Kenneth Kieser: Cherishing the valuable outdoor experience
Today I spoke my final words to my cousin Joe, his once strong body ravaged by cancer. I knew this would be my final visit with him and had no idea what to say. I was forewarned that the conversation would mainly be mine, he was too weak to speak.
Walking in the room was horrible as I imagined. He was white as a ghost and hooked to some kind of machine. Oxygen tubes were helping him breath. He saw me and his eyes brightened up. I tried to make my eyes brighten up too, quite a challenge considering the circumstance. His older sister had told me to just sit down and talk about something he might like to hear.
“Joe, do you remember the deer camp we set up north of here several years ago?” I asked. “You shot that big buck and we cut out the backstraps to roast over the fire. Remember that?”
His eyes brightened and he even smiled a bit.
“Then we played poker by lantern light in our tent half the night and you won. The next morning, we were out before daylight, you just came along to watch. Then it was my turn, I got a fair buck and my brother shot another good one later that afternoon. I believe that was our best camp ever.”
He smiled again and suddenly the machine he was hooked to made some kind of strange noise. His sister, who is a nurse, came in and calmly readjusted something, then everyone but me seemed to relax. I finally found my voice and continued.
“I was thinking the other day about that trip we took down the Platte River all the way to the Missouri River,” I said in a low voice. “Remember that pot of beans my dad sent along?”
His eyes seemed to sparkle thinking about that trip that had a strange ending.
“We managed to catch enough catfish for a meal that night and ate them with the beans. Later some strange looking guy came walking down the bank with a turtle and gar in his fish sack. He walked up to our campfire without a word, looked us over with a dark glare, then turned and walked away. We were all kind of spooked by this strange happening and decided to sleep in the tent. Problem was, we had a hard rainstorm come up and we had to move into the tent anyway.”
“The next morning, we woke to find footprints in the mud where he had walked up to our Dutch oven that was half full of beans and used his hands to scoop out and eat what was left. We felt bad for the little guy and was actually glad he gained a full stomach on a chilly night. Joe, do you remember that we told the local conservation agent who patrolled that area and he said that regulars on the river call that little man “The Ghost” because some actually thought he was a spirit of river rats past? Do you remember?”
Joe smiled and mumbled something I could not understand. I asked if he was getting tired and I should go. He gently shook his head no and seemed to want to hear more.
“Several years ago, while fishing at Granddad’s old pond we heard yelping from a nearby field close to the pond. One of us thought a puppy might be in trouble and quietly slipped up to the brush-filled fence to see what was happening. We watched three coyote pups playing and chasing each other. Occasionally one would get too rough and the victim made a comical high-pitched yelp. Soon mom made a definite “woof” and the three babies ran for their den. I think she probably winded us.”
Joe slightly nodded.
“We watched countless ducks and geese fly over while searching out their perfect place to land in the fall. Do you remember when we crawled across that muddy field to try and get a shot? We managed to get about 30 yards away from them before one figured out something wasn’t right. We both stood up and shot, missing everything and your mom yelled at us for being covered in mud. Remember that, Joe?”
“We were kids the time you and I were sitting on a hill and a buck ran out down below? You shot first and missed, then I shot and missed. We were both good shots, so this was unusual. A second shot by anyone was impossible because we were laughing so hard.”
“But the best was our deer drives. We would hunt off stands for several days and then drive out our dads’ farms. I seem to remember you making quite a shot on a seven-point buck with your dad’s old 30-30, one shot, one harvested buck. You shot the only buck that season and gave us all some deer burger.”
Joe smiled and faded off to sleep. His sister explained the medicine made that happen and that I had done a good job of making him smile, something they had not seen for some time.
I drove home with the radio off and in total silence, thinking about anything more I could have talked about. After all, we hunted and fished together all of our lives. I wondered if he was dreaming about our outings and how I would feel in his place.
I wouldn’t take a million dollars for our experiences we shared hunting or fishing and at that moment Joe would likely not have either. So how much is an outdoor outing with family and good friends worth? I believe it is necessary to help create a happy life.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.