REFLECTION: RALPH BARTHOLDT — Uncle Jim at the crossroads of opportunity and preparation

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My uncle Jim was 86 when he killed a buck on the first morning of the whitetail deer season.

This isn’t an easy accomplishment in the brushy, rocky, pastureless swamp country that Jim called home.

He often rode what he called a mini bike out to his hunting grounds along a black top road as narrow as a pinstripe, and ditched the small motorcycle in a bunch of aspens along a dirt logging spur. He climbed the angled ground that rose to a hogsback before falling off into a tamarack swamp of many square miles as it trickled north like a vast prickly carpet of saber-like snags and towering green treetops.

This is where, over a period of many years, he had hung a series of tree stands — the use of them depending on wind and when the last deer had ambled through, browsing on dry grapes, catkins, elderberries or the grasses at the swamp’s edge.

He placed a strand of steel tie-wire over trails like gates. The deer bumped them and pushed past without knowing it. The open gates however signaled the deer’s direction of travel and Jim pointed it out to hunting pals.

“Looks like they came through heading west,” he might say, his white breath climbing into the November morning like an ice chest opening and closing. “That means they will come back using the north trail.”

And he would hike to that place and climb up into a wooden deer stand nailed to a couple poplars where he knew the deer would pass, and spend the day waiting until he shivered and his jaws rattled, and it grew dark. He took into account the wolves that cycled through every couple weeks — and when the wolves came, he moved to another area, returning when he figured they were gone on their more or less circular route through his north country hunting haunts.

When he was 86, he telephoned me.

He had killed a 5-by-5, dragged it from the woods, quartered it and hung the meat from the rafters in his garage along the lake by 10 a.m. on opening day, he said, adding, “Let’s hope you can do that when you’re 86, Ralphie.”

That’s how he referred to me since I was 2, so I took no offense.

But I still think of it.

The feat.

Much of the time.

Especially when hunting season yawns cold and dark and I test joints in general and my own willingness to slip into the black, ice-sharp morning to a far-off trail to ambush elk or deer at first shooting light.

It takes mettle and anyone who disputes it ought to give it a shot for a season, if only to gauge temperament.

It’s easier with youth, and a hunting pal to keep you on track, but Jim in his later years had neither and seemed to prefer it like that.

So when I hear of hunters filling their tags at first light on opening day I don’t call it luck, unless we agree luck is preparation meeting opportunity.

There are other words for it, like heart, determination, focus, and in the case of Jim, sweetness.

Because hope at any age is sweet. And I have years to tend the hope to duplicate Jim’s feat.

The buck he said he killed with a running shot from a lever action .30-30 as it leapt through the brush became his last — and likely his sweetest — hunting adventure.

It was an opportunity Jim met with grit and a good shooting eye.

As well as the sweetness of being prepared.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at

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