Uncle Jake’s Tradition

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Published on: Nov. 14, 2012

John Rittel grew up in a time when children had more freedom to wander and explore. “Sugar Creek was semi-rural at the time. I grew up roaming along the Missouri River and stalking the local wildlife,” he says. John’s parents were not outdoor people, but he found a mentor in his Uncle Jake.

Uncle Jake had no children of his own, but he was a dedicated hunter and angler. “It wasn’t just a sport to him, it provided the means to bring food home for his family,” says John. “He didn’t have to take me with him, he probably could have been even more successful if he hadn’t let me tag along, but he did.”

John’s favorite memory is the time his uncle taught him how to set limb lines for catfish, baiting the lines with John’s hard-won bluegill. Another time, they cleaned a large flathead catfish and discovered a rapidly decomposing mallard drake in its gut. “That’s the stuff young boys’ dreams are made of,” says John. “I was fascinated, and I was hooked.”

Uncle Jake was one of the first deer hunters in Missouri the year MDC reopened deer season. He kept a journal throughout his life filled with detailed calendar entries that described each hunting or fishing experience with those he mentored.

These childhood experiences began an outdoor tradition in the Rittel family that continues to flourish today. Although Uncle Jake died a couple of years ago, his legacy is very much alive.

Meet the Family

Allow me to introduce you to this amazing family. In 2008, John’s son, Alex, completed the Missouri Department of Conservation’s volunteer training. He was one of the first youth volunteers at Burr Oak Woods Nature Center in Blue Springs. Many of the adult volunteers were skeptical at first about having teenagers join their ranks, but, after working with them, all agree that it is a special treat to work side by side with these passionate and enthusiastic youth.

Since becoming a volunteer, Alex has contributed more than 743 hours to the Missouri Department of Conservation. His favorite activity is the Burr Oak Woods Outdoor Skills Camp because he sees the program involving so many kids in a wide variety of outdoor activities.

In 2010, Alex’s little sister, Andi, wanted to become a volunteer. Many older brothers would have discouraged her participation, but Alex was thrilled to have his sister join the team. John and his wife, Deanna, then decided that volunteering was a great idea for the whole family and they joined in, too. John, Deanna, and Andi graduated with the volunteer class of 2010 and have since become an integral part of the Burr Oaks team. Cumulatively, they have shared 2,627 hours of their time and talents with this nature center and the citizens of Missouri. In 2011, Andi was recognized with the Volunteer of the Year Award for her work at the nature center.

Sharing the Fun

The Rittel family loves to share their passion for exploring the outdoors with others. John and Deanna count fishing programs as their favorite activity at Burr Oak Woods. They say that they enjoy the opportunity to work with all ages, from small children to senior citizens, and that the reactions are always “pure excitement.”

Andi’s favorite event is the No Boundaries Fishing Event for anglers with special needs at Blue Springs Lake. She believes that is vital to our health and well-being to include outdoor experiences in our lives. “There is something for everyone out there. If a person has a good experience, they will want to do it again. Being outdoors has always brought me joy. I want to share that joy with others.”

The whole family believes that their childhood experiences play a large part in their connection to the natural world today. Deanna’s favorite memories include attending wildgame dinners with her dad and staying up late to see what fish or wildlife he brought home. Alex and Andi grew up sampling a variety of outdoor activities.

Finding Balance

In this day and age of overscheduling and everyone going their own way, hunting, fishing, and the outdoor lifestyle help this family to remain close to one another. Technology is an important part of contemporary life, but the Rittels believe that a family must find a balance. So many families go separate ways in pursuit of personal interests. When one person goes on a hunting trip, another to the mall, and another to sports practice, it doesn’t take long before a family loses touch.

Shared memories and traditions are important. Staying involved in each other’s lives, sharing outdoor experiences and developing an understanding of the importance and value of the natural world ties them together. It doesn’t matter if you live to hunt and fish or you love to canoe an Ozark Stream or go backpacking, as long as you do it as a family.

People are a part of the natural world. We need to be outdoors to be healthy and grounded, and it is a time to recharge, relax, and decompress. “I can concentrate and think more clearly after I have spent time outside,” says John.

As a family, the Rittels most enjoy canoe trips and hunting. They all rank opening morning of deer season at the top of their list. Andi describes being filled with anticipation and the feeling of excitement in the air—and the importance of Deanna’s biscuits and gravy to their tradition.

Every child needs a positive, enthusiastic mentor to help facilitate their connection to the natural world. Alex and Andi credit their parents as the most important mentors in their lives. “My dad always encourages me to try new things, even when I don’t want to,” says Andi.

Life Lessons

The development of a strong set of outdoor skills creates a heightened awareness and a willingness to try new things. It instills a sense of self-reliance and resourcefulness, and it teaches you to be patient. These skills enrich all aspects of our lives.

“Yes, you need patience when fishing with children,” says Deanna, and laughs. “There are always tangled lines, snags and embedded fish hooks.” But Alex counters with a family secret. “Mom, we’ve had to be patient with you, too. Remember when you lost my best fishing pole?” They all laugh at that. As the story goes, Deanna laid Alex’s baited pole down and a fish hit the bait—taking off with the pole. John patiently rooted for the pole for two hours. Miraculously, he finally did snag the pole and reel it in, fish still attached.

You can’t create family memories like these in front of a screen. They share a family tradition of outdoor exploration, the recognition of the importance of our connection to the natural world, and all the excitement those bring. Uncle Jake’s tradition lives on in the hearts of John, Deanna, Alex, and Andi Rittel. Together, they continue to share this gift with each other and with the citizens of Missouri.

In 2011, Andi Rittel was recognized with the Volunteer of the Year Award for her work at the Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center in Blue Springs, Mo.

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