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THE JOURNEY
Text and Photos by Charles J. Alsheimer

As Aaron ran toward me, he excitedly said: "Dad! Dad! I got one! I got a deer! Boy, dad, it was something. Two does walked by my stand, and I shot one when it stopped about ten yards from me. I made a perfect shot through both lungs!"

Just listening to him tell the story caused me to have a rush of emotion. I was getting as excited as he was. Before he could go on with the story I asked, "Well, where is she?"

Aaron replied, "She ran about 75 yards before dying just above the creek."

I put my arm around his shoulder and said, "This is something you'll remember for the rest of your life. You know, when I was 30 I killed my first deer with a bow and arrow, and you did it at 15. Let's go get her."

Upon reaching the downed doe we exchanged high-fives and began field-dressing her. Though Aaron had watched me gut many deer, this one was special. Slowly, I took him through the process. We paused at one point to open the stomach to see what the doe had bee eating, and then cut through the diaphragm to remove the heart and lungs. As we looked closely at the way the broadhead sliced the lungs, I explained why such a hit is so lethal.

We then loaded the doe onto our tractor and headed for the house. Aaron was on Cloud 9, and I wasn't far below. As we rode down the hill toward home, my mind raced. I thought back to the first deer I killed when I was 17, and I thought about everything that had led to this day. This was a high point in life's journey a journey pieced together with hopes, plans, pains and dreams.

I was raised on a potato farm in the heart of New York's Finger Lakes region. My memories of deer hunting began early. My dad enjoyed deer hunting, though he wasn't serious about it. This was partly because of the fact he took me along, beginning at age seven. I was a hyperactive kid, and I often drove him nuts in the woods. He could sit for long periods of time, but not me. I was always fidgeting and making noise, and more than once I spooked a deer before dad could shoot. If he tried still-hunting, I was right behind him, stepping on the back of his boots and noisily scuffing the legs of my frozen blue jeans as I walked.

In spite of this, he continued to take me along. We were buddies, and regardless of what I did, he still wanted me with him. In 1955, when I was eight, he killed his only whitetail buck, and I was beside him on that cold, slate-gray November day. I don't know who was more excited, he or I. The buck carried only five points, but as far as I was concerned, it was the trophy of a lifetime.

As I got older I often roamed the farm's woodlots and fields with my .22 single-shot tucked under my arm. Woodchucks were the quarry back then, and I managed to kill enough to help out the potato and bean crops. Our farm and those surrounding it were my sanctuary. I knew the hummocks, gullies and ravines as if they were extensions of my bedroom.

But life's journey made a drastic turn when I was 13. My parents split, and my dad went into the construction business 70 miles away. As a result, our hunting time dwindled and I didn't see much of him at a critical point in my life. For nearly four years I stopped hunting and immersed myself in athletics. Then, at the urging of a close friend, I became interested in hunting again when I was 17.

That four-year absence proved to be positive because it made me realize how much I missed hunting and being in the woods. This appreciation was magnified in 1969 and 1970 when I spent 14 months in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force. Many negative things have been written about the Vietnam experience. But the horrors of war gave me a reference point, providing a positive influence on my life. War made me appreciate America and all it stands for.

"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" took on new meaning when I cam home in 1970. My dad and I became closer than we had been in years, and we hunted together for the first time in nearly a decade. The smells and sights of the deer woods helped rekindle the bond we had known when I was a youngster.

I also came home with a new companion, the 35mm camera. I was introduced to these cameras in Vietnam, and now I desired to hunt whitetails with them. The more I photographed deer, the more I wanted to be in the woods. The true journey had just begun.

In 1973 my wife, Carla, and I bought a farm a couple miles from where I had grown up. We turned it into a wildlife sanctuary. Then, after five years of marriage, God blessed Carla and me with our only child, a son. Once Aaron was old enough to sit up and crawl I took him everywhere I went. If I went scouting on a warm summer evening, he went along. If I went someplace to photograph deer, he went along. At times he was noisy in the woods but I didn't care. We were learning together. Those times together often caused me to reflect on the past. Like instant replay, my childhood would flash in front of me as I saw my dad and myself back on the farm. Aaron helped me relive many of those special times.

When Aaron was nearly two, Carla returned to teaching, and I resigned my position in corporate sales and marketing to pursue a full-time career in the outdoor field. Rather than hire a baby sitter, we decided Aaron would spend the days with me, wherever it might be. Needless to say, we had some interesting times.

As a traveling lecturer, photographer and writer, I saw America changing rapidly in its views toward hunting. I was concerned and wanted to do something about it. The pen can be powerful, but I learned early there is only so much you can do to influence people about hunting. For me, hunting is more than words. It's amber sunrises and the smell of leaves in an October forest. It's fluffy snowflakes landing on a cold gun barrel, and the smell of wet wool at the end of a day's hunt. It's the rapid heartbeat as a white-tailed buck gracefully moves through the woods, and the "fummmp" sound of an arrow's release. It's the skinning, butchering and cooking process of getting a deer from the woods to the table.

In short, hunting is being there. It's experiencing all that nature offers.

It was these things and more that I wanted Aaron to see and experience. Hunting and nature had given me so much, and I wanted him to understand and experience all of it. I'm sure we must have looked like a peculiar pair, a guy with a big camera and his little kid moving through the woods. After stopping to photograph a scenic setting, I often found Aaron picking flowers for his mom. On other occasions we would just sit in the woods, and he would ask me all kinds of questions about leaves, birds and trees. In a way, Aaron wasn't introduced to nature; he was born into it.

The finality of hunting came for him at age four. I came home and got him before gutting and dragging a buck out of the woods. I'll never forget his words upon seeing the downed deer: "Daddy, is the deer sleeping? Why doesn't he get up?"

Aaron had seen deer hanging in the barn, but that scene was far different from seeing one lying in the woods. I slowly and patiently explained that I had killed it for us to eat.

He said, "You mean this is what they look like before we eat supper?"

I chuckled and explained to him what went into getting a deer from the woods to the supper table. As I took my knife from its sheath, he asked, "Can I watch you take its insides out?"

"Of course," I said, and we squatted beside the buck. Even though Aaron was only four, this first biology class was fascinating for him, and for me. He wanted to know about the various organs, and I carefully dissected the heart to show him how it worked. Once done, he helped me drag the deer out of the woods.

In those days we butchered our own deer, and Aaron wanted to be in on the process. One of his tasks was to carry the meat from the cutting table to the grinder. Carla then let him cut some of the tape to seal the packages for freezing. It was a family affair, from the woods to the freezer. After that, Aaron wanted to help with all the deer I killed.

Besides deer hunting, I also trapped fox on the farm. Before Aaron started kindergarten, he and I had a ritual during trapping season. Each morning after breakfast we headed for the back forty to check my trap line. It was during trapping sessions that he learned much about nature's balance. We would often discuss why animal populations must be kept in check. That would occasionally be reinforced when I found a mangy fox in a trap. It allowed him to see firsthand that nature's way of killing is often cruel and prolonged. I would use these times to illustrate the importance of trapping and hunting.

When Aaron was 4-1/2, we went to the Rocky Mountains on a working vacation. After speaking for a week at a camp in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we headed for Yellowstone National Park. One afternoon, Aaron and I climbed to the summit of Mount Washburn. Along the way we photographed a big bull moose that was bedded near the hiking trail. Once at the top, we sat and gazed for a hundred miles in every direction. When a band of bighorn sheep grazed past us 30 yards away, I started taking pictures. As the camera's motor drive hummed, Aaron whispered, "Dad, didn't god make us a beautiful world?" It was enough to melt my heart. It made me realize that adults need to slow down to see nature through the eyes of a child, and appreciate what God has given us. That trip didn't involve hunting, but it laid the groundwork for Aaron's appreciation of nature, and set the stage for his understanding of stewardship. Though I was trying to teach him, I began realizing he was also teaching me. Since then, our trips throughout North America have solidified our deep love for nature.

When Aaron turned six, I started taking him hunting. I began slowly at first. I knew all too well that staying quiet and motionless was difficult for a youngster. I picked situations where we would not be sitting long. He would get off the school bus, and we would often head to a favorite ground blind to sit the last hour of the day. In the mid-1980s he was with me when I grunted in my first white-tailed buck using a new invention called a grunt tube. Then, when he was seven, he was with me when I killed a whitetail doe. We watched the deer for more than 30 minutes before I clicked off the shotgun's safety and fired.

I viewed taking him with me on photo trips, lectures and backyard hunting sits as "seed" time. My goal was to make each trip a positive experience. I made it a point not to push guns and bows on Aaron. I was a baseball coach for 20 years, and saw too many parents push their favorite sports on their children. I knew how much he loved nature, and how he always wanted to go with me. But I didn't know if he would like to hunt and actually kill an animal. If he didn't want to, I was prepared to live with his choice.

When he was nine, Aaron asked if we could shoot the .22 rifle. Then when he was ten, he wanted to start shooting a bow. That Christmas he got his first bow and we began shooting in our basement. Since then he's been involved in much of what I do, from modeling for hunting photos to helping with the farm's wildlife habitat work. In many ways our life has been a script written in heaven.

In 1992, Aaron was a finalist in his school's public speaking contest. When he began preparing for it I asked what his speech was on. He said, "The Animal Rights Myth."

"Why'd you pick that topic?" I asked.

"Because I want to share the positive side of the issue. All anyone ever talks about is the negative side of hunting, and I want to share my perspective."

I looked at him and thought, "Wow, that's pretty heady stuff for a high school freshman."

I went to the contest not knowing what his chances would be. He was going up against experienced seniors, so I knew winning would be difficult. Well, Aaron didn't win a senior did but as I sat there and watched him address the entire school I thought to myself: "Man, he's articulating things better than most could dream of doing. Today, the sport of hunting is a big winner."

As I reflect on hunting in America, I think of our country's youths. Unfortunately, too many parents don't have the time or desire to share the outdoors with their kids. There is a familiar quote that says, "We have filled our lives with meaningless trophies." Sadly, that sums up America all too well. For many, the quest for more gadgets, gizmos, money and possessions has caused family and traditions to be cast aside. Unfortunately, parents baby-sit their kids with a TV, Nintendo and computers instead of showing them what the outdoors is all about. In other cases, kids with loving but single parents can only dream of what might have been. I have first-hand knowledge of this scenario.

On my office wall is a sign with the following quote: "In the eyes of a child, love is spelled TIME." My father gave me the time when I was his "little shaver," and I learned from his gift. As a result, I made the time when Aaron came along. When I think of the memories my son and I have shared, my eyes well with tears. It's the greatest investment I ever made, and the dividends have been worth more than silver or gold.

The other day I took the long way to town, over the hill and past the farm where my life began. I pulled off the road at the top of the hill, got out of my van, and crunched through the snow to get a better vantage point. The view from the hilltop was just as I remembered it. Stretched before me was a sea of snow-covered fields gouged here and there with tree-choked ravines. In the distance my boyhood farmhouse stood out like an island. Through the bright sunlight I focused on the long hedgerow behind the house. It still looked as I remembered it. There are loads of memories in that slice of brush. Even though more than 30 seasons have come and gone, it seemed like only yesterday that I was testing my hunting skills on the woodchucks that called it home. It was there that my love of hunting was born when a potato farmer and his son found time to be together with a single-shot .22 rifle.

The longer I live, the more I realize the brevity of life's journey. Winston Churchill was so right when he said, "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." The most important thing for hunting is not whether a world-record whitetail is killed. It's planting the seed so future generations can experience the greatest outdoor experience there is hunting white-tailed deer on crisp autumn mornings.

That experience is a journey that requires an investment of time, but it's well worth the trip. I know, because I've been there. And I try every day to fully appreciate the journey because none of us knows how long it will last.

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