Written by: Karl Terryberry
I own about 40 acres of land in Western New York. We call it “the farm.” My father bought in the 70s when population was draining from this area and small farmers were beginning to learn that they couldn’t compete anymore. The land is part corn field, part pasture, and part heavy woods, and it has a small, spring-fed stream on it with a waterfall that trickles down a ravine into the Genesee River. It backs up to a state park, so it seems bigger than it is. It’s not much, but it’s mine.
My father bought it when he couldn’t afford it. He always thought about building a cabin there and having time to teach us to hunt and fish. He took my brothers on a few hunting trips there, but by the time I was old enough, he was struggling with Parkinson’s disease. He never did much with it, except watch the woods creep up the pasture and complain about the barn falling apart. When he died, he passed it on to me.
I didn’t do much with it either. I was busy trying to develop a career when he died, and by the time my wife and I were having children, managing the land seemed to be a distant priority. By the time my daughter, Kaye, turned 6, I had spent too much time in the city, and I was beginning to fear that she would be a city girl. She liked to fish, and she would spend all day on our boat if I let her, but she we never spent enough time outdoors. That’s when we began to take trips to the farm. My wife would turn over rocks and catch salamanders and crayfish with her in the creek, and she would endure the long hike up the ravine to the small waterfall there. We would track deer, find bear sign, and even spy on turkeys scratching through the woods. She told me she loved animals. But something was missing. She wasn’t a city girl, but she was close.
That fall, my brother gave her a .22 for her birthday. My mother was furious because she didn’t think a 6-year-old should have a rifle, but I think he did it in part for me. We went outside a few times and shot at cans and old logs, and we kept that gun in the safe so that I could tell her what my father told me: “Don’t touch this gun unless you are with me.” Then, a few weeks later, when I thought she had forgotten about it, she asked, “When can I go hunting?” I didn’t know if this was the time or not. I was a parent – and not a very good one, I thought, if I didn’t know when we should have our first hunt.
We packed up our gear on a snowy, blustery Thursday morning in November. Kaye was happy to miss school for the day, but I was a bit frustrated with the weather. I wanted it to be warm and welcoming, and I thought, “This might be a short trip anyway; she might not be ready.” Before we left, my wife pulled me aside, grabbed me by the face, and said, “Be safe.” That didn’t seem like a vote of confidence; it did seem more like a warning.
The farm was about 2 hours away, and we had time to listen to music and, more importantly, talk. We talked about grouse especially. I had seen a grouse or two there over the years, and I have heard them drumming, but I had never hunted them on the property, and for all I knew, no grouse were even there. The land had changed so much over the years, I wouldn’t even know. We also talked about rules. We reviewed all the rules that we had talked about for days: who handles the gun and when, when to load, how to walk with the gun, and who was going to clean the bird and cook him.
She asked lots of questions too. “Where was the farm? How did the birds get there? Why do the deer like it there? Why do we need to hunt the grouse?” Some of these were hard to answer or aggravating. I think I was giving her the right answers. At times, I felt like I was making it up as we went along. And then she asked, “Where did we get the farm?” This one I enjoyed answering: “When Grandpa died, he gave it to me. You didn’t know him very well – before he got sick – but he was a good man. He wanted us to have this land so that we could hunt and fish on it.” She had heard me use that term “good man” in the past, and she knew what that meant. She seemed to think about it for a while, and the car was quiet for a few moments, at least.
When we pulled up next to the barn, the car was warm, and the wind was whipping across the snow out in the pasture. At least the sun was shining. I didn’t want to open that car door because it was cold outside, but Kaye climbed into the back and began pulling on snow pants. I pushed open my door and the wind seemed to rip through my thin shirt and pants. I opened the hatch and began pulling on hunting pants, jacket, and vest. I sat on the bumper and pulled on my old hunting boots that hadn’t been used for hunting in years. They looked good though with mud caked on them. As I was lacing them up, Kaye stood in front of me in a pink puffy coat, black ski pants, and bright red hat with a big ball on top, with her braids trailing down. “This was my
hunter?” I thought. In a way, I felt like I had failed my daughter. She didn’t look the part. I then began to consider the ideas that I’ve been avoiding: “Will she even be able to pull the trigger? She loves animals. But does she understand hunting or loving animals the way hunters do?”
“Where’s my gun, Daddy?” She blurted out, and I refocused on tying my boots.
“Just wait a minute. I need to get ready. Remember the rules?”
She didn’t seem to remember the rules either. Again, I thought, “This might be a short trip.”
I had to sit on the bumper for a few more minutes to remind myself why we were doing this. “This isn’t about the hunt,” I told myself. “This is about the experience. The results don’t matter. Just make it fun.”
I filled my pocket with birdshot and found myself complaining: “If we even get a shot at a bird…” And I kept telling myself, “That’s not the point.”
The snow laced weeds in the pasture. She wanted to lead so that she could carry the gun, but after a few yards, she was content to let me carry the gun. And we trudged down the hill to the creek. Down here, we were out of the wind, and the sun seemed to be making the day enjoyable.
The creek, at this point, wasn’t more than 3 feet wide, but the walls had washed away, making the drop steep for her. “Here’s a good place for a lesson,” I said. “How are we going to get across with the gun?”
“Jump!” she said excitedly.
“No… Well, yes, but how is the gun going to get there?”
“I will jump with it.”
“Is it a good idea to jump with a gun? What could happen if you slip? Where will the gun be pointing when you jump?”
She was beginning to understand.
We trekked up the other side of the ravine on a deer path into a thick pine stand where the woods got quiet, and we stopped to catch our breath. I whispered, “Now we need to be quiet. Be careful where you walk and pay attention to the noise you make. This is where the grouse live.”
Her eyes were big and she looked around the trees for grouse lighting on a branch like a chickadee would. We traversed the ridge above the creek, creeping slowly and quietly. The snow wasn’t deep in the forested hillside, but it was just deep enough to make a smooth cover. We pushed across the top of the ridge, and the woods remained silent. No squirrels, no chatter from birds even. This seemed uneventful and not fun. Kaye stomped on ahead of me with the .22 under her arm, and she was getting tired already. The weight of the gun caused her to switch arms regularly now, but she wouldn’t give up her possession. We stopped to rest, and she handed me her pink puffy coat. We practiced handing off the gun as we crossed an old fence line and a few more crevices in the land, and we stopped a few times to look at deer tracks, saplings that had been rubbed by a big buck, and then – an impression in the snow.
When we walked up to it, we were both breathing heavily, and the sun seemed to fill the woods with light and warmth. The feather marks in the snow were clear, and I pointed down and whispered, “Look! This might have been made by a grouse,” and I traced the outline of the wing imprints with my glove. Most likely, it was made by a hawk or owl grabbing a mouse, but it was evidence of a bird of some kind, and Kaye seemed more eager to push on now, her steps getting quicker and her voice carrying higher.
I didn’t care anymore about making noise or why we were even trying to be quiet. We had a purpose now. She was on the hunt.
We followed some coyote tracks, their winding, undisciplined path, until we reached the waterfall, and the tracks seemed to disappear into the pool above the falls. It was there we just stopped and listened to the water pour over the icy rocks. We just stood there in the woods, not speaking, just looking at the beauty of the place and feeling the sense of nature around us and in us. We breathed it in.
Just as I turned to her and asked, “Do you want to sit down for a while?” a flutter caught my eye against the dense wall of thin trees and creek bank. I crouched down quickly and pointed, “Get ready!”
The bird seemed to fly right in front of us, wings beating fast and loud down the ravine. It looked like a fat robin with a long, curved beak, and it broke up the ravine and into some heavy pines. And it was gone. She didn’t even shoulder the gun.
“Did you see that?” I said with as much excitement as possible.
“Dad, that was awesome. Was that him? Was that the grouse?” As if only one grouse lived on the property.
“It might be,” I said slowly, because I knew it was a woodcock. I had never seen a woodcock on our property before, so I had a reason to be a bit surprised. But I leaned down to her and said, “It was a timberdoodle!” Keep it fun, I thought.
She giggled and then started laughing – her laugh filling the woods. I think she found the word funny. I hope to this day that she doesn’t think that grouse are timberdoodles.
When we got back to the car, I realized that we didn’t fire that gun once, and I felt disappointed, but Kaye just bounced into the seat next to me. She didn’t seem to care.
We drove to a diner nearby and slid into seats at the counter. The place was nearly empty, except for an old man with a beaten hunting jacket sitting at one end. Kaye hung her pink puffy coat on the back of the swivel chair and spun the placemat with her fingers. The waitress swooped toward us with a coffee pot and asked, “So why are you missing school today, young lady?”
My daughter was quick to answer: “I went hunting with my dad.”
The old guy down the counter gave me a nod.
On the way home, the car was warm, and Kaye went to sleep almost immediately covering herself with that pink puffy coat. As I drove, the land soon turned from farm fields and woods to housing developments and bridges. I hated it. We were about 10 minutes from home when I woke her up. She tossed her coat into the back seat and pulled her seat upright. Her eyes were still soft from sleep, and she just stared ahead. I wondered if she even remembered the trip, so I asked her, “What was your favorite part of the day?” I don’t remember the answer she gave.
When we pulled into the driveway, I was piling gear into my arms, but she just sat there. Finally, she asked her last question of the day: “When you die, Dad, will I get the farm?”
That night, I pulled a faded folder from my father’s file cabinet and began researching his land management plans. The time was right, and I was never more sure of my responsibilities as a father and a son.