What makes the most memorable moments in our lives, the landmarks that will never be forgotten? The scrapbook in my mind naturally opens itself to the pages where the highlights are, to the stories that are told most often, and to the mental snapshots that were forever burned into place. Sometimes those are the big things, sometimes they are the traumatic things, but quite often, they are the “firsts:” first date, first week away at camp, first job, first apartment.
As hunters, we are known to celebrate all the big firsts: first hunt, first deer, and so on. One such memory for me is the day I killed my first duck. It was in the late 1980s, opening weekend, and the major drought of that time had the water way down in the lake we hunted. As a result, there were wide mud flats between the cattails and the actual lake. Furthermore, it was a warm sunny day, which also made things less favorable. There probably would have been no shame in waiting to hunt until conditions improved. But we had come to hunt, and the hunt was more important than prospects of ducks killed, so we made do. After sitting it out a while, my brother had gone off into the woods to play and my dad went to get some food. I was too eager to give up, and was left with Larry, a beloved family friend, who said he’d keep an eye on me. We were standing to stretch our legs when a blue-winged teal came out of nowhere to buzz our decoys at a speed that suggested he had been shot from a cannon. We sat down to watch as he rocketed down the shoreline, hoping he might actually turn around. When he did, my heart dropped into my stomach. This was my chance. I shot him as he came into range, still at breakneck speed. Larry declared it was a great shot; it needed to be since my single shot 20 gauge offered no hope of redemption in the case of a miss. If memory serves, it was the only duck of the day, and boy, was I proud. Good shot or not, that duck was mine. As surely as the smile of accomplishment glows on my face through the decades in that photograph, a duck hunter was born that day.
It strikes me that if not for the unusual lake conditions or a first duck taken, that particular day would have been completely forgettable to any of the adults. They’d all shot ducks before, and under much better circumstances. Likewise, so many of my subsequent duck hunts, birds taken or not, have been forgotten. Which ones, then, do I remember? Exciting hunts, extreme weather hunts, and more firsts: first canvasback, first duck hunt out of state, first duck from the farm, first hunt for my kids.
I was recently contacted out of the blue through Facebook, by the widow of a man we hunted with in Wyoming when I was 15. She had come across a picture with our names on the back and wondered if I was the same Roy. I think about that trip often, but not until very recently did I really think about why it was such a good, vivid memory. As an adult I hold it dear, as an outstanding trip with my dad, one of my brothers, and our grandfather, now passed on. This alone makes it a treasure. Of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time. To a boy, the excitement flowed from a time of firsts- first antelope hunt, first time in Wyoming, first time in the mountains anywhere. I can still clearly remember the chill of the mountain air, the aromatic nose punch of skinning the “goats,” and the idyllic trout stream that rushed through the spectacularly scenic little valley where we stayed. Would I remember it all as well if that trip had been 10 years later? Maybe. But hanging over everything from that hunt is a sense of newness and discovery that was a thrill in itself. And after almost a quarter of a century, it’s safe to say that thrill will never be able to peel itself away from those memories.
I’ve somehow become addicted to the thrill of the firsts. I don’t know when or how it happened, but it did. (The word ‘addiction’ drags unsavory connotations with it. But seeking new experiences certainly is not an unwholesome pursuit.) And as I compile my lists of new things to try and new places to go, there is no denying the fact that the object of the activity (plant, fish, animal, etc.) is secondary to the triumph. Which is not to say that anything harvested is unappreciated or goes to waste. But yes, there is a triumph in doing something for the first time that, once accomplished, cannot be taken from you. In simplest terms, it’s probably just that: an accomplishment. Every first represents a threshold crossed, a barrier broken, and usually a new era entered into (Believe me, when I finally found my first morel mushroom a few years ago, there was a smile on my face and a new obsession was firmly implanted).
I would hate to think my opportunities for firsts are over. It gets harder to come up with more of them, but fortunately somehow I still manage. Sometimes it requires a new angle or added difficulty. For example, I’ve caught lots of catfish, but never one through the ice. Right now, it looks like that one will have to wait another year or so. And I’ve killed many deer, but this last season I did so on some well-trod public land- another first! And as much as I like backpacking, I’ve never done a backpack-in hunting trip. I’ve been scheming about ways to make this a reality later this year. It might not be an elk hunt in the mountains of Colorado, but it might be a grouse hunt in northern Minnesota.
As my children grow and become more capable, I am able to take them out and guide them to their own firsts. It only dawns on me now that a great deal of the exhilaration in providing these experiences for my kids comes from watching them as they pile up their own personal triumphs and discover their own love of the outdoors. So even if I do run out of ideas for myself, I can always just recycle all my old adventures on them. That alone should be more than enough to keep me going for another 20 years. And then maybe someday there will be grandkids…