The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On

My dad’s friend Larry was a staple of my formative years, a regular presence in our hunting endeavors in the late 80s and early 90s. His light, contagious demeanor was always welcome, and I won’t soon forget how his jokes and wise cracks punctuated the many car rides, duck blinds, and nights in the camper, not to mention his deft incitement of near-inappropriate moments at home and in the narthex of the church. I can still hear his crazy, half-wheezed, unfettered laugh, and I know I always will. 

He passed away last week, after a years-long tussle with cancer; this news was not unexpected, certainly, but its inevitability did not serve to mitigate its impact. His loss comes as yet another blow to constancy, a cold chipping away at my sense of youth and connection to the past. So it goes whenever a part of us seems gone forever and can only be kept alive in memory and stories. For me, it would be hard in this moment not to pause and remember the others that have gone on ahead. 

The first was Grandpa, my dad’s dad, and the founder of our family’s love of the outdoors. He was deer hunting in the northwoods of Minnesota decades before he and my grandma started building the family cabin there in 1966. It was there he made fishermen out of many, including my brothers and me. If not for him, we would not have our deer hunting tradition, and there would not be a cabin way up north without running water with such a strong gravitational pull on us all. I see in me how his love of all the outdoors lives on, thrives, and continues to develop. Just like him, I find myself driving the dusty backroads up north with a leisurely pleasure, pointing out to whomever happens to be in the truck the names of the lakes and which fish are in each. I often think the best ways to remember and honor him are to fish and hunt, eat berries when I find them, and relish the taste of water from the pump. 

About six months ago, Grandpa’s brother in law, Uncle Howard, passed away. He and his wife had the cabin next door, and he also loved deer hunting and fishing. Especially in the years since Grandpa left us, Uncle Howard was always available with helpful words in all matters pertaining to the cabin and beyond. He always seemed to know where the bluegills were, or where so-and-so caught the last noteworthy bass. And like many of his generation, he admired a “mess of fish,” but was not one to pursue the biggest fish or his limit. He appreciated what they represented as food, and knew the importance of taking the right fish and leaving most for later. Also like his generation, he valued deer for their meat and the hunt for its tradition and camaraderie. As Grandpa was to our family, I know he was to his direct descendants an example and mentor in the outdoor life. 

On the morning of Uncle Howard’s funeral, I found an arrowhead- only my second one. It seemed to me a tip of his blaze orange cap, a sign to carry on and keep my eye on the important things. 

Lac Qui Parle

And so, this Saturday, we will gather to remember Larry and tell stories and say goodbye. You always learn things you never knew about people at their own funerals; I’m looking forward to that, and adding those things to what I’ll remember of him. The things Larry taught me were less the mechanical components of the outdoor life, and more the abstract. For instance, fellowship and a keen appreciation for one’s surroundings were paramount to his hunting experience. I’ll certainly never sit in the cattails and early morning solitude at Scotch Lake again without thinking of him. Chiefly, I’ll remember how he never let you not have a good time; man, could that guy laugh. 

Once upon a time I had so many people to look up to. I never wanted to grow up; it would have been easier to live in the shade of those around me who were older and wiser. But my place in line keeps moving toward those higher ranks in the hierarchy of life- if only by default. How, then, can I live up to that station?

I suppose this time is as good as any to face the fact that I am- or probably soon will be- someone else’s Larry. And I also suppose it’s likely someday I will be someone’s Grandpa. That means that just as the “good old days” I knew of duck hunting at Scotch Lake and deer hunting at the cabin are in the rearview mirror, right now begin the good old days of hunting at the farm and fishing up north for my kids and their cousins. 

Yes, remembering what once was is inescapably bittersweet, but I pity the ones among us who think the good times are strictly behind us. To do so would be to deny our children and their children the full potential of their days. I surely wouldn’t want that, and I can only hope to be worthy of the legacy given to me and the boots left to me to fill. If we do it right, the good old days never really go away. 

Let us see today for what it is, tomorrow for what it can be, and yesterday for making it all possible. 

 

 

 

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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman, 2018