Opinion » John Rember

A Father's Day Meditation

The elk don't fall far from the tree


One hunting season, when I was 12, a plane started going in circles across the Salmon River from our house.

"Get your gun," my father said. "Those sons-of-bitches are flying elk." He meant that the pilot was spotting for hunters on the ground, and was flying around and around an elk herd.

We waded the river and walked into the trees, heading for the meadow the plane had circled. After a half-mile, we ran into four cow elk coming our way. We sat down on a hillside clearing and waited. When the big trophy bull following them came into the clearing, my father killed it with one shot.

We had tagged and gutted the bull, chopped the rack off its skull with a hatchet, and were starting to quarter it when a man came running up to us, huffing and wheezing. "You got him!" he yelled. Then he saw that we weren't in his hunting party. "Well, damn," he said.

"If you guys need meat that badly," my father told him, "it's cheaper to buy it in a feedlot than it is to rent a plane. More sporting, too."

The man didn't say anything more. He walked away a hundred feet, watched us as we finished quartering the elk, and then crept off into the woods. We skinned the quarters and hung them in the trees to cool. My father told me to stay with them while he went back for our packhorses.

"Hunt with a plane, they won't think anything of stealing a man's kill," he said, and left. I sat alone with my rifle, paranoid and jumpy, waiting for bad guys to step out from behind the trees. They'd be thinking it was me who had stolen the kill.

By the time my father got back with the horses and we had packed the elk and horns on them and crossed back over the river, it was getting dark. We hung the elk in an open-windowed cabin where it would cool, and went in for dinner, happy that there would be even more dinners that winter.

My father was a hunter, fisherman and trapper for much of his life. He assumed I would become a hunter, fisherman and trapper, too. From the time I was able to walk, I followed him as he checked his traps, hunted deer and elk, and fished for salmon. He showed me how to skin bobcats and coyotes and beaver, how to find salmon in deep holes, and how to stalk and kill deer and elk in thick timber. These skills have stayed with me, even though I no longer use them.

If my father were still alive, he would find it hard to understand a man who has free time but neglects to hunt and fish. For the past few years I haven't even bought a license, even though the Idaho Fish and Game plants thousands of rainbow in the river every summer, and every fall the nearby hills are alive with the sound of camo-clad hunters on their ATVs.

"Eventually, you grow out of murdering and torturing your fellow creatures for pleasure," is what I say about hunting and fishing these days, 13 years after my father's death. If he were around to hear me say that, he'd shake his head, wondering how a son of his could have turned out so wrong.

"I never grew out of it," is what he would say to me. "I loved getting out there and killing an elk nobody else could find or catching a salmon nobody else could see. I loved getting top dollar for my pelts because I took better care of them than other trappers. It was a way to take care of my family, to put food on the table and money in the bank. As I recall, you didn't mind it at the time."

In two years I'll be old enough for an Idaho Fish and Game geriatric discount, and I admit I've thought about buying an old-timer's license and tag and going out to shoot an elk. I've got a neighbor who will help me pack one in, and beef prices are making elk and venison taste better. There's talk of a Chinook salmon season this year, although we're above the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery and it's unlikely that our stretch of the river will be open. Still, it would be easy enough to throw my old salmon gear in the pickup and drive a few miles down river for a farmed fish. And fur prices, driven by the retrograde tastes of Asian billionaires, are high and getting higher.

It is one thing to reconcile with your father when you're 25 and you've finally figured out that the old man knows a thing or two. It's another when you're in your 60s, and you're thinking about returning to a bloody business you learned too well the first time. It means abandoning a superficially blameless life where the meat comes cut and wrapped from the butcher, the fish comes with asparagus and hollandaise and golden rice at a restaurant, and the fur coats are petroleum products.

It's an impulse toward honesty. It's a recognition that you should kill what you eat, and eat what you kill. It's an admission that in our brave new world, obsolete skills may not be so obsolete after all. Most of all, it's a realization that no matter how removed you are from the cutting end of civilization, you're still responsible for what it's doing to the planet. You might as well eliminate the middleman.

The old moment of clich├ęd horror, the one where you discover that you're becoming your father, is upon me.