Growing up in southwest Missouri with a father who was raised during the Great Depression and hunted for survival gave me a different perspective.
My father was the eldest of four children and was only 15 years old when my grandfather passed away. As the man of the house, he took on the responsibility of being a provider. He and my uncle hunted rabbits and squirrels and took them to the general store in Cave Springs. They traded their harvest for the groceries my grandmother needed and another box of .22 shells. They would then hunt their way back home, and the game they took on the return trip they ate during the week.
My father was a hardworking, busy man, but he believed I also should learn about nature, even if I didn’t depend on it for everyday survival. When I was about 6 years old, he and I had a fun activity we did together when he had free time. He would take me to the woods at my grandmother’s house, just west of the town of Willard. We would collect small samples of various tree branches. Once in a while, he would even let me use my pocketknife to cut off our newly found treasure.
We took them home where my father had made a chart of painted plywood, marked with the names of the indigenous species of trees. We would study and identify each one and, if it was one we needed, we wired it on the board to fill a square. On the next trip we hunted for the ones we still didn’t have. This was my father’s version of the outdoor classroom.
Being in the woods with my father gave me the best mentoring that a child could have. I often reflect on how different my life would have been had I not had a father like this—a man who respected, appreciated and understood all of nature: the animals, land, air, trees and water that we, just as our ancestors, depend on for survival. He shared with me his close relationship with nature, stressing important things like safety, respect and ethics.
I suppose he recognized early on that I had a strong interest in nature, so he took every opportunity to encourage and cultivate that passion. Perhaps it was his way to prepare me for life from his own experiences. He taught me how to shoot a rifle and a shotgun. He taught me how to clean rabbits, squirrels and quail. He taught me about the things in nature that sting, bite, stick, poke, poison and chase. He taught me things like you don’t eat persimmons until after the first good frost and that gooseberries are good for making pies if you use enough sugar.
He always made sure that I had plenty of .22 shells and a subscription to my favorite magazine, Fur-Fish-Game, both being a high priority in a young man’s life. Even though money was tight, I was always able to earn a little by doing chores around the house so I could save up to buy that year’s issue of the Hawbaker’s Trapping Supply Catalog or the newest issue of the Herter’s or Cabela’s sporting goods catalogs.
I often wonder what would have happened if my father had not taken the time to be an outdoor mentor to me. I suspect that my passion for the outdoors and everything in it would not exist. I would have been forced to seek other interests, and these would likely have been more of a diversion than an education.
It saddens me to think that I might have missed those experiences and my current opportunity to share my love of the outdoors and nature through the hunting, trapping and shooting programs we offer at the Andy Dalton Range. I have learned that I, too, have the ability to teach and mentor people in much the same way as my father mentored me.
As outdoorsmen and women, and especially as Hunter Education instructors, we have a duty to mentor someone in the same outdoor classroom as my father once did. Hunter Education does not have to end with a temporary certification card and a Safe Hunter patch. Sadly, this is an opportunity that we often miss. I know that I’ve used the excuse that I am too busy or too tired, but then I think of my father. What if he had always been too busy or too tired to spend his time mentoring me?
It is never too late to begin mentoring someone in the outdoors and, contrary to what we might think, it doesn’t have to be an extravagant exercise. It may be something as simple as taking some of the neighborhood families or children on a walk and teaching them the difference between a calm, happy, peaceful birdcall, compared to an alarm or distress call. Or perhaps showing them what rabbit tracks look like in the snow or pointing out a squirrel running along, balancing on a power line and nearly falling with each step. These are things found in our modern outdoor classrooms.
After investing time as a mentor and guide to those new to the outdoors, it is a natural step to begin educating them about hunting and shooting in a safe, responsible, ethical manner. You can teach them about the role hunters and trappers currently fill and how this all ties back to their ancestors. You could also invite your new outdoor students to join you in an activity like sharing a meal of wild game or bringing them along on your next visit to the shooting range.
All of these ideas create prime mentoring opportunities where you can introduce someone to hunter education and reinforce what we teach—the appreciation of the outdoors. I know everyone who reads this will have life experiences, just like I do. Consider how important those experiences were to creating the person you are today. Take the time to become an outdoor mentor and introduce as many children and their families to our way of life as possible. I know that together we can make a difference in many lives. Our future, along with the future of conservation, depends on it.