ash and dirt to become instantly inedible. So after splitting three hotdogs between the two of us, we ate some extra s'mores, hung out by the fire a bit longer, and decided to turn in early.
The next morning, we woke up a full 90 minutes before sunrise was scheduled hoping to eat breakfast, get loaded up, and hit the trail to a canyon about a mile to our Northwest. Eight year olds move slow in the morning, and we did not hit the trail until well after the sun had been up. Eventually, however, we were able to bust through some pretty thick brush to the edge of a canyon system that I was hoping to glass for the morning. Despite the beautiful view, it was clear immediately that this canyon was way bigger than it appeared on Google Earth. It was the kind where the scale messes with your depth-perception. I tried to range across the canyon and got no reading, so I went to range something that looked much closer to ensure the range finder was functional, and that point was 200 yards farther than I thought it was. This place was just huge!!! It was also less of a drainage and more of a cliff leading down into that canyon. As I did the math, I realized that even if we saw a bear from our vantage point, he would be too far away to take a shot. If I did somehow get a shot, I couldn't see a way that me and my boy could physically get down there to recover the bear. As much as I didn't want to call the morning's activity thus far a waste, I knew that we would just be burning daylight if we stayed in that spot.
We hiked back to camp, packed everything up in the Jeep, and drove out to find a different spot along the highway on our way back towards home. We drove to where the landscape shifted from thick forest to rolling hills of high desert loaded with prickly pear cactus (one of the AZ black bear's favorite food source), found a road that led to a tall hill, and decided to glass from that vantage point. After unloading all our gear again, climbing through a barbed wire fence, and the heat that was picking up into the late morning, we were both feeling the effects. We picked a shady spot on one side of the hill to glass from, and began debating which shadows were bears and which ones were just shadows (incidentally, all of them were just shadows).
After about an hour, I suggested that we head up and over the other side of the hill, glass out that direction for a bit, and if we weren't seeing anything, we'd head back to the Jeep and decide our next move. As we crested the hill, I realized that this side was not nearly as clear and open to provide a good glassing point. The top of the hill was a pile of gigantic boulders that looked like they'd provide a great vantage point, but I wasn't sure I should take my son up with all of our gear - plus it looked like prime habitat for mountain lions and rattlesnakes. We were heading in that direction, and I said that maybe we shouldn't go any farther and should just pick a different spot. At this point my son had walked about 3.5 miles (his longest single-day hike to date), he was coming off of a restless night of sleep in the tent, and was probably a bit dehydrated. I was sure he would be relieved and agree that we should head back down, skip the rest of the hike, and get some rest. To my surprise, he said, "no, we can get up there," blew past me to start scaling the rocks, and all I could do was yell out a warning to look out for snakes while I scanned the area yet again for mountain lions. I followed him up there as he tackled some giant boulders and uncertain footholds, but eventually we found a couple spots to set up with a full panoramic view of the hills below us.
We only spent about half an hour there confirming that there were no bears in the area. It was late, it was hot, and it was clear nothing was going to be happening...at least not until much later in the evening when we needed to be back home anyway. We made the hike back down the hill, hunkered in the shade of the Jeep, and evaluated our options. We were both tired, the other lead I had on a good spot for bears was an hour away in the wrong direction and would have to wait for another hunt, and it seemed pretty clear that this boy was tired and missed his family (I think he actually missed the dog most, but we'll say it was the whole family). I asked if he'd like to head home a bit early, and he was clearly excited about the idea.
I knew Hendric needed to learn that many days of hunting are spent looking for animals you can't seem to find, but was worried he'd be discouraged. On coming home and hearing him re-tell all the stories to his mother, he seemed anything but disappointed. In fact, it seemed he had the best time of his life. He's already asking me when we can get back out to try and track down some bears before the season closes, and these new adventures and experiences are going to stick with him forever. I even heard him explaining to my wife how and when to "throw it in 4-low" to get over a big rock on the trail, with that confident tone that only an 8 year-old who feels he has experienced new heights of manliness can produce.
If the only goal of the trip was to come home with a cooler full of bear meat, it was a failure. However, the goal of that little day and a half was so much bigger than the game we were pursuing. I wanted my son to experience true wilderness. I wanted him to have an adventure. I wanted him to walk around the woods with his BB gun for protection because he's aware the wilderness can be an unforgiving place. My son walks a little taller ever since we've been back, because now in the safety and comfort of the suburbs and the air conditioning, he feels that much more confident that he can handle whatever life may throw at him. If he can survive a night in the wilderness, scale boulders that might house venomous snakes, and be doing his best to run into a dangerous animal like a bear, then another day of 3rd grade seems to be not as big of a deal anymore.
Boys were meant to be in the woods! Girls benefit from it as well, of course, and I will certainly be taking trips like this with my daughter when she's older, but there is something unique about a boy's experience in the wild. They yearn for it...they need it! So if you are a father, uncle, older brother, or somehow connected to a boy that has not experienced the wilderness...get him out there...YESTERDAY! A simple overnight in a tent, building a campfire, taking a hike, doing some exploring, and even shooting a few cans with a bb gun are all it takes to boost the young man's confidence more than almost anything else I can think of. I cannot wait to see what it does for him when we are able to find some animals, when he helps clean and pack out some game, and in a couple years when he can actually go and be the shooter himself. But I am convinced after watching what 24 hours in raw wilderness did for that young man that the more time I can get him in the field, the better man he will become.
Take your boys camping, please! The following generations desperately need that if there are still going to be strong, adventurous, daring, leading men at all.