Tribe Member Clint Radford | 11.26.2015

Thankful

Growing up sharing a room with an older brother could be a real pain sometimes – literally and figuratively. I often found myself on the receiving end of a surprise attack from my brother Kirk getting pinned down with my arms under the covers while he pounded me into the back of the box spring. Sibling rivalries were common and often ended with Kirk asking me not to tell mom when I got a few extra bumps and bruises. That was the only control I ever had in the relationship – the old “I’m telling mom” card. Looking back now I know Kirk was doing his job, toughening his little brother. I now cherish those memories, even though at the time I thought I would be traumatized for life. I lost my brother in a car accident 13 years ago, and now, every memory I have is sacred, even those pummelings.

They say that time heals wounds. I have found this to be a false. I would say that time numbs your wounds, but they never really go away. At the time of Kirk’s passing our relationship had morphed from a pecking order to a deeper, more meaningful friendship. The winter before his accident we took a bonsai fishing trip, and I could see so many more adventures in our future like that one spent freezing in a pickup in our sleeping bags waiting to catch steelhead in the morning. The “what it would be like” if he was still around is difficult to grapple with. My daughter growing up and not knowing her uncle, and seeing his own son not having his dad around is almost too much to comprehend.

All of us deal with loss in different ways. I have connected again with my brother through hunting. Kirk was an avid hunter and fly fisherman. Actually “avid” is an understatement. He was relentless in those pursuits, which paid off in many successful hunts and fishing outings.  Big blacktail bucks were toward the top of his list of favorite critters to chase. They have quickly become one of mine as well. 

Last fall, a zipper malfunction and some untimely shipping mishaps found me without a pack on the eve of a trip to hunt blacktails in the oak-littered forests of southern Oregon. I decided to take one of Kirk’s old packs.  It was definitely dated but I made it work with a few tweaks. Kirk is always in my thoughts while I am in the woods, but this time it was more than just thoughts of him I would take with me.

We had some decent action the first couple weekends, even though the rut wasn’t in full swing yet. I was able to rattle in a heavy-horned buck, but the old brute saw me before I saw him. I moved to some new country and rattled in a legal forked horn but decided to pass, hoping for a more mature buck. 

I dug my binoculars out of the top zippered pocket of Kirk’s pack and quickly spotted some movement in the oaks. I had a big grin on my face as I saw two mature bucks chasing does. They were about 600 yards away across a treeless flat that lay between us. Very quickly one of the dandies chased a doe to the top of the hill and out of sight. I glassed over to the other buck and saw him running a doe away from some other deer. They stopped in a small opening and he mounted the receptive doe. She turned and joined up with the others as the buck stood there in a trance. I knew if I was going to get a chance at this buck I would have to get moving. 

He was halfway up the hill facing toward the peak so I found a dried creek bottom that I could make up quite a few hundred yards sneaking through. I quickly shouldered my brother’s bag and headed out. As I snuck in, crawling at times, I could see the buck just standing there. The rut was obviously taking a lot out of him. I focused on him, and made pretty good time to 400 yards. I ranged him again at 150 yards, mindful to keep brush in between us and only move when I knew he wasn’t looking around. At another 50 yards I heard the dreaded snort of an alarmed deer.  The does I thought had moved off out of sight obviously hadn’t. I glassed the buck seeing what he would do.  He turned in the direction of the alarm call, and gradually side hilled it through the trees. I lost him as he meandered towards the other deer. 

I slowly moved up the hill not knowing exactly where he went. I stopped and grunted a few times to see if he would come back down the hill for a fight. Making sure the wind was right I circled around and went up the hill where he was last headed. I moved as slowly as I could and finally crested the side of the hill where I got busted by four yearling does. They quickly stood up and ran away. Luckily they didn’t wind me, they just heard me moving and moved off a bit.  I quickly froze, with my right foot in front. As a right handed archer this was not good! I could see a doe and the frame of the buck behind an oak. She stepped out to see what I was and the buck took two hard steps right behind her. She couldn’t make out what I was but was curious enough to head my direction. My Optifade did its job as she walked a few more yards towards me. The buck was all business and was trying to coax her again. She moved with grace and he looked more like a robot, taking hard jerky steps with his gaze locked onto her. The doe finally got nervous and turned off with the buck following like a trailer right behind. My entire left leg started to shake as I had been holding my statue pose the best I could during their little dance. When the deer moved behind some trees I quickly adjusted my stance and drew my bow. The buck stopped, quartering away and I eyed the potential shot path for branches, but didn’t see any. I settled my pins on him and released my arrow. The unmistakable bucking kick of his hind legs told me I had a perfect hit. All the deer bolted out of sight. I decided to sit for a while replaying the events over in my head. I felt extremely fortunate for the encounter I just had.

Ten minutes passed before I walked the path of my arrow. I couldn’t see any blood, and was getting nervous. I found my arrow at the base of a tree in perfect line from where I shot from; it was a clean pass through. There was good blood the entire length of the shaft, but I wasn’t finding as much as I had hoped on the ground. I decided to wait.

After 20 minutes I got impatient and walked backward looking for more sign, but the fallen oak leaves made it difficult. After a while of looking along the path I noticed that some of the small drops where donut holed, a tremendous relief. I picked up the trail again and headed off the backside of the hill into some bigger timber. The blood trail was easier to find now and eventually connected to a well-used game trail. I scanned both sides of the trail for blood that wasn’t there, until I looked over the edge and found my buck rolled over on the downhill side! I dropped my brother’s pack and ran to my buck.   

It was quite a bit of work getting him broken down and back to my truck. It was just getting dark by the time I had my game bags loaded with meat, but I had a dilemma. My brother’s pack didn’t have a frame, and I was pretty deep in for a hike out to get my pack frame from the truck. So I decided to strap my bow to Kirk’s pack and shuffle pack everything out. I covered about two hundred yards at a time with the pack on, a game bag with loose meat in one hand, and the cape and head in the other. I took the pack off, and went back for the quarters; two quarter bags with a front and rear leg in each placed over each shoulder. I would carry those to where I left the previous meat and gear and trade and do the same thing all over again. I didn’t count how many exchanges I did but it felt like over a hundred. Finally at a spot I felt I was close enough to the truck, I took my gear out and got the pack frame from my rig.

At 1:13 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning with a big smile plastered on my face, I had all the meat back to the truck. I didn’t make it home and to bed until four in the morning, but I felt I had a leg up on everyone that morning about being thankful. I was thankful for my brother doing his best to prepare me for nights like I had just experienced. I was thankful for his passion for life and enjoying every opportunity in the outdoors that he could get. I was thankful he was there with me every step of the way on this hunt, not just in spirit, but in the physical presence of his pack on my shoulders. I strive to live my life with his same love for others and his family. I hope his son Travis, who I passed the pack onto last Christmas, will find similar experiences in connecting with his dad through this piece of gear. 

It’s difficult to put into words what our loved ones mean to us, and becomes even harder once they’re gone and we cannot tell them anymore. I said goodbye to my brother on a Sunday afternoon before he flew home from coming to my college graduation. That next Friday, he was gone. Things can change in a blink of an eye so be thankful for the ones you have. You never know how much longer you’ll have them around. I am extremely thankful for my brother, the years I had with him, and the life he lived as an example for me to follow. I am thankful for a different perspective on life and focus on what truly is important, finding the blessings in simple things. Even those things as simple as an old hunting pack.