There’s that moment in the woods that comes right after the shot. It’s when the rifle’s crack is done echoing. It’s when anticipation, exhilaration and disappointment all hold their breath. The hunt is about to be over, but for a few precious seconds, it still lingers.
That was my moment in Maine’s North Woods. I was peering through my riflescope and just yards away was a black bear. The first shot sent her spinning and tumbling. The second anchored the sow. She moved no more.
My long breath escaped, held since the decision was made to squeeze the trigger. My thumb found the safety and flicked it back on. It was the culmination of a year’s worth of planning, tempered expectations and days of rain and mosquitoes.
The hunt actually started a year before. A nonprofit veteran organization with which I’ve volunteered, AHERO USA (American Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors), asked me to meet Paul and Dee House, founders of House in the Woods.
The two organizations share similar goals. They both engaged veterans to get out into the woods, hunting and fishing, creating networks of support through fellow veterans. The hunts that both organizations host give a chance to thank veterans for their service and offer healing and recovery and rekindle the hunter’s soul.
Paul and Dee started House in the Woods in memory of their son, Army Sgt. Joel House, who was killed in action in Taji, Iraq. Paul said Joel loved being in the woods and built House in the Woods to heal veterans through outdoor recreation. It’s the same place that AHERO’s founder, Marine Maj. Lee Stuckey, found his healing.
Paul offered to partner with AHERO, and with two other veterans, I joined other groups in Maine. For a month, volunteers – all veterans and their families – had been preparing for the hunt. They cut trails, set stands, baited sites, cooked meals, cleaned linens and picked up and drove veterans. They literally did all they could to welcome veterans to House in the Woods.
The lodge was buzzing with anticipation. Paul warned that while every volunteer, including the veterans who are all registered Maine guides, wanted each guest to take home a bear, the success rate in Maine is roughly 30 percent. The previous wet spring would make that even tougher. The bears were gorging themselves on the plump berries that grow native in Maine.
Strangers quickly become friends in a hunting camp, especially veterans. Stories are traded of service, dates of combat tours are swapped and eventually hunting tales that have grown bigger through the years are retold to fresh ears. Each morning, the hunt holds promise. Each night, the stories of close encounters, “might-have-beens” and even a couple bears that came in. When they did, hunters gathered to see the harvest and congratulate the successful hunter. They even did it while quietly hoping they were next, myself included.
Looking down at the bear, the hunt over, the unique specialness of this hunt struck me. There’s something special about sharing time in a hunting camp, in the solitude of the woods as it goes to sleep. The night creeps in, but the shadows that often linger of physical, emotional and spiritual tolls are pushed back. In the fellowship of fellow veterans and hunters, there’s healing and restoration. I got to share it with them. It’s good for the soul.
A Hunter’s Heart
Celebrating a hunt, successful or not, is something with which all hunters can relate. It’s why we celebrate our heritage. President Richard Nixon first set aside a day to honor our outdoor heritage with National Hunting and Fishing Day, observed the fourth Saturday in September, this year on Sept. 28. Across our nation, the fall hunting season will be in full swing. Birds will be flushing, waterfowl cupping for landings, deer, moose, elk and even bear will be quietly picking their way through the woods.
It’s the perfect time for all to rekindle their hunter’s heart. Take someone with you. Share the hunt. Make memories. Connect.
Find that brief moment for yourself, the one that comes after the shot and just before the realization, the hunt has become a harvest. Better yet, make it a moment that adds to your restoration, and that of someone else’s, that can only come at dawn in a marsh, under the sun flushing fields and the quieting of the evening woods.
This is where the hunter’s heart longs to be.
Mark Oliva is Director of Public Affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.