I decided when going back to college that I would major in Fish and Wildlife Biology. Now, understand that my previous endeavors had all been of a more academic nature—religious studies, anthropology, English. Never before had I had any interest in taking a laboratory course, let alone a desire to do any career involving the outdoors. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy camping, hiking, and kayaking… in the last year, I had even come to enjoy these activities more, which was, in fact, what led to my new career choice.
I didn’t realize, initially, what would be involved with this. For the fish and wildlife crew at Tech, my new college, this career path was more than just some lab courses and a little hunting and fishing—it was a lifestyle. Many would be more than happy to become a hermit and never see another road in their life. Now, while I can sympathize with that feeling, I soon came to realize that perhaps this particular path—as a career—was not one I should join. Let me explain, very clearly, what led to this.
I think the bugs were what really did it. It took several more events for me to actually realize it but…well. One August day, newly returned to Arkansas from the beaches of Virginia, I decided to go sit by a creek at the edge of the neighbor’s property. No problem, known ‘em for years. However, this was the first day I ever noticed…the gnats. Swarming, attacking, unusually and unreasonably attracted to my face, my ears, my nose—mild panic soon set in and I was racing back to the safety of the front porch. Sadly, I met with flies, crickets, and grasshoppers in my scurry to get out of the woods, which only fueled my urge to get to a civilized locale. Later, in the shower, I would find no ticks. Rest assured, the next several times I went to my favorite swimming hole, I came back with multiple parasitic invaders. Unfortunately, they were behind my knees of all places, so they went unobserved for 3 days before The Itching set in. I survived with only mild trauma.
Several days later my nephew (older by two years—don’t ask) came to visit. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, I had still never shot a gun, including a BB gun. Scott, in his infinite wisdom, decided that he and my blind grandfather should remedy that situation. My Papa decided maybe he would sit this one out. So, with that, Scott grabbed a .22 and—you guessed it—a 12 gauge shotgun. Now to be fair, what followed was a careful and kind first lesson.
First I got, with demonstration, an explanation on how to load it, get the bullet where it’s supposed to be, and discharge the shell. Scott had me go through the motions several times. Finally, he asked if I wanted to shoot it. Eyeing the hunk of metal with something bordering on suspicion, I told Scott he’d better do it first so I would know what to expect.
“Ka-thow!!” ricocheted through the trees, and with it, my suspicion turned to the (I’ve now been told) normal thrill and an urgency to try it myself. I could see myself with black face paint stalking through the woods for squirrels and rabbits and other devious creatures for the good of my stewpot and our black walnut trees. A quick couple of shots were fired off by me, and my excitement to try the shotgun was palpable.
Now, all of you reading this can probably see what was coming. In fact, I’m sure you can. Because everyone but myself, I realize now, knows just what firing a shotgun is like when compared to a .22, or to nothing, which was my previous experience.
We went through the loading drill again, and then Scott shot the thing for me a few times. A bit louder…but, ok, I could do this. Scott braced himself behind me for this one, helping me hold the stock firmly against my shoulder so I didn’t bruise. Giddy, I squeezed the trigger—
“KABOOOOM!” went the air, and with it, my hearing! My vision was suddenly black and I was going down, nearly hitting the grou—
Oh. Hitting the nephew who was gratefully there to catch the gun I’d dropped downward in my momentary shock. I shook my head once and started laughing. Scott just rolled his eyes in amusement and asked if I wanted to go another couple rounds. Furrowing my brow I could only think “Is he serious? Does he really think I should do that more than once?” Instead, I only said no, that I thought that was probably all the lesson I would be needing for awhile. Suddenly, vegetarianism began to sound quite palatable—particularly after I later realized that catfish was the only fish I knew. Bream? Crappie? What? But I digress…
All right, there had been a few minor setbacks, but I could do this. Really. How hard could all of this stuff really be?
I proceeded to get a dog. You can start laughing now.
Now, I walked by this dog’s pen for four months. He officially belonged to my landlady’s 13-year-old brother, who had returned to California in the summer with promises to come back for Trucks (the dog) at Christmas. New Year’s came, and that dog was still in his pen. He’d look at me, tail wagging, asking with his eyes if I’d come pet him, come play. Asking if I would love him. I continuously said “No. You are not my dog. I don’t believe in dogs. You are not my responsibility.”
Unfortunately, my landlady/roommate had started staying at her boyfriend’s house, and would I please feed him and let him in if it snowed? So, one day, as I was repeating the above mantra to myself, I pulled out my cell and, shaking my head, called my landlady. It didn’t take much negotiating before I had myself a dog. My first dog. Ever. A year-old Labrador mix. Aside from his general sweet nature, he had two very important qualities—already housebroken and did not get on furniture. However, I decided to train him further.
In case you have read any books on the subject, or perhaps dallied in actual training yourself, let me rid you now of the notion that this is an easy thing. Positive reinforcement, use treats, blah, blah, blah. Right. This all assumes that the dog has average puppy dog intelligence.
My dog is smarter than I am. Oh, he can sit, stay, lay down. Sometimes he even deigns to heel while we walk. However, Trucks has figured out the deal—he does good, he gets a treat. You may have heard something about the canine sense of smell. As soon as I get within a five-foot perimeter of this creature, he can tell if I’ve got the goods. And, as you may have guessed—no treat, no trick. In fact, Trucks goes so far as to sit for a moment, then lay down, before I even give a command, if he smells his fake Oreos. But, if I don’t have them, forget it. He just bows at me and proceeds to do his little doggy dance, wanting to play and jump. People tell me he will outgrow this when he gets out of the puppy phase… in two to three years. I can only sigh and be grateful for my patience and his sweetness. Who could resist that sweet face?
Camping and Fire
Now that you have read this far, I’m sure you will be unsurprised at the following experience. One Tuesday evening in February, I was invited over for a Buffalo-rib supper—another one of those fish I never knew about—at a couple of friends’ house. Around 10 or so, one of them—we’ll call him Pablo—decided we should all go camping. Now, I don’t know about you, but camping in the middle of winter in 20-degree weather was not something I would have ever rationally considered doing. But, these outdoorsy people were constantly surprising me with new ideas I’d never considered. I was appreciating it more and more. So, I sat on the couch while Pablo and “Eugene” gathered every sleeping bag between them (four), a couple of comforters, a roll of toilet paper, three pillows, and a flashlight. I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt so I just assumed I would have plenty of warmth between those and the sleeping accouterments. Oh, was I wrong.
It took thirty minutes and two dirt roads to get where we were going. Three people in a two-person truck. One girl. Yeah. Guess who didn’t get a real seat. I got a lap and thirty minutes of my head at an extremely unnatural angle. This camping location, courtesy of moi, was on the bayou at an abandoned lodge, deck overlooking the water. The deck was just under a bluff, with a fire-pit a foot away, so we decided to set up there. Let me just emphasize that the deck was over the water. With open-air underneath. In February.
We pulled up, walked up, and began the breaking and entering minus the breaking—abandoned, the house hadn’t had a locked door in years. After a cursory exploration that revealed several hidden cellars and escape hatches I’d never found until Pablo got a hold of the place, I was saddened to hear of the termite damage he could see. There went the purchasing plan. Anyway…
We first decided to build a fire. And by we, I mean they. My only fire building had been done in a fireplace, usually with four or five attempts before anything remotely like flame appeared for more than two minutes.
I stood around until Eugene realized I could be holding the flashlight for them. For you see, these boys were not content with the sticks and small pieces of wood they were finding. Oh, those were fine for getting it going, but apparently what we really needed were those huge logs laying several feet down the slope. I could only shake my head, assuming between the two of them they would be unable to bring up even a small one. I was wrong. Let’s leave it at that.
A nice fire was quickly roaring, with a magnificent log draped across the pit. Two feet across, it would burn all night. We laid the blankets and sleeping bags close to the fire, and all climbed in. There was no choice but sharing the sleeping bags or getting hypothermia; we chose to keep our toes. Even with the fire and two layers of sleeping bags, I could not feel my feet. The air from beneath was freezing me out—ears, nose, everything but my core. Well and so, I just accepted that a light doze would be my sleep for the night. We lay, looking at the stars, talking, and for a moment in time, I thought I was in the most beautiful place on God’s Earth. Until 20 minutes later when, awakened from our repose by a crashing sound, we jumped three feet high when we saw the flaming log rolling slowly toward us. Pablo, nearest to it, caught it and adjusted its position to one of more stability. Disaster averted. Later, Eugene brought our attention to the skunk sniffing at the edge of the deck. We made a deal with it—we left it alone, it left us alone.
7:00 a.m. came early, but it brought with it heat and a beautiful sunrise. Since there were classes to attend later, we forced ourselves to eventually get up and return to civilization.
Concluding Thoughts and a List
I’m not sure if it was the bugs, my newly discovered arachnophobia, or the time I got lost in a state park that did it, but I changed my major to writing. I love new adventures, and I’d do any of the above again in a heartbeat, but that does not mean my career should be comprised of such things. Luckily, I’ve met some people who are also interested in a homesteading lifestyle, and I am slowly being schooled in the tricks of the trade. Here are some things I have learned so far:
1. It’s ok to use bug spray. It does not make you less of a man. It may prevent mental irritation.
2. When learning to shoot, actually learn to shoot the small stuff before you even attempt the big boy toys. In fact, lift weights and practice balancing for several weeks beforehand.
3. A good dog is worth his weight in gold (and body heat) even when going though the puppy thing.
4. And, he’s smarter than you. Accept it.
5. You need a lighter. Even the wild men on the mountain use a lighter to start fires now.
6. When camping in winter, do it on solid ground, not by water, and with two sleeping bags per person, both good to at least 20 degrees.
7. You need a knife. A pocketknife if nothing else. Even in a crowd of outdoorsmen, there will eventually come a time when everyone will have forgotten theirs.
8. If you borrow a knife, check it for blood and fur. Don’t ask.
9. Girls can do anything guys can do. But, never underestimate their usefulness.
10. Always carry a bottle of water.
11. Toilets can be overrated.