6 months, half a year, two seasons…. and turkey hunting

6 months, a half a year, two seasons….It has been that long since we lost Chris. I can honestly say that not a day, an hour or a moment has gone by without a memory or a thought of him  crossing my mind. The only time when I haven’t thought of Chris is when I’m intently focusing on some other activity and when I’m sleeping (but even then there are my dreams).

Most of the time I deal with my emotions fairly well, I can talk about him without breaking down But even now there are times when tears enter my eyes suddenly and without warning. Months ago I felt as if I was crying constantly until I had no more tears to give. Although my tears are less often,  when they do come,  they come  as an unexpected surprise, hard and heavy, like a summer thunderstorm breaking the silence of a quiet afternoon.    

 They say with time, grief gets better. Really? If it does I haven’t seen it. The only thing I can say is that have accepted the reality and finality of our loss. I can’t say I feel better. My sense of loss and mourning is the same, if not worse at times.  

As spring comes to the Paha Sapa (Black Hills), the grass turns green, the birds sing and the flowers bloom. I hear the spring peepers in the temporary ponds in our canyon.  My peas and favas are six inches tall. Signs of rebirth and renewal are everywhere. Yet I have difficult feeling any joy in it.  

Chris and I hunted together many times, for elk and for other game. Wild turkey was one of his favorite animals to hunt; as long as I knew him he told me  how much he had enjoyed hunting  with his dad Bill in Pennsylvania. Although Chris and I talked about hunting wild turkey more than once; life somehow got in the way and we never got around to actually doing it. We talked about the day when my son, Nathaniel, would join us  on our adventures. We both eagerly looked forward to that day.

Now that Chris is gone, we’ll never get that chance. 











This spring I decided to take Nathan out to hunt turkeys in western South Dakota where we live. I purchased  camoflage for Nathan, a few decoys and a blind. I already had some calls but never had the chance to use them in an actual hunt. It’s hard for a ten year old to sit still, or for that matter even a 40-something year old. I thought the blind would be more forgiving than the sharp eyes of wild turkeyWe sat in our blind and spoke softly.

I told stories of hunting with my own dad and later as a young man… of myself hunting alone. Then I told stories about Chris, not only hunting or outdoor stories, but a flood of memories. I do not know and perhaps may never know what the meaning of life is or why we are here….  or even if there should be a “meaning” or a “why” when talking about life.

No knows for sure what happens after we die. All we can do is make the best of it for whatever time we are here.

What I do know is that humans could as easily have been called the “ape that tells stories” as much as  Homo sapiens, “the wise one.” Story-telling is part of who we are. Through stories our memories and knowledge are passed on and reach a form of immortality- and that includes memories of our loved ones.

Did that decoy just move?!?

Nathan and I went out several times. Now the patience of a ten-year old is not long. After ten or fifteen minutes, Nathan would ask: “Are we done yet?” I think the purpose of hunting in the woods with your dad is as much, perhaps more, about learning how to be patient and quiet as it is about filling your tag.

We called in several groups of hens but to my surprise, none of these groups had any toms with them. One hen even walked through our decoys non-chalantly as if they were normal but very still turkeys. It was mid morning. I assume she was on her way to her nest to lay an egg.

We saw one tom, a big gobbler. Although he looked up and saw our decoys, he walked off and ignored us completely. Strange.

We see wild turkeys almost every day feeding on the seed spilt from our bird feeders. It was suggested to me that I just go out on our deck and shoot one.  Although that would certainly be one way of filling your tag- it would not be ethical or legal.

For those who do not hunt and who do not understand why we hunt, there is absolutely no way to explain, so I will not try.

For me hunting and foraging is about the connection to the land, to nature and to the generations of ancestors who came before us who had to hunt and forage daily to survive. Yes, it is easier to buy food at a store. When eating such food it is very easy to forget that it was once a living thing with senses, needs and desires like all other living things.  

Is it more ethical to have someone do the dirty work for you in raising, butchering and processing your food or is it better to face up to the fact that as animals we humans sometimes must kill other things so we may live? For everyone the answer to that question is a personal one. I’d rather face up to the truth than be ignorant of it.

I actually have a great deal of respect for vegans. They “walk their talk”- unlike the person who criticizes me for choosing to either raise or hunt for some of my food, and then bites into a store-bought hamburger (that actually happened to me once).  I could not be a complete vegan myself, though I do believe that as a rule we in the western world eat too much of the wrong kinds of meat too often. In the grand scheme of the universe isn’t even the life of a carrot as important to itself as our own lives are any of us?

Although Nathan and I went out several times, we didn’t have much success. This weekend is the last weekend of turkey hunting season. I was working on a review article I’m writing when Jeanne made an off-hand comment about hearing some turkeys gobbling outside.

“What?!” I said.

“Turkeys gobbling, outside, didn’t you hear them?” Then a turkey gobbled.

I sprung out of my chair, told Nathan to come with me and rushed to get my shot gun and shells. Sure enough there were a few gobblers out by our vineyard. Unfortunately they saw Nathan and I before we saw them. We decided to go back inside. I got my turkey call and then attempted to stalk around as close as I could get to them.

I crouched by a tree and clucked a few times. The gobblers looked up and then gobbled back. They were much too far to shoot.

I thought to myself, “Now how am I going to stalk close enough to get a shot without them seeing me?”

In the midst of that thought, another gobbler, behind another tree on the edge of the cliff perhaps ten yards away let out a gobble. I almost jumped out of my pants. Instinctively, I moved back, down and pulled up my gun.

As he came out into the open and gobbled again- I saw the bright red head, beard and spurs….My mind’s voice said “Shoot!” I squeeeezed the trigger aiming at the head and neck….


Nathan was further behind me. After my shot he came up closer. Just as he was doing that, another gobbler came up from behind the first one and started running.

For a moment, I was surprised- then I immediately realized I had a second tag to fill. I chambered another round.

The turkey went running behind a juniper for a second-  then he came out the other side. A red head and a beard. A gobbler.  I put him in my sights, led slightly and then squeeeeze …


Two turkeys in 5 seconds… 5 seconds that felt like 5 minutes. My heart pounded from the adrenalin.

For a moment, I was distracted from my sadness. I lived in the moment.  I wish Chris had been here to share this with us and if he were not, at least he were able to later hear the story that Nathan and I had to tell.  

I collected up the two birds, cut their necks and hung them upside down for a few minutes so the blood could drain. Beautiful birds. We have more than our share of turkeys so I shouldn’t feel bad about controlling the population. Still it’s sad to see them dead. I told Nathan it’s OK to feel sad about killing such a beautiful thing- it’s normal- I feel that way after a successful hunt and even more so when butchering an animal I have raised myself.

As I processed the birds, I showed Nathan how to separate the skin from the muscle and how to avoid puncturing the intestines. I showed him the trachea and esophagus- he guessed correctly which was which and why. I cut open a bone and showed how hollow it was. Nathan knew why birds had bones such as this…. so they were light and could fly. We opened the crop and discovered the turkey were eating seeds, wild geranium sprouts and dandelion buds. I found the gizzard, spleen, kidneys, testes, heart and lungs- and showed each of them to Nathan.

Some might call it morbose to show a ten year old the insides of a bird I had just shot. However, I must confess that my own early fascination for how the body works began while going through the gut pile of sheep and cattle we had butchered and having my own dad explain to me what each of the organs were. It inspired an intense curiousity that later became the catalyst for the profession I chose.

Nathan and turkeys

As I worked I told Nathan how essential it is for us to be respectful. Always respectful.  

The turkeys have given themselves to us so we may live. We must have this respect whether it is an animal that we hunted or raised- or which someone else raised for us. We must not discriminate, we must respect the plants too, really all living things. We show our respect by being humble and grateful, by never wasting and by never killing anything without reason.

Our respect should not be limited to only higher animals and birds- but should be for all living things- including plants and insects.

We are all related -mitakuye oyasin.


10 responses

  1. Lisa

    Hey Tom,
    I raised some HUMUNGOUS gobblers on our place down the way, it was tough come butchering time, but Kayla was right in there with Mark wanting to help and was fascinated by all the “parts” — she djd a great job. They were out there butchering while Lora and I were putting up jam from all the choke cherries. Glad you are respectfully enjoying the bounty of the Black Hills . . .

    May 21, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    • A number of years ago when we were in Wyoming we raised turkeys every year… broad breasted white….. they was so huge I literally had to jump on them and physically wrestle them while trying to slit their throat without getting injured myself. We brought one to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner- it barely fit into the oven. It took so long to cook that the guests consumed more and more libations until it was finally ready. Some of the guests didn’t remember anything about the dinner the next day…. but that is another story. Take care

      May 22, 2011 at 12:38 pm

  2. c


    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Friday was, a watershed day…in so many ways.

    I have sent you a FB message.


    May 21, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    • Yes, thanks and thanks for the FB message.

      May 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm

  3. Amazing that this post came through today. I was thinking alot about you yesterday, but felt like I did not want to intrude again to see how you were doing. and Voila. here it is.

    I would agree with you on loss. I am not sure that the acuity of the loss fades over time, but more that one gets “used to it”. I think it never just “heals” but that we learn to cope more and more.

    I think I was a lot like you son when my Dad used to take me fishing. So much sitting and waiting, and indeed, listening to stories! As an adult I know now that it was really a wonderful time.

    I hope you are thinking of running again…I myself am a bit out of commission for a month or more (see my blog…its complicated) but I am thinking a fitting running tribute for Chris would be the Comrades Marathon (It is an ultra) in South Africa. For me it looks as if 2013 would be the year…I know…so far away. The race embodies many of the values that Chris showed me…and one of the most important is that an entire huge stadium of people wait enthusiastically for the 12 hr “bus” finishers, cheering the triumph of the human spirit more than sporting accomplishment…..the only thing is that its all on tarmac…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLYxVL_qpl0

    I want you to know that I have been thinking quite a bit about you. I miss seeing your experiences.

    Please think about Comrades. It’s a race I think that would have really appealed to Chris…all except for the tarmac!.

    Please don’t be a stranger to this blog.

    May 22, 2011 at 4:12 am

    • Thank you. I have actually wondered about how you have been doing but as you can tell, I’ve not been on the bloggosphere much. Not on my blog nor on anyone elses. Sorry. I just haven’t had the emotional will to write anything other than more of the same: how sad I’ve been. I’d really like to write about happier things- and I will again someday- I just can’t right now.

      You know, Chris and I had talked about doing some international ultras, both traditional ultras as well as multi-day adventure races. Chris was a world traveler and adventurer- while I found my adventure closer to home. He was always trying to get me to do some more travleing outside of the US. Chris and I had actually talked about doing Comrades someday. As Boston is to 26.2m traditional marathons, Western States 100 is to 100 mile mountain trail ultras, so too Comrades is to road ultras. Other races we had talked about were the Marathon des Sables (MDS) in Morroco.

      In one of our very last email exchanges on the Thursday/Friday before he died, I was trying to talk Chris into doing the DESERT RATS with me- a 148-mile multiday trail race. He couldn’t have done it this year- he would have been climbing in Iran. But he said he would be up for it in the future. I also had mentioned about taking several days or a week to someday run around the Black Hills. Why? Better to ask: why not! One of the many things I love about Chris is that he was alway up for trying some new challenge in the outdoors- no matter how crazy or impossible my idea seemed. It’s going to be difficult for me to go on such adventures in the future without him along to inspire and encourage me.

      Some people dream about 50 marathons in 50 states – I dream of doing an ultra on every continent (yes, there is a 100-k in Antarctica)

      I haven’t been doing much running. What I have been doing is some occasional jogging- say 3 to 5 miles at a time and not very regularly. I have been doing just barrely enough so I don’t de-train anymore than I already have. After 8 years of hard running and racing as many as five ultras a year, I think taking a year off from racing is probably a good thing, even though the reason why I am taking a year off may not be. These ultra-long distances give much but so too their demands are high. Our bodies are amazing but they are not invincible. I just don’t have the emotional strength to even think about training for and finishing one of these right now- not even a 50-k.

      Instead, I’m thinking about volunteering at some races and crewing for others. Ultramarathoning has given me so much- 2011 will be the year I gave something back.

      You could definitely say that Comrades was on Chris and my “life lists.” It still is on mine. Chris and I had talked about making a trip of it someday. Going over to South Africa, bringing Nathan and Jeanne, running our race and then doing the safari-tourist thing afterwards before coming home. Definitely keep me posted if you ever decide to do it…. the same is true if you ever decide to come out this way to try Lean Horse…


      PS That’s interesting that you say “Voila” in the beginning- Chris used that phrase often. He mispronounced it, saying more of a “wah-lah” than the proper French pronunciation- but I wouldn’t have had it any other way…

      May 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm

  4. Diana Gartland

    With reunion coming up, I, too, have been thinking of you and wondering how you’ve been coping. Although you may not think so, it sounds to me as if you are on your way towards healing. It is a slow process when we lose someone we care for deeply. Give yourself the time you need and, one day, you will be able to remember Chris without so much pain. He is with you always, just not in the physical sense.

    May 22, 2011 at 6:36 am

    • Thank you… you are correct, in many ways he is still with me….I only wish it was still in a physical sense.

      May 22, 2011 at 11:49 am

  5. Tom:

    A great story. I know both sides… the insufferable loss and the hunting.

    Time will change your perspective some — and you’ll heal. But, don’t expect waterfall moments to go away. After 10 years, I still unexpected cry — missing my brother — but now it’s a different cry. Sadness yes, but also joy, a celebration of him.

    Hunting — stillness, tradition, story telling, adrenaline, sadness and respect. How lucky we are to hunt.

    Finally, Nathan is one lucky boy!

    Wishing you well, from Pa.

    May 23, 2011 at 7:57 am

    • I really appreciate your comments… Life is precious…and sometimes too short. I am grateful for the family and friends I have and glad for the experiences I have had and I hope I will have in the future.

      May 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm

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