Writer Megan Stielstra reflects on hunting with her father and how the hunt led to love
I got my first gun when I was fourteen, a Remington Express 12-gauge that I called Rhonda, after the Beach Boys song. I’d been out hunting with my dad a thousand times before—he tells a story about chasing rabbits with me in a baby backpack—but this was the first time I’d held one, loaded one, lifted one and felt its pull.
“Press the butt of the gun into your right shoulder,” Dad instructed, his big arms over mine, “Then lift the barrel with your opposite hand.” He’d tacked a poster of the Incredible Hulk to a tree about ten yards off our garage, and I shut my left eye and peered through the scope. It was like looking through the circle at the end of a toilet paper roll, except it had plus-sign in the middle. My job was to plant that plus sign right between the Hulk’s eyes.
I held Rhonda steady and looked for my shot: circle of grass, circle of sky, circle of Hulk.
“Got it,” I said, flipping off the safety. The Hulk’s eyes and nose were clenched into a triangle. That triangle was my entire adolescent universe. “Wait for your moment,” Dad whispered, and I felt my heartbeat in my throat. “You’ll know if you want the shot.”
After a few months of practice, once the Hulk’s face was sufficiently shredded and the gun’s pull didn’t knock me off my feet, Dad took me out birdhunting. We were in one of a thousand fields in Southeast Michigan—memory is blurry at best, but I can still see the knee-high brittle grass spread around me like a football field and there, in the middle, is my dad in all camouflage. I wore camouflage, too, and pigtails under a Detroit Tigers cap. I was so proud, so excited, so big-boy tough out there with my dad, and then, after a few minutes, bored out of my skull. Nintey percent of hunting is waiting around and I didn’t have it in me; not then, not now. “Can we go home yet?” I whined, and suddenly, Dad held out his arm. This meant stop, so I froze—Dad was listening, head cocked to the side, so I cocked mine and listened, too: wind. More wind. Our dog, Duchess, a springer spaniel with birds in her blood, was frozen, nose in the air and then, right in front of us from somewhere in the underbrush, a barely perceptible crunch of grass and immediately, Dad was on the move, creeping in a wide arc around whatever it was so he could rush it from behind and scare it back towards me. In the meantime, I pulled Rhonda to my shoulder, and counted down from ten.
Nine. Eight. Seven. Six and then everything happened at once: the underbrush exploded, there were feathers, flapping wings and not five feet in front me, a pheasant burst into the sky. I tilted Rhonda back, back to keep it in my sights—circle of tree, circle of sky, circle of bird. It was so beautiful. So free—all that practice with a Hulk poster and I somehow hadn’t expected the target to, like, move—and I pulled my head back, lowered Rhonda forever to my side, and watched that bird climb the sky.
“You’ll know if you want the shot,” Dad had said, and obviously, I didn’t. I didn’t want to kill it. What I wanted was for my dad to be proud of me; to be part of his world; to give him something he could stuff and mount on the wall next to the Dahl sheep head he’d brought back from Alaska. He loved Alaska—living there was his dream—and after I took off for college, he took off to an island in the Gulf. He built a salmon fishing boat in his backyard. He spent weeks at a time tracking moose in the mountains.
Have you ever seen your parents happy?
It’s the greatest thing in the goddamn universe.
When I was twenty-eight, I took my boyfriend Christopher to Alaska to meet my father. For the record: this was the first time I’d ever introduced him to a guy, mostly because he was (and is) my hero, but also because when I’d started high school he wrote up a document titled APPLICATION TO DATE MY DAUGHTER. It had questions like:
Do you now or ever intend to get a tattoo?
Which of the following would indicate a damaged carburetor?
What is the significance of the beans in chapter 7 of Thoreau’s Walden?
I’d give the application to guys I was dating, just to see how they’d react. Most of them laughed, but Christopher studied the questions carefully before asking, “Is it okay if I type my answers on separate paper and then attach them to the original?”
I booked tickets the next day.
To get to my dad’s, you fly commercial to Anchorage and then take a jet to Kodiak. From the sky, it’s green and lush—the Emerald Isle, they call it—but once you hit the ground, you can’t see your own shoes through the fog. Dad was waiting on the tarmac when we landed; his arms were crossed, brows raised, head-to-toe camo. Even I was intimidated.
“Dad,” I said—there was weight to this moment, a plot point of my history— “This is Christopher.” We both turned to him; he was shivering in Khakis and a Ben Sherman sweater, which is a perfectly logical thing to wear when meeting the parents, but sort of ridiculous if you’re meeting the parents in Alaska. They did the Hello and the Nice to meet you; then Dad looked at Christopher’s Chuck Taylors and asked, “Did you bring any boots?”
Christopher glanced at me. “Uhm… ”
“I’ve got extras at home,” Dad said. “We can swing by and grab ‘em after we get your license.”
“Can’t hunt without a license.”
Christopher is a web designer. He can climb into the brain of your computer and make it speak fifteen languages. He’s a genius and a romantic and he’ll kick your ass at bowling, but guns?
“You don’t have to do this,” I told him, back at the house. He was decked out in my dad’s extra camo, except Christopher is 6’5” so my dad’s pants hit his shins.
“I do have to,” he said. “More than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”
I’ve heard him tell this story a thousand times, and it’s not hard to imagine how it all went down: Christopher, hiking through knee-high snow in the mid-afternoon darkness, trying desperately to keep up with his girlfriend’s sixty-year-old father. It’s cold out there, not ice-cold like mainland Alaska, but wet-cold from the island currents so your bones soak instead of freeze. Christopher in too-small boots does his best to ignore it as the hours pass until finally, finally they arrive at a pile of underbrush that Dad intuitively recognizes as the ideal hiding place. “You stand here,” he tells Christopher, “and I’m going to go to the other side and scare out all the rabbits.”
Christopher stops. “All the rabbits?”
“Yes, they’ll run straight atcha and what you do then is you shoot them.”
“Shoot them,” Christopher repeats.
Christopher considers this. “Where are you in relation to the rabbits?”
“Behind them,” says my dad.
“You want me to shoot the rabbits, but you’re behind the rabbits?”
“Okay.” Christopher nods, working up the nerve to ask the obvious: “What if I shoot you?”
My dad thinks this over. “Yeah, don’t do that,” he says, and with those words of wisdom, he crouches down and disappears into the underbrush—same as he did with me and the pheasant so many years ago. Christopher stands there, his very first gun pressed into his shoulder, and after ten agonizingly silent minutes, he hears it: Barking. Barking and growling, a rabid dog, maybe? Something violent, with really big teeth and it’s getting getting louder, louder, the underbrush before him starts quivering and at the same time he realizes that the barking isn’t coming from a dog, it’s coming from my father pretending to be a dog, the line of brush before him explodes with rabbits.
“You know that scene in Bambi?” Christopher told me later, “When the forest is on fire and all the animals are running away? It was like that,” and what do you do? There’s no time to think, only to act: circle of snow, circle of grass, circle of rabbit—BAM—another circle of rabbit—BAM—another—BAM—another—BAM—another—BAM—and when Christopher pulls back from the scope, there’s a dead rabbit lying at his feet.
“You’ll know if you want the shot,” Dad always said, and obviously, Christopher wanted it. He wanted to impress my dad; to be a part of our family; to live something different than his day job and computer screens.
We got married not long after that rabbit hunt, and every October, Christopher goes deer hunting with my dad and his brothers in Northwest Michigan.
No guns, though.
A few years ago, my dad called me up in Chicago and the first thing he said was, “Now don’t panic,” which, for the record, was not a good way to start the conversation because of course I’m going to panic, not to mention I’d recently had a baby and was hormonal and sleep-deprived and slightly insane.
“Did you get attacked by a shark?” I said. I’d been up all night feeding the baby and watching Animal Planet. “I just watched this episode where—”
Dad cut me off: “I didn’t get attacked by a shark,” he said, as though it were the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. “I got attacked by a bear.”
Here’s what happened: Dad and his brother Chuck were tracking a moose, chasing its trail for over a week before cornering it in a brushfield between three sides of a mountain. They froze—they waited—ten, nine, eight—and the brush, almost imperceptibly, shook. Dad and Chuck have been hunting together since they were kids; they don’t need words anymore. You go around, said my dad with hands, I’ll stay here and wait for it. Chuck nodded, sliding out of his pack and creeping around the brush, where he’d then scare the moose towards my dad the same way Dad scared the rabbits toward Christopher and the pheasant toward me.
“I pulled up the rifle,” Dad said, and I waited, still terrified by the Don’t panic. “I could hear my own heartbeat it was so quiet,” he said, “and then—” as he talked, I shut my eyes and saw the whole scene: Chuck yelling and barking and running towards the brush, the moose inside panicking, thrashing, running, its giant body cutting through the trees and gnarled vine and bursting forth towards that non-existent fourth wall, the only way out, and the only thing standing between it and its freedom was my dad.
Except it wasn’t a moose.
The average Kodiak Brown Bear weighs 1500 pounds. They are five feet tall with all four paws on the ground, and over ten feet tall standing on their back legs, which is what that mother bear did when she saw my dad. Imagine that, for a second: ten feet is as tall as your ceiling. The bear is as tall as your ceiling. She is scared. She is pissed, and there, in front of her, is my dad, and she goes for him: fifty yards, thirty yards, ten—one swipe with those mammoth claws and my father might cease to exist completely.
There is no time to think, only to react: circle of foot, circle of stomach, circle of head, the plus sign locked on that triangle between the bear’s nose and eyes. For forty years, my dad has prepared for this moment on rabbits, partridge, deer, caribou, Elk, moose, all them requiring singular, focused aim—BAM—and the bear hits the ground. She’s got a bullet in her brain. Her mammoth body would fill up your living whole room.
“You’ll know if you want the shot,” and, obviously, my dad wanted it. He wanted to live; to give Rhonda to his grandson someday; to pin a poster of the Incredible Hulk to a tree and teach him everything he taught me: the patience to wait for what you want. The diligence to train your mind and body. The courage to chase something that seems impossible. The wisdom to choose your battles, and the strength to carry them through. “Press the butt of the gun into your right shoulder,” he’ll say. “Then lift the barrel with your opposite hand.” I imagine my little boy—nine, ten years from now: he’s holding Rhonda steady and peering through the scope like it’s a toilet paper roll: circle of grass, circle of sky, circle of Hulk.
He’ll wait for his moment.
He’ll know if he wants the shot.
—Photo by eneas/Flickr