By Gary Bergen
June 30, 2010 I was lazily lounging on the couch in my home watching TV. My wife and daughter were enjoying some girl time at the local theater. In a state of half consciousness I heard my cell phone ring, it was Dan, a buddy of mine and also my taxidermist. I answered and could hear the urgency in his voice. “I don’t know if anyone’s contacted you or not, but I heard over the radio at work that your brother was in an accident. They’re taking him to the hospital. You better get there quick. Sorry man.” Sorry man was my first clue; my little brother and only sibling was dead.
Over the next couple of weeks I dealt with the common aspects and flood of emotions that follows losing a loved one. Hurt, confusion, anger, and handling everything I could for the family, which I later learned was way more weight than one man can support.
My brother had a son, Reese, who had just turned 12 and was everything to him. Actually, they were everything to each other. For 12 years they spent every possible moment together. John was involved in every aspect of Reese’s life; volunteered at his school nearly every week, took him everywhere and did everything you could do with a young boy at the time. Their relationship was more that of best friends than parent/child. I can’t tell you how many times I’d called and asked John to go somewhere or do something with me and been turned down because he had Reese. And it wasn’t because he couldn’t go, it was because he’d rather spend time with and focus on his boy. I’m not sure how many times I’d told John how proud I was of him and the way he was raising Reese, but I know it wasn’t enough. Set aside the fact of being a divorced father, he represented the definition of “dad.” So I knew John’s passing would devastate Reese. Telling that boy the news was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’d given dozens of death notices to parents and families as a State Trooper, but none compared to this one. I decided right then and there that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to continue what my brother had started; raise a good, well rounded man.
As time passed and our favorite time of year got closer, I realized Reese had never attended a Hunter Safety course. John had always had grand dreams of hunting with Reese; teaching him outdoorsmanship, ethics and experiencing all that comes with mentoring a young hunter. I knew he wanted Reese to have the same experiences as we did so it was only natural that I follow up on that. Immediately I enrolled him and my daughter, Olivia, into the next class at our regional Fish & Game office. I attended every class I could with the kids and helped them with questions and weapon handling exercises so they’d be ready for the tests. Both kids passed without a problem and after receiving their Hunter Safety cards we immediately drove to the nearest sport shop and bought both their licenses. I’m sure the guy at the counter was a bit curious about my ear to grin…so I filled him in, just in case. The pride I had for them both swelled me up like a tick. I knew John would have been proud too.
Reese is a somewhat small kid for his age and he didn’t have a rifle of his own. The few times I went shooting with them, he seemed a bit intimidated with his dad’s gun and wouldn’t shoot it. It was more important than ever, for me at least, that he hunt that first season with his dad’s gun. John, being a goofy south-paw, had a Remington Model 700 LH chambered in .270. Reese is right handed, but since he’d never really shot a rifle much I knew we could work thru that little issue. Now finding a youth stock, let alone a left-handed youth stock, became a major ordeal. The factory stock was way too long for him, but I didn’t want to cut it down. So after searching far and wide I decided to buy a Blackhawk Axiom stock and modify it. This stock was adjustable in length and had a recoil suppression system integrated in it. After a little Dremmel work to accept the left hand bolt I reassembled the rifle and showed it to Reese. To say he was pumped to shoot it would be an understatement. And I have to admit, it looked way cool! We made plans to go to our local outdoor range the following Saturday, the day before our general opener, and do some shooting so he could get comfortable with it.
Reese stayed at my house the night before opener. We woke up to the alarm at 4 a.m., threw our clothes on, grabbed the gear and jumped in the truck. Stopping at a gas station on the way for some water bottles and snacks, we said hello to a young couple dressed in camo doing the same. I told them good luck and went inside. As we came out with our bag of goodies the young man asked if he could give Reese something. He worked at a local ammunition factory and had been machining .223 brass into predator calls. He handed one to Reese and gave him a few lessons. The spirit of true sportsmen never ceases to inspire me.
We met my two uncles and another young man at my grandmother’s home. My uncle Mike and I keep an eye on 853 acres of canyon land for the owner, who lives 7 hours away. We’d already made our plan of attack that week, Mike had been watching a small herd of elk with 5 bulls in it for a couple weeks. He’d put them to bed the evening before and we all split to take up positions before daylight. Reese and I took the high point on a ridge overlooking a brushed up bench of about 20 acres. My other uncle, Ernie, and Aaron sat below us on the same ridge to block any escape route and Mike walked around under the bench to push the elk out. Everything was going great until we heard 3 shots several hundred yards away on the neighboring property, which doesn’t allow any hunting. We later heard that trespassers had shot 2 bulls.
We waited about 10 minutes without any movement. I walked up the hill a short ways behind Reese to, uh, do what bears do in the woods. As I finished my business and was about to start back to Reese I saw a bull and a cow trotting down a trail about 500 yards away, coming straight at us. I ran down the hill and told Reese to lie across my pack on the boulder we were sitting by. Both of our hearts were about to explode out of our chests with excitement. Reese kept saying, “I’m so excited! I can’t catch my breath!
We watched as the two elk we’d first seen and several other cows and calves filtered thru the brush and trees near our direction. I realized they weren’t going to stay on that trail, which would have taken them up to our right and given Reese about a 100 yard shot. They had taken another trail I couldn’t see and were going to skirt below us. We quickly gathered up the gear and scurried down the muddy trail toward Ernie and Aaron, who couldn’t see any of what was happening because of the trees. If we could make it fast enough we could get over the ridge behind us and still have a shot as the elk worked thru that brushy draw and came out on the open hillside 200 yards away. As we got within view of Ernie I saw a spike standing facing us in an opening in the brush below. He didn’t see us but didn’t offer much of a shot either. I put my bi-pod shooting sticks down in front of Reese and helped him get into position. He was so excited he couldn’t find the bull in the scope.
After 2-3 minutes the spike turned and walked into the trees, followed by the bigger bull I’d first seen. We repositioned further down the ridge again and waited, focused on the last opening before the elk would round our ridge into the next draw. The spike again stepped out, and again was facing straight at us, but only for a few seconds. Next a cow darted thru the opening. I could see a lighter colored body coming quickly toward our only shooting lane and told Reese to get ready. He was already on the sticks, safety off and down on the rifle. As the bull stepped into the opening 150 yards steeply below us I told Reese to hold the cross hairs dead center in the middle of its shoulder. I cow called loudly and the bull stopped like a statue in the middle of the clearing. “Can I shoot it?” I said, “If you’re steady enough, squeeze the trigger like we practi….” “BOOM!” The bull didn’t react much, but turned 180 degrees and walked into the trees where he’d come out of. I said, “I think you hit him, but let’s wait a few to make sure.” The south paw bolt apparently wasn’t as much of an issue as I’d thought because he had another round loaded and ready to go before I could finish my sentence. We heard a couple branches break and then a low, gurgled bawl. I said, “That’s the death moan! You got him buddy!!” The look of excitement, and overwhelming surprise on his face was priceless. He cleared the rifle and set it down. We double high-fived and I damn near knocked the poor kid off the hill. I hadn’t had that big of an adrenalin dump hunting in years and I don’t think Reese had EVER! The poor kid was shaking so bad I had to carry the rifle down the hill for him.
We went to where the bull had been standing and started to look for blood. We hadn’t been looking more than 10 seconds with Reese 20 feet or so behind me, when I heard the oddest, most unrecognizable pre-pubescent squeak my ears had ever picked up coming from his direction. I turned to see Reese, mouth open, eyes the size of apples, pointing to a blackberry patch to our left. There was his bull, piled up dead.
We spent the next hour admiring and taking pictures of his animal; talking about life and death, answering questions he had about the elk, and about how proud I was of him.
I’m not a religious person and don’t know if I believe in an afterlife or not or what happens to us when we die, same as my brother. But in some weird way, I felt his presence that day, even if only just the memory of him and I hunting together as young men. I see so much of him in Reese and know that the two of us, and soon adding my daughter, will have years and years of memories to create together, carrying on what John had started.
Love and miss you brother.