A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Would You Take a Child Hunting?

It’s not for all kids, but for some, hunting is a great way to connect with nature and parents.

Ian is ready for this fall's hunting season.

Why on earth would you do it, a few folks have asked me.

“Why on earth would you let a child carry a loaded firearm? Why would you encourage a child to shoot and kill wildlife? Why would you take a child hunting?”

There are so many ways to answer that I hardly know where to start. The answer is both complex and simple.

First, a little setting: here in rural southwestern New Hampshire, we live in an ideal place to hunt. There’s plenty of forest, great habitat for white-tailed deer, wild turkey and other game, not to mention the warblers, thrushes and other species that thrive here.

A fair amount of these lands are open and available to hunting. And many of those lands, by the way, are protected by organizations and landowners through ownership or conservation easement. Hunters, hikers and nature-lovers of all sorts enjoy the benefits of this foresight.
Second: Unlike most people who learn hunting from their fathers, I did not. My father’s father, Ralph, was an avid hunter. You can see his pride of hunting in the weathered old photos and antlers on the walls of our camp in Maine. My dad hunted a little in his youth, but pretty much gave it up when I came of age. I took up hunting as an adult, mentored by a friend.

And while Son Number One has little interest in hunting, he’s a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist at heart, now studying forestry in college. Son Number Two, now 14, is also a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist. That’s Ian, who was a toddler when he started begging to join me hunting. 

Ian would carry a pop gun on those early “expeditions.” In later years, I’d let him carry an old .22 rifle with the action missing and we’d go out for an hour or two. For me, it was not really hunting; just fun time with the kid. For him, it was an all-out adventure, filled with the awesome, wondrous responsibility of listening, learning and safety. And always, the exciting possibility of a deer.

Youth Season for Deer

For the past two years, Ian and I have participated in New Hampshire’s youth deer hunt. It’s a specially designated weekend when a youth age 15 and under can hunt with a licensed adult. 

During the youth hunt, Ian is the one carrying the real, loaded gun. And I’m watching him carefully, making sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction and that he’s following all the other commandments of safe firearms handling. And like some of his youth-hunt peers, Ian has already taken and aced the N.H. Fish and Game hunter education class.  

The night before is a time of preparations. Ian lays out all the items he needs before meticulously packing his camo pack. The little survivalist packs knives, a poncho, rope, compass, gloves, extra socks, granola bars and who knows what else. He has anything needed to survive and thrive in the woods. He reads up on hunting, sets out his clothes and double-checks his alarm. This kid can’t wait.

We Hunt Because We’re Human

In today’s world, we don’t need to hunt to survive. As comfortable First World folks, we can get all the food we need at the supermarket or the farm, whether we’re vegans or omnivores. But we don’t need to do things because they’re easy or convenient. Sometimes we do things for the challenge.

We hunt because we’re human. It’s the ancient urge to gather, whether it’s nuts and berries or game. It’s an ancient urge to survive, to sustain. To learn from the world and to teach what we learn. These are impulses that arise from millions of years of human evolution. 

And as our garden veggies are delicious, so too is venison. It’s all natural, organic, free-ranging, sustainable and local. As hunters, we see how deer get by. And though we’re not guaranteed a deer, we may see how another deer gives its life and how it becomes our food. 

Getting Outside and Learning Respect

Whether a young hunter considers all these weighty matters about hunting and age-old instincts, I can’t say. I suspect a young hunter processes much of the hunt in many different and complex ways.

But I do know that kids spend too much time indoors, sitting in front of screens. Encouraging children to play and explore the outdoors is even a challenge for this parent, as it is for millions of other parents.

As for the guns, I’m not the first to admit there are too many guns (especially handguns), and American culture is way too violent. And I’m among many who’ll suggest that hunting instills in children a respect for firearms, an understanding of wildlife and a keener awareness that life and death are intertwined in many ways. Folks who grow up with farm animals know what I’m saying.

That’s not to say that hunting is all about shooting and death. Far from it. I hunted for years without shooting anything!

Preserving Our Environment and Traditions

But hunting is also about patience. It’s about reading details in the woods, like tracks, buck rubs and scrapes. It’s about stepping quietly on crunchy leaves. It’s about watching the clouds and hearing the wind and tolerating the cold rain and snow. It’s about planning and anticipation. It’s about the warm tea from a Thermos on a cold day. It’s about sitting quietly with your kin, no words exchanged, just a nod now and then and an understanding. It’s about returning to a warm home, scented with fresh-baked cookies. It’s about stories – many great stories – that we’ll share for decades.

Ian and I already have many hunting stories, from the three black bears that walked by us last year, to this year’s tree stand adventures. We look forward to many more.

But when it comes to hunting with a child, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Ian says about it:

“From hunting I have learned about respecting and preserving our environment and our traditions, so future generations will still be able to enjoy what we do today. I have learned about the animals themselves too, and the more you know about our nature the more you want to preserve it. Hunter education has taught me about ethics and the proper safe ways to hunt and overall has made me a better naturalist, hunter and individual.”

Well said, Ian.

Now, gather up your stuff. Let’s go hunting!

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.