Some truth first...
I am not a hunter.
I've never been against hunting, per sé; just never given it much thought, really.
I've always been pretty sympathetic to animals,
I will admit that it's always seemed a tad hypocritical to eat meat (I've been known to indulge in a meatlovers pizza or two in my day), without much consideration for where it came from. Even a little bit of research would reveal how terribly the animals are treated at most meat packing plants. And yet that has never translated into me taking the next step and omitting the protein middleman by hunting.
I am a Michigander. Or at least I thought I was.
A lot of people will argue that one can't truly claim to love Michigan unless they've visited the beautiful, and oft overlooked upper peninsula of the Mitten State. (BTW, If Michigan is the Miitten State, what does that make the U.P.? A smudged fingerprint? I digress...)
So you could see how me being chosen to make the 7-hour drive up to the U.P. to represent Vanguard at its first officially sponsored Youth Hunt Weekend could seem like an awkward, fish-out-of-water choice. Believe me, I was aware that I'd stick out like a sore thumb (pun intended.)
A little bit of backstory...
A couple of months ago, Vanguard made a callout to kids, asking them to submit a short video explaining why they deserved to win Vanguard's Youth Hunt Giveaway. Before we knew it, we had received a TON of submissions, which made our decision quite difficult, actually.
In the end, we chose two winners - Willow Wilson from Macon, Georgia, and Devon Chojnacki of Kentwood, MI. You can see for yourself, but what captured our hearts about Willow was the opportunity for her to shoot her first buck, to fly in a plane for the first time, hell - to even leave Macon, Georgia.
Devon, on the other hand, knew full well what this opportunity entailed. Having grown up near Grand Rapids, MI, with a father who hunts, Devon came across in his video as very passionate about his home State's outdoors offerings, and he was extremely determined to win!
You might want to sit down for this...
Once our decision had been made, a couple of phone calls were in order. First, we called Willow without even thinking that she'd probably be in class. She was of course, but to our surprise - and as we'd discover later in more depth - Willow is a bit of a rebel, so she answered the call with her head down and her teacher unaware. "You won, Willow! You won!"
We wised up and waited to call Devon until school had let out, but still managed to catch him while he was at football practice. Devon was now faced with the fact that he'd have to tell his dad, Greg, that he'd just entered AND WON the hunting contest of a lifetime!
"Pack your bags, dad. We're going huntin'"
Then came the day.
Our hunters and their dads arrived on Friday, road-worn but ready for action! This weekend would prove to be the perfect opportunity for bonding and making memories to last a lifetime. However, on this particular Friday, this lonely non-hunter had little understanding of that yet.
Our gracious host, Dean Hulce, invited us into his home just outside of Escanaba, MI. Dean has hosted deer camp for over two decades, and now that he's semi-retired he has made it part of his personal ministry as well.
Within the first hour of arriving, Willow's dad B.J. turned to me and said, "I was expecting something so much more corporate. I had no idea it would be so quaint."
I wasn't sure at the time, but I suspected that was a compliment.
Did You Get That On Camera?
We didn't want any milestones reached without being fully documented, and our friends at Michigan Out-of-Doors TV were kind enough to join us and film the whole experience.
If you're from Michigan, odds are that you've heard of Michigan Out-of-Doors TV, but for those of you who aren't in the know - Michigan Out-of-Doors TV is a local treasure. The program, highlighting Michigan and its overabundance of outdoor possibilities, has been on the air for over 50 years. There really is nothing else like it in the country, and we're incredibly proud to work so closely with them.
Jenny from MOOD TV took advantage of some downtime with some midday interviews for the show.
That evening, four generations of family and friends gathered around a long wooden dinner table, as Dean lead the group in a quick, but heartfelt prayer. Twenty of us sat down where perhaps only 12 had been intended, as an average height man named Shorty made sure there was enough BBQ chicken on everyone's plate. Stories of legendary bucks (some captured only by a trail camera) were re-lived while us out-of-towners listened on with wide eyes and mouths open. Sleep would be earned but difficult that night, knowing what lied in store for Willow and Devon the next day.
Up and at 'em.
First things first, we used the morning hours to sight in the kids' new Endeavor RS IV Riflescopes.
Both Willow and Devon left no question this wasn't their first rodeo, hitting their targets with precision. This city boy was impressed!
With the guns sighted in, the morning hours had gotten away from us. On top of that, it was so unusually warm that we decided to go fishing and save hunting for that evening. The kids would have to hold on a bit longer before they could get their first chance at a Michigan buck.
Willow's dad B.J. couldn't believe the size of the fish that the kids were pulling from the small pond not too far from Dean's property. Even rainbow trout! They don't see those kinds of fish in Macon, and B.J. became emotional as the reality of this experience continued to set in. His excitement and gratitude were contagious, and I soon found myself running back and forth between the kids to see what they hooked. Who knew I could get so excited about fishing?
The old-timers, watched on with amusement while the kids all raced against the clock to see who could catch the biggest fish.
I wondered what kind of memories these moments brought back for them. Perhaps memories of a time when things didn't look a whole lot different than what appeared in front of them this very second. Before the crazy 24-hour news cycle and never-ending election seasons, there was always a pond, and there were always children playing around it.
They used to BE those children.
High-fives all around, the kids threw back 10 times the number of fish they ended up keeping. Luck was seemingly on their side, however it would be short-lived.
That evening, the heat definitely kept the deer away. Thankfully the deer stands weren't as hot as expected, and the kids climbed down from their stands more determined than ever.
The following morning's hunt didn't go any better. I had never seen so many deer when I drove in on Friday. No joke - on two separate occasions I saw a field of at least 30. Yet somehow the fields of "shooters" as I'd come to call them hadn't gotten the memo. Or maybe they had!
I was starting to get nervous.
All the planning.
All the phone calls.
Plane tickets and Uber rides.
And a promise that they'd never see so many deer in their lives.
The hours were ticking away. They'd only have one more chance that evening to shoot their first buck.
The temperatures cooled down a bit, but the pressure was high. And for the first time in my life, I suddenly found myself rooting for the hunter. They had to get one. They just had to!
The first word came in the form of a text from Dean, who was hanging out in the stand with Devon and his dad Greg.
Only a few seconds passed before another round of texts came through...
Whew! In my mind I was thinking, "Thank God, one of them got a buck. It would have been unfortunate if...Wait... AM I REALLY SAYING THIS??? I'm seriously on pins and needles in anticipation of these kids shooing a deer. What's happening to me?"
But it was clear what was happening; Spending the past three days with these people, and experiencing the camaraderie firsthand had opened me up to an entirely new world where things weren't so black and white anymore. I hadn't grown up hunting, but I was starting to realize what it would be like if I had, and quite honestly I was feeling a little jealous.
Perhaps, at that moment, I felt like I had missed out on something - like I was lacking my own sense of culture and a feeling of connectedness that these people so obviously possessed. My father and I share a lot of things in common, but we never had that one thing that brought us together and forced us (for lack of a better term) to hang out with each other.
While these thought danced around inside my head, I glanced at the clock and noticed that we only had about another 40 minutes of sunlight before Willow and B.J. would be forced to pack it in for the weekend.
Just as I had completed that simple math in my head, no sooner had I come to this realization before I received yet another notification on my phone.
A single picture.
Could it be true?
Could it be true?
Could we be so lucky to have both of our hunters shoot their first buck in the last remaining hours of the Youth Hunt Weekend?
I wouldn't have to wait too long to have my questions answered...
High-fives didn't cut it this time around. Instead, there were tears, mostly from Dad because he understood the gravity of the experience and the stories that would be shared for a lifetime.
I walked away from this experience with a completely new outlook. I had driven up to the U.P. thinking I'd feel like an outsider; like I'd be teased for my lack of hunting experience. But instead, I felt like one of them. I had a newfound appreciation for hunting, but I also now understood culture and tradition that comes with it. It's not just about killing an animal. There's so much more than that. It's about the time you get to spend with your father or grandfather, mother or grandmother. We even had great-grandparents going out on hunts with their great-grandchildren. What I wouldn't pay to have memories like those with my own family.
I returned home fully energized. I wanted to swoop up the entire Vanguard marketing team and turn right around and head back to Dean's place so that they could experience what I had just experienced.
As they often do, my coworkers rolled their eyes. That was just me being me again.
"You're wrong," I explained. "I'm a hunter now."
But I should probably at least hold a gun next year...
You can catch the awesome Michigan Out-of-Doors TV broadcast, which recapped the whole experience beautifully HERE!