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for people who care about the West

A Thanksgiving toast to a mom who passed the torch


It's no secret that the traditions of hunting and fishing are dying. Academics have identified it, anti-hunters have rejoiced in it and families are living it. People who cherish hunting are trying hard to stem the decline.

These days, lots of kids are growing up in a single-parent home, often headed by a mom who has little time for and little experience in teaching her children to hunt or fish. As someone who grew up in one of those homes, I'm more than a little reluctant to offer any advice to those moms. They've got enough to do without me ragging on them to get their kids out into the hills. And they probably feel guilty enough without me giving them one more thing to worry about.

So, if you're a single mom and you just don't need any more on your plate, stop reading right here. Please know that I appreciate all that you're trying to do, and I wish you all the best. But if you're a single mom who wants her son or daughter to learn to hunt or fish, maybe I can help a little bit. Actually, maybe my mom can help. After all, she was the one who made it happen for me. She was a widow with a 12-year-old son -- a woman with only a tenuous link to the outdoors -- who managed to pass on Western traditions. Here's some suggestions, based on a few of the things she did:

Build on what's begun. My mom had no experience and little interest in the outdoors before my dad came into her life. For the 16 years of their life together, she dutifully accompanied him on camping forays, though she mostly opted out of hunting. When it became clear that her son was aflame with a love of wild things and wild places, she probably thought, "Oh no, not another hunter!" But when she became the head of our house, she loved me enough to nurture that flame, and luckily, she knew just enough to get started.

Get some help. My mom knew she couldn't do it all. That's where Luke came in. He was my dad's best friend, and he and his family gathered me up. He taught me to work really hard. He taught me to fish. He taught me to hunt elk and ducks and chukars and sage grouse. More importantly, he taught me to be ethical and honest when I did. He didn't try to be my dad. He was more like a teacher who wasn't interested in excuses. He was a mentor before any of us had ever heard that word.

Create opportunity. My mom was a master of the incentive. "If you get the leaves raked up off the lawn, I'll take you and the dog up the river to hunt ducks." It was amazing how fast I could rake those leaves given the right stimulus. "When you get done mowing, we'll go fishing." She had absolutely no interest in fishing, and when we got there, she'd sit in the car and read a book, but she wanted to get me on the water, because I wanted to be there. It worked.

Be prepared. It wasn't always easy. Actually, I suspect that it was seldom easy. My mom had to spend some money that we probably didn't have to buy fishing gear and shotgun shells. She had to live with the possibility that I might fall in the river and drown or shoot myself in the foot. She had to cope with smelly bobcat pelts in the garage and skunk juice on my jeans. But she gave me enough freedom to stretch and grow.

For all her trouble, I'm not really sure what she received in return. She certainly got a son who loves hunting and fishing and the wild places of Wyoming. What difference that makes to her at 90 years old, I couldn't begin to tell. She's dying now, a strong and valiant spirit trapped in a body that is gradually shutting down. But perhaps her passing is eased by the knowledge that she leaves behind a strong and close-knit family, a tribe of kindred spirits who love Wyoming in all its wildness.

I think, as Thanksgiving approaches, that there's not a greater gift she could have given. Thanks, mom.

Walt Gasson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He directs the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].